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As a performer, was Mozart primarily a pianist or a violinist? In other words, which was his primary performing instrument?

As he gained success as a composer, did he stop performing? If so, was it more or less sudden, or was it gradual?

What were his strengths as a performer when he was at his height as a performer?

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    I don’t feel secure to provide this as a full-fledged answer because I’m not a music historian, but everything I’ve read suggests he was primarily a pianist, like most composers of his day, but was certainly a good violinist as well. Actually I believe he played viola too, even later in life when he played in a string quartet with Joseph Haydn. He would have been the pianist at most if not all premieres of his piano concertos and sonatas throughout his career. In fact, the idea of a “composer” entirely separate from the idea of “performer” didn’t exist in his day.
    – Pat Muchmore
    Mar 18, 2018 at 21:06
  • I kind of doubt that “specific strengths as a performer” applies to this era in that way it does in ours. Instrumental performing, improvising and composing were all kind of an integrated profession at the time. He conducted any premieres of his operas, and conducted from the piano in many other performances. Superstar performers and conductors that did little, if any, composition like we have now just weren’t a thing.
    – Pat Muchmore
    Mar 18, 2018 at 21:10
  • @PatMuchmore - Okay, I get that composing was his main thing, but when he was young, didn't his father trot him around to perform as a child prodigy? // I appreciate your clarifying that piano was a stronger suit than violin, thanks, that was what I was confused about. // With regard to strengths as a performer -- everybody who plays beautifully excels in slightly different areas, for example: beauty of tone, dynamic contrast including bigness of sound, playfulness, virtuosity (e.g. Paganini), and related to that, the ability to make things sound easy, theatricality, tenderness, excitement,... Mar 19, 2018 at 2:36
  • ... ability to improvise and make it always fresh, construct an arc leading to a climax, ability to make the audience hushed so you can hear a pin drop, show the structure clearly, make all the notes of a certain articulation have exactly the same articulation, play everything from memory, have a large repertoire ready to go at the drop of a hat, and on and on.... You won't convince me that there was no heterogeneity among virtuosos in an age gone by. Mar 19, 2018 at 2:39
  • Fair enough, I wasn’t trying to convince you there was no heterogeneity among virtuosos. More like, the modern concept of “virtuoso” doesn’t really track with performers in Mozart’s day. I think that’s something that emerged over the next century, with players like Liszt that elevated the cult of the performer, eventually, to the place it would mostly be in the 20th century. I’m not sure that the same label means the same thing in these eras. At any rate, I’ve never read anything talking about his specific strengths as a pianist, the praise is tied to his composing so much.
    – Pat Muchmore
    Mar 19, 2018 at 2:48

2 Answers 2

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His primary instrument was piano. He was a child prodigy in fact. His father was his manager and at an early age he traveled all over Europe. He played for kings even for the pope I think.

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  • Okay, I sort of knew about that, but I believe he played violin quite well too -- didn't I read somewhere that he got frustrated with being assistant concertmaster at some point? Mar 19, 2018 at 2:32
  • I don’t know about the pope, but he definitely played for Marie Antoinette as a kid. @aparente001 I’ve never heard anything about him being concertmaster anywhere. When he was involved with orchestras it was as a conductor/pianist.
    – Pat Muchmore
    Mar 19, 2018 at 2:51
  • @PatMuchmore - assistant concertmaster. Salzburg Court. biography.com/people/wolfgang-mozart-9417115. (Assistant concertmaster is just the sort of position that might make a person feel put-upon....) Mar 19, 2018 at 2:53
  • @aparente001 Sorry, that’s what I meant. I really don’t think he ever had a gig as a violinist in an orchestra at all, but again I’m not a historian. If you can find a reference somewhere I’d definitely be interested, and I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, but I’ve never heard that in lots of years of study.
    – Pat Muchmore
    Mar 19, 2018 at 2:55
  • @PatMuchmore - Here it is again but less buried: biography.com/people/wolfgang-mozart-9417115 Mar 19, 2018 at 3:01
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Assuming you're talking of W.A Mozart, Clavier

Mozart was known as a performer primarily for his Clavier playing, and that was indeed his first instrument (arguably beginning to play at the age of 3, though he certainly composed from behind it as early as 5).

His father Leopold was a violinist, and I suspect likely the one that made you think of the instrument, though Wolfgang certainly played many instruments including the violin.

Regarding comments on his appointment as assistant Concert Master I suspect that the term Concertmaster in the context given above is synonymous with the term Kapellmeister (more a director of music than a principal first violinist), rather than that of a modern Concert Master in an orchestra, especially as orchestral music then was very differently understood and executed in that time.


Edit: Further research has uncovered that there is in fact a difference between a Kapellmeister and a Concertmaster (or "Konzertmeister") in this context, with the latter being somewhat less senior. I could not, however, find anything to suggest that Mozart primarily played violin in this capacity. Seeing as he was offered a position as "Court organist and Concert Master" while he held this position in Salzburg it would seem instead that his primary performing responsibilities were likely on the organ or a keyboard instrument, as his Salzburg position would be the prominent thing on his resume at that point.

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  • But see kennedy-center.org/artist/composition/5202. Anyway, tell me the major differences for an assistant section leader (first violin) between the late Baroque and the Classical. I'm just not with you yet. Jun 6, 2018 at 3:24
  • That's a great reference! As it's written to refer directly to one of his violin concertos, it's not surprising it gives us more insight into his violin playing than other articles. Odd though - the year this article places his appointment as Salzburg Concert Master, he was in Italy. Regardless, I don't know that there's a major difference, but as our current understanding of conducting didn't yet exist, I don't see any reason to favour violinists specifically as what I have to assume was essentially a conductor position... Jun 6, 2018 at 22:56
  • I'd be happy to be corrected on that, though, if you have an article that deals with the nature of a ConcertMaster position during the mid classical period. Jun 6, 2018 at 22:57
  • In a quartet the violinist often does most of the leading and there is no conductor. It's possible for a small orchestra to be led this way too. // I'm not following much of what you wrote. For example, the Wikipedia article you say agrees with you says, "Mozart finally returned to Salzburg on 15 January 1779 and took up his new appointment.... Mozart's father exchanged intense letters with his son, urging him to be reconciled with their employer." The employer being Colloredo. I don't know why you say that Mozart turned down the position. Jun 8, 2018 at 21:14
  • What other instruments did Mozart play besides keyboard, violin and viola? // I had the impression Mozart was one of those people who worked out his compositions mostly in his head and then wrote them down, rather than composing at the keyboard as you mentioned. Jun 8, 2018 at 21:15

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