Following in Mozart's footsteps

Stick a pin in a map of Europe and chances are Mozart stayed or played there. And the 250th anniversary of the great composer's birth is the perfect time to follow in his musical footsteps. Simon Calder makes tracks

For anyone planning a musical meander through central Europe, 2006 will produce even more harmony between travel and tunes: the coming year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart. The composer's name is exploited in some bizarre locations: the Mozart pharmacy in the former East Berlin, for example; a car park in Nice; and a Mozart music shop in Dubai that sells nothing but electric guitars and amplifiers. But the Mozart birthright belongs to Salzburg.

The hills around Austria's most beautiful city are alive with the reverberations of building work preparing for Wolfgang's birthday on 27 January. As well they might, the citizens intend to cash in. Yet many other places can do the same: stick a pin in the map of Europe, and the chances are that the great man stayed or played there.

Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, as he liked to be known, wrote that "without travel, at least for people from the arts and sciences, one is a miserable creature". He practised so enthusiastically what he preached that he seems to have spent much of his sadly short life on a perpetual tour of Europe - in the century before the railway was invented, and 200 years before he got his own airport.

WA Mozart international airport is a modest gateway; the transport into Salzburg consists of a trolleybus. You soon reach the doorstep of the narrow townhouse at Getreidegasse 9 where Mozart was born. Like so many locations associated with his life, it has been refurbished for the anniversary. But it is still hard to get a sense of the child (the last of seven) born here on 27 January 1756. The exhibits focus on the context in which Mozart worked, not the life itself. You learn about the rigours of travel then, and the mechanics of staging operas, but not much about the complex maestro who lived here until he was 16.

For much of that time, he was on tour, covering much more of Europe than I managed by the time I was 16: Amsterdam to Florence, Innsbruck to Naples, Venice to London... As with ageing rockers, so with young prodigies: a European roadshow helps fill the family coffers. Maestro minor and his talented sister Maria Anna worked their melodic way across the continent from concert arena to royal court. Their father, Leopold, exploited their precocious abilities for all they were worth.

So successful was this odd trio that soon the family was able to move into a more desirable residence in Salzburg, on the opposite bank of the Salzach River. You can use the dainty footbridge to reach Hannibal-Platz - or Makartplatz as it is now. What you see is almost all reconstruction; Allied bombers destroyed the place towards the end of the Second World War. But the house is still an engaging tribute to the boy. You start to get to know him, to read his often-vulgar letters, and understand the toll that talent took on his emotions.

Time to hit the road. For Mozart, this usually meant a bone-shaking journey. These days, the first leg of this Tour de Mozart involves a warm 90 minutes sipping coffee aboard a train, as you glide through a picturebook landscape towards Munich. As the distant mountains dwindle into a patchwork of snowy fields, the soundtrack should be the bright, optimistic opening of the Piano Concerto No 23.

Mozart travelled to Bavaria's capital to oversee the premiere of his opera, La Finta Giardinieri. Now, as then, the city looks especially beautiful at dusk on a sharp winter's day. Mozart tourists, though, have to use their imagination; of all the venues where his work was performed during his lifetime, only one still stands. The Residenz opera house was a casualty, but its location - Max Joseph-Platz - is still a temple to the arts, in the form of the vast, neo-classical National Theatre. This was where, 140 years ago, Ludwig II bankrolled Richard Wagner to produce massively expensive operas.

Lacking so benevolent a patron, Mozart never had the luxury of dissolute meandering and music-making. He worked and travelled feverishly, a businessman first and a genius second. So, for the next stage of the journey, listen to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, an inspirational piece of music itself inspired by the promise of a fat fee.

Two days by carriage, or another hour by train, brings you to Augsburg, also known as Deutsche Mozartstadt - Germany's Mozart City. It happens to be one of the most ancient, beautiful cities in Germany. Mozart's father came from Augsburg; with plenty of venues and a cultured, well-heeled merchant class, it also offered the prospect of work. One concert was staged at the Fuggerei, a complex of almshouses that was the first social housing in Europe. The community is still occupied.

From here, aim north to Leipzig, invigorated as you go by Mozart's 40th Symphony. While you change trains at Nuremberg, pop in to the handsome church of St Sebaldus to pay your respects to Johann Pachelbel: the man who pioneered equal temperament tuning, and whose Canon in D inspired The Farm's anthem, "Altogether Now".

In Leipzig in 1789, the maestro popped in to JS Bach's old church, St Thomas's, to play the organ. Today, a tablet close to the altar marks the final resting place of the man who was choirmaster here. With luck, you may hear a heavenly choir rehearsal.

Travel on the Mozart trail gets spectacular between Dresden and Prague. The railway hugs the west bank of the steep-sided Vltava, weaving through vineyards, villages and tempestuous centuries of history. Add an extra dimension of drama by listening to "Exsultate, jubilate" as you go.

Better than to travel, though, is to arrive in Prague. The road alongside Hlavni ("main") station initially seems rather bleak. Suddenly, though, it delivers you to the top of Wenceslas Square, fretted with monuments to the symbolism of Czech independence. At the far end, behind some noxious new structures, is the Estates Theatre - the one surviving living monument to Mozart's music. Even on a dark (in both senses) December night, the theatre is a beauty: as graceful as, say, the Horn Concerto No 2, but robust enough to survive since the premiere of Don Giovanni in 1787.

Mozart himself conducted four of the performances, and was feted as a celebrity. Of all the cities in which he lived, only Prague truly seemed to love him. That reverence continues at the Bertramka villa, where he stayed. As the Mozart Museum today, it has become a shrine to the man, where you can hear the echo of his dying cadences.

To emulate Mozart's last big journey, in September 1791, take the original railway line between Prague and Vienna, which shadows the post road. While high-speed trains take a faster, more easterly route, the old line is much more spectacular. It carves through Bohemia, then deposits you at a backwoods border station named Gmünd. You feel you are entering Ruritania, but it is actually Austria, and the appointed train will be waiting to escort you across the high plains to Vienna.

Treat yourself to the melancholy motif of the Clarinet Concerto (completed in the last year of Mozart's life) as you drift across a deep frozen slab of central Europe in a train out of the 1970s; obsolete Austrian Railways rolling stock ends up here.

Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781. "In my profession," he wrote to his father, "it is the best place in the world." He was 25 but, relative to his life span, in late middle age. Even in one city, he could not stay still - as the plaques at Milchgasse 1 and Singerstrasse 7 testify. The best of the 18 house moves he made in Vienna was instigated by Joseph Haydn, who in 1785 persuaded him to move to Domgasse 5, close to St Stephen's Cathedral - where he had married three years earlier, and where his funeral would take place. On his birthday, the home will re-open as the Mozarthaus.

He wrote The Marriage of Figaro here. The opera was given its premiere in Prague in 1787 to great acclaim, but after the triumph Mozart slid into debt and depression. Yet he managed to keep composing and travelling; in his penultimate year, 1790, he visited Frankfurt, Mannheim and Munich.

Mozart died in poverty at what is now Rauhensteingasse 8 on 5 December 1791. The work to accompany you on the last sad journey is the Requiem, on which Mozart was working when he caught the fever that killed him. His final trip was to St Marx Cemetery, where he was buried in an unmarked grave with four or five other bodies. The Dutch have the same problem with Rembrandt, whose 400th birthday is celebrated next year: one of the world's greatest artists, and no one is sure where he lies. The most visited "grave" in the Vienna cemetery is a simple memorial to Mozart: a broken column to symbolise a life cut short, with an angel looking down into the earth.

Traveller's Guide: Getting There

To reach Salzburg, Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted; FlyBE (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com) flies from Southampton and Birmingham; and SkyEurope (0905 722 2747; www.skyeurope.com) from Manchester. From Vienna, you can fly on Austrian Airlines (0870 124 2625; www.austrianairlines.co.uk) to Heathrow or Manchester; on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) to Heathrow; or on FlyNiki (0870 738 8880; www.flyniki.com) to Stansted.

MORE INFORMATION

For Mozart year details, visit www.salzburg.info; www.wienmozart2006.at; www.mozartgesellschaft.de; and www.bertramka.cz for Prague.

The writer presents Mozart's Journeys on Classic FM at 11pm tomorrow. The programme is produced by Tim Lihoreau, creative director of Classic FM and co-author of The Friendly Guide to Mozart, published this week (Hodder Arnold, £9.99including a CD).

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