Photo by Otto Erich Deutsch/Wikipedia Commons
This posthumous portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was painted by Barbara Kraft at the request of Joseph Sonnleithner in 1819.

How Mozart became a bestseller in 2016

The biggest CD seller of 2016 was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, thanks to a new, complete collection of his recorded works.

The artist for the best-selling CDs of 2016 is no pop star, rapper, or rock guitarist. This year, that honor belongs to classical music composer and famed prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The legendary composer is an unusual winner in a music market dominated by popular music of the last 50 years. But Mozart's music had some help resurfacing: an October 28th release of "Mozart 225: The New Complete Edition," a massive collection of 200 CDs containing over 240 hours of his compositions.

Billboard, which calculated the sales, ranks each individual CD sold as one, so the 200-disk collection does have a significant advantage over a one- or two-disc pop album. But the sales of the expensive collection also speak to the continued relevance of an 18th century composer in a market dominated by songs that can top charts one week and fade into obscurity the next.

For many music enthusiasts both inside and outside the world of classical music, Mozart is not just a significant composer, but one of the greatest musical figures in all of human history.

The composer who became known as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart in 1756, the son of Leopold and Anna Maria Pertl. Mozart's father was a composer and musician who encouraged his son and daughter, Maria Anna, to learn music early on. It soon became apparent that both children were prodigies, and Leopold took them to perform in royal courts all over Europe. Wolfgang, the younger of the two, was a particular sensation, with his first tour beginning at age six.

Mozart began writing compositions in childhood, with a first, basic composition at age five. Soon he began to write more complex works, composing his first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus, at the age of eleven.

As became older, his compositions took on a unique voice that emphasized simple, organic melodies supported by his deceptively complex understanding of harmony. His works satisfied the era's need to be intellectually pleasing without ever losing sight of the human emotion that makes music powerful.

During his lifetime, he composed works that have become a mainstay of soloists, orchestras, and opera companies around the world, though the young man was not always appreciated in his own time.

"Mozart's life was brief; he died at age 35," Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "As a child prodigy, he was trotted around Europe to play for the nobility of the era, but as he grew older, he found that his fame had lessened, so that by the late 1780s, he was reduced to borrowing money to pay his bills. It was only after his death that the public again took notice of him, and such figures as Beethoven, Chopin and Tchaikovsky hailed his work, leading to renewal of public interest."

According to Professor Dixon, Mozart's appeal outside the classical music world is at least partially due to the 1984 film "Amadeus," a dramatization of Mozart's life. While many of the details of the plot are inaccurate, including the film's suggestion that Mozart was murdered by a rival composer, the movie reintroduced Mozart's music to a new generation of filmgoers.

But even without the bump in popularity brought on by "Amadeus," Mozart's music holds up well on its own, having remained in the classical repertoire in the 225 years since his death.

In his life, he was known as something of a prankster, with an irreverent and often inappropriate sense of humor that found its way into his musical works, pleasing the masses as well as the royal elite.

"Though he worked in the emperor's court and was capable of composing high art, Mozart also excelled at writing music for the populace," Tobias Rush, an assistant professor of music at the University of Dayton, tells the Monitor in an email.

"While his Italian operas were celebrated in the courts, his German operas were written for and well-known among lower classes," he says. "Unlike many other composers, Mozart showed an aptitude for writing in both styles equally well."

That brings us to 2016, where "Mozart 225: The New Complete Edition" sold 1.25 million CDs in its first five weeks. The collection contains a recording of every surviving piece of his music – including some where his authorship is still debated. The producer, Universal, unveiled the collection in August after 18 months of development, calling it the "most authoritative, complete and scholarly box set ever devoted to the work of a single composer." 

The recordings also include many period-accurate performances on traditional instruments.

"Mozart is relevant today because his music, at its best (e.g. his opera The Marriage of Figaro), expresses something deep about the human condition," writes Paul Salerni, a composer and professor of music at Lehigh University, in an email to the Monitor.

"Music, when it's good, elicits or expresses both concrete and ephemeral emotions," he adds. "Great music, whether classical or otherwise, can make you want to dance, sing, cry, laugh, and to feel things you simply can't express elsewhere."

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