Even those who don't know the name Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) have probably heard at least part of his Serenade No. 13 for strings (K525), one of the most recognizable works in all of classical music. It derives its more familiar title from the composer's own handwritten catalog entry: "Eine kleine NachtMusick, bestehend in einem Allegro, Menuett und Trio. -- Romance. Menuett und Trio, und finale. -- 2 Violini, Viola e Bassi."
The listing of five movements here has remained a mystery: no one knows when or why the first minuet was omitted from the piece. Even so, this light-hearted work in four movements is considered a shining example of Mozart's ebullient creative genius and mastery of classical symphonic structure. Probably commissioned as party music to be played by a string quartet (as it is sometimes heard today), the piece is said to evoke the feeling of after-dinner conversation, an accurate reflection of Mozart's own loquacious personality and zest for entertainment. It was one of several masterpieces of chamber music written in 1787, at the height of his career, while he was simultaneously at work on the brilliant opera Don Giovanni.
During an age when most composers relied on steady employment by church or state institutions, Mozart spent essentially his entire life in commercial pursuits. As a child prodigy, he was introduced to the life of a traveling virtuoso by his enterprising father Leopold, and he later acquired his own keen style of self-promotion among wealthy and influential circles in many of Europe's great cities. However, his personal fortunes tended to rise and fall at the whim of contemporary fashion, and he struggled to remain solvent despite his incredible volume and variety of work.
Mozart's legendary reputation as a superstitious bon vivant, thriving on competition and personal politics, is not documented nearly as well as the excellence of his art, an astonishing record of over 600 separate works that practically define the Classical era in music.