Mozart the Entertainer


Garden parties, lavish dinners, graduation celebrations -- out of these informal, wine-soaked gatherings came some lovely outdoor music for the fun-loving Austrians, compliments of Mozart. His 30 Serenades and Divertimentos bubble over with catchy marches and gorgeous melodies. In this Active Minds program, we'll sample the lighter side of Mozart.


In the late 18th Century, it seemed that musicians were a dime a dozen in Austria's major cities. For the music-crazy Austrians, those instrumentalists, singers and composers served a function: providing entertainment. Of course, many music-makers were busy writing sacred works for the great churches and cathedrals. But music also brought pleasure for the populace. Concert halls, recital halls, opera houses, private homes, parks – all were filled night after night with audiences hungry for music. The quality of what they heard was of little importance to most listeners, particularly those at gab-filled social gatherings. And there was an endless flow of parties where music was a must. Naturally, such social occasions provided much-needed income for musicians and composers – and, as one would expect, the more famous the composer, the more prestigious the party. Things haven't changed that much, have they? We hear stories of wealthy parents employing a well-known pop star to entertain at a child's birthday party or bar mitzvah. Into this elegant world of light-hearted entertainment stepped Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, particularly during his years of struggle in his hometown of Salzburg. Anxious for money, he was quite happy to crank out Serenades and Divertimentos intended for the amusement and delight of party-goers. Imagine the scene: A lavishly decorated garden in back of a handsome Salzburg home, buzzing with conversation and laughter when, from inside the house, the sound of instruments tuning up is heard. An announcement is made and the crowd excitedly welcomes the arrival of an ensemble of string players led by Mozart. As the ensemble marches in, playing a rousing tune, the party-goers applaud and follow the musicians to a corner of the garden, where music stands and chairs await. Mozart then conducts his ensemble in a multi-movement work whose segments included several opportunities for folks to pair up and dance. Each section was usually followed by long pauses, allowing patrons to chat, flirt, drink and perhaps visit with the musicians. No doubt, Mozart would be puzzled to see how these fluffy works are now presented in formal concerts to a quiet, attentive audience. But then, there are numerous moments of sheer genius among the numerous movements of the Serenades and Divertimentos: lively dance tunes and sweet melodies that remind us that, whatever Mozart put down on paper was given his full attention and his unending gift for lovely tunes. They may not be big and bold as his symphonies, but these works offer pleasures a-plenty for music lovers – Salzburgers back then or Mozart fans today.

Exploration Questions

  • Is there a difference between a Serenade and a Divertimento?
  • What is a Cassation (a title given to some of Mozart's Serenades)?
  • What is a basset horn (three of them are featured in his Third Divertimento)?
  • What other composers wrote Serenades? (hint: among them, two of the “3 B's.”)

Reflective Questions

  • Imagine you're at one of those 18th-Century garden parties. Would you dance and chat to Mozart's music, or prefer to watch him and his players from close up?
  • Eine kleine Nachtmusik is his best-known Serenade. Is it your favorite – or is there another that you like even more?
  • There's humor in many of these works – do we still chuckle at the jokes today?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Johnson, Paul. Mozart: A Life. Penguin Book. 2013. 176 pages. Among the dozens of Mozart biographies, this is perhaps the most accessible for beginners.
    Click here to order
  • Gutman, Robert W. Mozart: A Cultural Biography. Harcourt Brace & Company. 1999. 839 pages. For the more serious Mozartean, this expansive and highly readable look at the composer covers all the bases in well-researched detail.
    Click here to order