Chocolate box Mozart

Salzburg was slow to cash in on its leading son, but now celebrates him in marzipan

In a little alley called the Brodgasse, a short walk from Mozart's birthplace, you can buy a souvenir that encapsulates Salzburg's strange relationship with its most famous son. A Mozartkugel looks a bit like a Ferrero Rocher. Each one is made of pistachio and marzipan, wrapped in nougat and dipped in chocolate. They cost about 65p each. Naturally, they work out a bit cheaper if you buy in bulk, and plenty of people do. Over the years, various companies have made several billion of these eponymous treats, all bearing the portrait of a man who described his work here as slavery and his fellow Salzburgers as fools.

Since a local Konditor (pâtissier) called Paul Fürst created the first Mozartkugel in the Brod gasse in 1890, this trade has become so lucrative that it has spawned a whole hierarchy of manufacturers, whose subtly different brand names have been ratified by a series of legalistic rulings. The most prolific local brand is Mirabell, with its red and gold livery, but Mozart snobs like me prefer Fürst's blue-and-silver prototype (still made by Fürst's great-grandson in the original Konditorei) even though in a blind tasting I would probably be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Like millions of visitors to Salzburg, I have always fancied myself as a bit of a Mozart aficionado, rather than a mere fan, and so (like countless self-deluded fans before me, and countless more to come), whenever I come to Salzburg, I always make my way to Fürst's, to demonstrate my understanding and appreciation of Mozart by buying chocolates wrapped in blue and silver foil instead of red and gold.

Every tourist resort tries to cash in on its local heroes. Salzburg's only crime has been to cash in more than most. Mozart's pensive face stares back at you from virtually every shop window in the medieval Altstadt, endorsing every conceivable knick-knack, from keyrings to cognac, from fridge magnets to perfume. Even the airport is named after him. When you land at Salzburg's W A Mozart Airport, a bust of the wunderkind is the first thing you see. As the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler said when he came here: "Mozart has influenced the entire life of this city." During the Cold War, the East German city of Chemnitz was renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt. Maybe Salzburg should go the whole hog and simply call itself Mozartstadt.

Unlike Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon, Salzburg can at least claim to have played a significant role in Mozart's creative life. Mozart wasn't just born here - it was his home for more than half his life, and many of his greatest compositions were first performed here, in the same palatial venues where you can still hear them played today. However, the irony of Salzburg's Mozart industry is that he came to loathe this pretty little city, and could hardly wait to leave. Indeed, though it remained his home address until he was 25, for much of that time he was abroad, trying to secure the elusive job that would enable him to flee for ever and shake the dust of pro vincial Salzburg off his shoes. After he left for Vienna in 1781 he scarcely set foot here again.

Actually, Salzburg treated Mozart a lot better than Vienna did, giving him the steady job (and the steady income) that he was always denied elsewhere. Yet, as in any loveless marriage, this arrangement left both parties feeling exploited and abused: Mozart grew sick of being treated like a mere servant by his boss, Salzburg's archbishop; the archbishop (or the arch oaf, as Mozart called him) grew sick of keeping Mozart on his payroll, only for Mozart to moonlight for rival employers and badmouth him behind his back. Their affiliation ended in a farcical race to see who could flounce out first. When Mozart wrote to the archbishop, requesting yet another leave of absence, the archbishop replied that he was quite welcome to seek his fortune elsewhere. When Mozart went to the archbishop's palace to deliver his resignation in person, the archbishop authorised his steward to kick the composer down the stairs.

After Mozart died, in Vienna, aged just 35, it took Salzburg over half a century to put up a statue in his honour, and it wasn't until the 20th century, more than 100 years after his death, that Salzburg's Mozart mania really took off. It was only once he became old-fashioned and res pectable that this innovative artist began to be venerated in his conservative home town.

So what remains of Mozart's Salzburg, apart from trash-aesthetic souvenirs? Well, the house where he was born is still here, as is the house where he lived as a young man, and they've both been turned into museums. Both places try their best. Mozarts Geburtshaus, where he grew up, contains some striking installations by the American theatre director and designer Robert Wilson that convey far more of Mozart's joyful magic than the dry displays they've replaced. Mozart-Wohnhaus, where he lived between the ages of 17 and 25, is more conventional - lots of ancient artefacts, imprisoned behind plate glass. There are some priceless treasures - the letter that he wrote to his father the night his mother died, saying she might recover, even though he knew she was already dead - but both museums are so busy and besieged by camera-clicking sightseers that traipsing around them feels vaguely ghoulish and absurd, like filing past the open coffin of a relative you've never met.

And yet, against all odds, his eternal melodies have endured. The Stiftskeller St Peter does the full coach-party package (a candelit dinner, with greatest hits from Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro performed in frock coats and powdered wigs), but the big treat is at the Kollegienkirche, just across the street from the house where he was raised. Here, every Saturday, you can hear Mozart's Requiem - his final composition, a life snuffed out, a civilisation cut short. How many masterworks remained unwritten? How many harmonies remain unheard? The personality cult that has engulfed him would have obliterated any other composer, but Mozart is big enough to take it. Despite the Mozartkug eln, his music will survive.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix