Mozart In Italy: The Journey That Launched A Child Prodigy

The legendary composer — just 13 at the time — left Austria exactly 250 years ago for a lucrative but exhausting odyssey through the powerful Italian kingdoms and duchies of the day.

An ad. lib. kind of journey
An ad. lib. kind of journey
Sandro Cappelleto

TURIN — Father Beda Hübner, the young librarian at St. Peter's Abbey in Salzburg, was dismayed. "These Mozarts," he wondered. "Will they ever stop?"

The family of musicians had just returned from an extremely long trip — Austria, Germany, Belgium, Holland, England, Switzerland, France — and already they were talking about heading off again. "Insistent voices are saying they'll go to Scandinavia, Russia, even China!," Hübner added.

The Austrian city had never seen anything like it: Leopold Mozart, an esteemed violinist, taking his wife and two children — the eldest, Anna Maria, nicknamed "Nannerl," and her little brother Wolfgang — on a three-year European tour.

This boy will make the world forget all the rest of us!

Father Beda only exaggerated in including China. The Mozarts really were invited to Scandinavia and Russia. What the studious monk failed to add was that the final destination of the intended trip would be Italy.

Leopold had talked about it for years and finally took the plunge. On Dec. 13, 1769 — 250 years ago — father and son, the latter just shy of his 14th birthday, got in a carriage, left Salzburg and began the first of three Italian journeys.

The Mozarts stayed in the country a total of two years, traveling 3,300 kilometers and changing horses 200 times at relay posts.

Mozart, aged 13, in Verona (portrait attributed to Giambettino Cignaroli) — Source: Wikimedia Commons

Entering from Austria over the Brenner Mountain Pass, they traversed the Republic of Venice, the Duchy of Milan, the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Duchy of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the State of the Church, and the Kingdom of Naples.

In Italy, he would achieve greatness and receive his crown of laurels.

The Italy of that time, as historian Stuart Woolf wrote, was "a piece on the diplomatic chessboard of Europe, but a piece that was only ever given the value of a pawn." Even so, the attraction it held for artists of the day was irresistible.

All of the sources are in agreement: if Wolfgang's fame was already established in Europe, it was in Italy that he would achieve greatness and receive his crown of laurels. Which he did, literally, after passing the entrance exam for the Philharmonic Academy of Bologna.

Tired but willing

Leopold focused so much on this trip that he left his job in the Salzburg court orchestra. Would his son give him the satisfaction he couldn't achieve through his own career?

Wolfgang never complained and was always ready to obey his father's orders.

From Bressanone to Verona, from Milan to Bologna, then Florence, Rome, Naples, and on the way back, Turin and Venice, there were receptions, awards, concerts, earnings, fatigue, illness, the meeting in Rome with the Pope, who bestowed upon Wolfgang a Knighthood in the Order of the Golden Spur — he who was so little that he had to be lifted up in his father's arms just to be able to kiss the foot of the statue of Saint Peter in the Piazza San Pietro!

Wolfgang never complained. Never lamented aloud the long absence from his mother's embrace and childhood games with his sister. He was always ready to obey his father's orders.

Today, Leopold's actions would land him in hot water with child protective services. It was young Wolfgang's labor, after all, on which the family's income depended.

The first trip lasted just over a year, until March 28, 1771. The family didn't stay away for long, returning on a second visit from Aug. 13 to Dec. 15, 1771. The third and final Italian journey was from Oct. 24, 1772, to March 13, 1773.

Itinerary of the Mozarts' 1st Italian journey in 1769-1771 — Source: Wikimedia Commons

For Milan, Wolfgang — who in Italy had taken to signing his name Amadeo De Mozartini — wrote three operas: Mithridates, King of Pontus; Ascanio in Alba, and Lucio Silla. Three operas in three years! Such an investment of trust in an adolescent remains an exceptional occurrence to this day.

And that's without counting the other work he produced in the same period: seven string quartets, among them the marvelous Adagio in String Quartet No. 3 in G, K. 156; several symphonies and concert arias, sacred music, and the motet Exsultate, jubilate, a vertiginous and fascinating vocal display.

Coming of age

Rome enchants the young boy. "I've seen so many beautiful things, that if I had to write them all down they wouldn't fit in this folio," Wolfgang notes.

His sharp judgment was impressive, even as a boy.

In Naples, he visits Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and has a custom outfit made for him in moire, or watered silk, a shimmering patterned fabric. In Venice, he dons a mask and, playing with girls his age, discovers sexuality. "When we return to Salzburg," his father wrote at the time to Wolfgang's mother, "he will have to sleep in a room of his own."

His long metamorphosis from child prodigy to conscious artist underwent marked progress during this time. Wolfgang frequented the best composers, violinists and singers, met Giuseppe Parini and other Enlightenment figures on the scene and learned Italian. It is this confidence with the language that allowed him to make the librettos written for him by Lorenzo Da Ponte to explode with meaning.

Portrait of Mozart (bottom right) in Florence, 1770 — Source: Wikimedia Commons

His sharp judgment was impressive, even as a boy. The castrato trilling of the eunuch singers bored Mozart just about as much as Baroque opera did in general — a style he helped definitively relegate to the compositional attic with his new work.

He might have stayed in Italy permanently, had Empress Maria Theresa of Austria not sent a message from Vienna, written in rude French, warning her son Ferdinand, the archduke of Milan, against hiring the boy. "Take care not to keep in your service these useless persons who travel the world comme des gueux —​ like beggars," she wrote.

Wolfang treated like a peasant for simply seeking a permanent position. Shame on the empress.

Not long before, the German composer Johann Adolph Hasse, then at the height of his fame, pronounced judgment on the young Mozart that over time proved more prophetic: "This boy will make the world forget all the rest of us."

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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