In celebration of Father’s Day, let’s honor two dads who are far less remembered than their famous children. Typical.
This Father’s Day, we’re looking at two fathers, accomplished and celebrated in their own times, but whose achievements have been almost totally overshadowed by their famous children. Both men fathered geniuses. One’s career was tainted by scandal in his later years; the other essentially gave up his career to nurture his child’s talent. Let’s meet them.
William Wilde (1815-1876)
One of the most illustrious men of nineteenth century Ireland, William Wilde was a scientist, writer, and eye and ear surgeon. He was also the father of Oscar Wilde. Both men suffered ignominious downfalls.
After William Wilde qualified as a doctor at the age of 22, he took a long trip that resulted in his first book, the comprehensively titled Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe and along the Shores of the Mediterranean, including a visit to Algiers, Egypt, Palestine, Tyre, Rhodes, Telmessus, Cyprus, and Greece. With Observations of the present state and prospects of Egypt and Palestine, and on the climate, natural history, antiquities etc of the countries visited (1840). He traveled for “instruction” rather than pleasure and felt that absolutely everything was worth knowing. His interests included folklore, archaeology, early Irish history, technology, ethnology, and all branches of science.
His most important book was Practical Observations on Aural Surgery and the Nature and Treatment of Diseases of the Ear (1853), considered to be, according to biographer Emer O’Sullivan, the first textbook of significance on the subject and the book that made him known as “one of the greatest aural experts of his generation.” He wrote on the physical and social condition “on the deaf and dumb,” a book on Austria’s literary, scientific, and medical institutions, as well as articles on a host of other topics. He also took on the editorship of the Dublin Journal of Medical Science, wrote a biography of writer Jonathan Swift, and works on Irish history. William Wilde was a polymath, widely respected and admired for his contributions to a range of disciplines. He established a hospital in Dublin and was appointed Queen Victoria’s oculist in Ireland.
William’s wife Jane was an eminent poet and Irish nationalist rebel who wrote under the name “Speranza” and together they were Dublin’s power couple – enlightened, intellectual, and influential. Their first-born son Willie became a journalist and poet; their second son Oscar became a hugely successful dramatist, poet, and wit.
William and Jane had a golden life, but things became unstuck in 1864, when one of William’s long-term patients and a frequent visitor to his home, Mary Travers, began a concentrated smear campaign against the Wildes. Jane was outraged, complaining to Mary’s father about her constant demands for money. Mary sued Jane for libel. She also accused William of sexual assault, claiming he’d raped her two years earlier. Over his life, William had had many sexual liaisons and had three illegitimate children by different women, but his relationship with Mary Travers was to prove ruinous.
Mary won the libel case but was awarded a mere farthing in damages. The judge ultimately ruled out rape, acknowledging only that adultery had taken place – that William and Mary had been consenting lovers.
The upshot of this was that William’s reputation suffered a massive blow. He quietly retreated from Dublin society to live in western Ireland and died there in 1876, a whimpering end for one of the brightest minds of his time. Scandal it seems, was destined to follow the Wilde men.
Leopold Mozart (1719-1787)
The violinist and composer Leopold Mozart is primarily remembered as the father of the incomparable Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of the greatest composers who ever lived. But before his son conquered the world, Leopold had made his own mark on the Austrian musical scene. He was a remarkable music teacher; Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, his text on teaching and playing the violin, published in 1756, the year Wolfgang was born, became the definitive teaching and performance manual for many years. The book is about more than the mere mechanics of playing – Leopold also wrote about good taste and the need for refined musicianship over showmanship. It’s still studied today for its insights into eighteenth century performance practice.
He was also an outstanding violinist. An experienced orchestra musician in the court of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, Leopold eventually became court composer, writing many fine works, many of which have unfortunately been lost. Of his surviving compositions, the lovely two-movement Trumpet Concerto in D Major (1762) still features in concert repertoires. His concertos for trombone and horns, his symphonies, sonatas, and serenades are imaginative works well-received in his time and warrant much closer attention than they currently receive.
Leopold remained in Salzburg for the rest of his life, but his composing took a back seat when he realized his two surviving children, Nannerl and Wolfgang, were exceptionally musically proficient. He dedicated his life to nurturing and supporting their talents, particularly Wolfgang’s. The relationship between father and son was loving yet strained, their personalities often at odds with one another. Leopold was highly disciplined, devoted to promoting his son’s brilliance and securing lucrative appointments for him, but free-spirited Wolfgang rebelled against such constraints preferring the life of a freelance musician.
Leopold Mozart has been criticized for supposedly exploiting Wolfgang, but perhaps that’s a little harsh. His sound teaching methods proved enormously beneficial to Wolfgang who continued to value and respect Leopold’s musical feedback in spite of the differences between them. Leopold’s decision to introduce his son to some of the most admired musicians and composers of the period also had a lasting effect on the young Mozart’s later career. The fact that Wolfgang’s music vastly outshone his own would have been a source of immense pride to the older Mozart. Happy Father’s Day, Leopold.
…. And a Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there.