“It is my profound conviction that Mozart is the highest, the culminating point which beauty has reached in the sphere of music.” Tchaikovsky utterly revered Mozart’s music. He wasn’t alone. Composers have felt his shadow loom over them for centuries, either as a source of inspiration or a source of anguish. “Before Mozart,” wrote Charles Gounod, “all ambition turns to despair.” 

Wolgang Amadeus Mozart
© Public domain

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – along with Ludwig van Beethoven – is probably the most widely recognised of composers. He and Beethoven always vie for top spot in our annual statistics as the most frequently performed concert composer (and in opera houses, his output eclipses Beethoven’s single opera Fidelio). So much of his music is instantly recognisable, pouring forth with such ease, perfectly crafted. His short, turbulent life – especially as dramatised in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus – also captured public imagination. 

How to select a top ten from over 600 works? An impossible task. I’ve plumped for personal favourites which could provide the newcomer to classical music with compelling evidence why Mozart is, for many listeners and composers, still Number 1. As Rossini said: “Beethoven I take twice a week, Haydn four times, but Mozart every day!” 

1Symphony no. 41 in C major, “Jupiter”

When Mozart composed this symphony in the summer of 1788, he could not have known that it would be his last. Nicknamed the Jupiter, it’s a quite remarkable work, especially the finale which truly demonstrates Mozart’s genius. The melody is based on a four-note motif that goes back to medieval plainchant. The motif would have been familiar to symphony’s first audiences from its appearance as an exercise in Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum.

Mozart weaves together several disparate themes, sometimes in canon, sometimes in fugue, sometimes in inversion. In the movement’s brilliant coda, the motif is layered with four other themes simultaneously. It is so clever, but Mozart makes it sound so easy. Follow the score in the second video, where Martin Gonzalez has colour-coded each motif – the coda is an explosion of colour! 

Colour-coded score for finale:

2Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor

Only two of Mozart’s 27 piano concertos are in a minor key, but the D minor, with its brooding opening that seems to foreshadow the overture to Don Giovanni, is a favourite. Beethoven admired it and had it in his concert repertoire (his first movement cadenza is the regular choice for pianists today). Storm clouds interrupt the the calm of the central Romanze, and there is a restless tone to the Rondo finale before jubilation breaks out in the end. 

3Clarinet Concerto in A major

As a (lapsed) clarinettist, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto was always going to feature high up my playlist. Mozart’s friendship with Anton Stadler and the masterpieces that resulted (the Clarinet Quintet could also have featured here) paved the way for the instrument’s rise in popularity. “Never should I have thought that a clarinet could be capable of imitating the human voice as it was imitated by you,” wrote Mozart to Stadler in 1785. The concerto, composed for basset clarinet a few months before Mozart’s untimely death, is sublime. Its outer movements are buoyant and sunny, while the Adagio is one of the most beautiful melodies he ever composed. 

4Le nozze di Figaro

Mozart’s first collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte is often cited as the perfect opera. I’m not entirely convinced by Act 4, where the succession of arias for minor characters can drag, but the rest of it is superb. And revolutionary. Based on Beaumarchais’ 1778 play, the opera portrays the nobility as, ahem, less than noble and depicts servants gaining the upper hand over their masters – incendiary stuff. Mozart’s finale to Act 2 is exceptionally well constructed, with ever more characters introduced as the scene moves from a duet to a septet. 

5Requiem in D minor

The circumstances surrounding the composition of Mozart’s Requiem, unfinished at the time of his death, are shrouded in myth and mystery. Much of the confusion stems from Mozart’s wife, Constanze, who claimed that Mozart had composed the Requiem for his own funeral as he was dying from poison. It was actually commissioned anonymously by a count who probably intended to pass it off as his own work, but Constanze needed to cover up the fact that another composer, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, had completed the work upon Mozart’s death. Then factor in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, which has composer Antonio Salieri suspected of poisoning his rival, and the enigma of the work is multiplied further. Shaffer's scene where the dying Mozart dictates the score of the Confutatis to Salieri is wonderful:

The Confutatis in full:

6Don Giovanni

Mozart and Da Ponte followed their Figaro success with another scandal – the predatory libertine Don Giovanni, whose exploits are unmasked and is punished by being dragged down to hell by the statue of the man he murdered in the opera’s opening scene. It’s possible that another notorious lothario may have had a hand in the libretto: Giacomo Casanova. The opera contains a great deal of memorable music, from Don Giovanni’s mandolin-accompanied serenade, to his attempted seduction of Zerlina, “La ci darem la mano”. Mozart’s writing for the orchestra is striking, particularly the use of three trombones for the imposing D minor overture and the scenes involving the Commendatore.

7Serenade no. 10 in B flat major for Winds, “Gran Partita”

While Don Giovanni dines, he listens to Harmoniemusik – a wind ensemble playing music to entertain at supper. Mozart composed several such works, the most famous of which has acquired the oddly misspelled name Gran Partita, a serenade for 12 wind instruments and double bass. It is a substantial piece, 45 minutes long in seven movements, of which the most celebrated (notably by Peter Shaffer’s Salieri in Amadeus) is the transcendent Adagio where, over a gently pulsing bassline, the melodic line passes from oboe to clarinet to basset horn. 

8Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola in E flat major

Mozart composed five youthful violin concertos, but his finest work for violin is the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, a divine pairing of instruments. It came after he had toured to Paris and Mannheim, where concertos for multiple instruments were all the rage. Mozart, who played the viola himself, never allows it to slip into the shadows, making use of the instrument’s soulful upper register and dusky lower depths. 

9String Quintet in C major

Mozart the viola player can be detected here too. In the six string quintets, he adds a second viola to the traditional string quartet line-up. (Franz Schubert, inspired by this work, composed his own string quintet in C major, but added a second cello instead.) The first movement is long, with striking harmonic shifts into C minor, D minor, F major and D flat major, but always returning to the home key. The slow movement, placed third, is lyrical and tender, before a high-spirited Rondo finale which Alfred Einstein described as both “godlike and childlike”. 

10Die Zauberflöte 

My final choice has a very personal resonance. When I was first dipping my toes into the world of opera, it was the Queen of the Night’s arias from Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) which really made me sit up and listen, especially the vocal pyrotechnics required for the coloratura in “Der Hölle Rache”. How could the human voice possibly do that?! It still astonishes me.