Rediscovering Mozart

Often tempting to dismiss as the kitch before Beethoven or the guy who opened the door to the Romantic aesthetic while declining to walk through it, the music of Mozart is both inviting and, distressingly, easily dismissed. Even by those who are quick to recognize his genius. One of the great surprises for me in writing this history has been to rediscover Mozart, not as the genius who could spin out memorable tunes like a proto-Beatle, but as a master craftsman. His music is just incredibly well-made.

Let’s take a look at a few examples. First up, the second movement of the Sinfonia Concertante that featured in my brief biography of the real Mozart a few entries ago. Written when Mozart was entering his maturity, this movement is a paradigm of Classical balance and proportion. It is a Palladian villa on a rainy day.

How does Mozart achieve this effect? He introduces the melody, which is taken up by the orchestra at the start in mournful C minor, Mozart’s go-to key to connote sadness. Halfway through, the soloists bring the melody to the fore in E-flat major. The effect is as if sunlight is trying to poke through the clouds. The two keys are related: C minor is the relative minor key to E-flat major. But the effect is short lived, as the music returns to C minor by the time the melody returns at the end. Balance and proportion.

A quick refresher on some theory. The “relative” key refers to the fact that it is the same key signature (here, three flats), but represents a different mode (that is, a different scale). Returning to the medieval modes which were the dominant structure of compositional techniques at the dawn of Western music, the “major” key is really just the “Ionian” mode, while the “minor” key is the “Aeolian” mode. This relationship between relative keys makes both for easy modulation between them, both musically and emotionally.

The Sinfonia Concertante was composed at or around the time of the death of Mozart’s mother and some scholars have postulated that this middle movement reflects Mozart trying to cope with her death. Whether true or not, the music does reflect for me the process of mourning–coping with the depressing realization of loss, flecked with the memories of happier times.

W.A. Mozart, Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola: II. Andante

Mozart is also the unquestioned master of form. His Symphony No. 40 is rightly held up as the archtype of the sonata form (also known as the sonata-allegro form, since it is ususally played quickly). The structure of a sonata form is quite easy: Exposition, Development and Recapitulation. But let’s take a closer look to see what Mozart is doing here, at the very hight of his compositional powers.

Symphony No. 40 is written in the very dark key of G Minor, which means the sombre G minor chord will be the “home” or “tonic” chord throughout the work. The first 30 seconds of the Exposition presents the first theme–the classic theme that just about everyone knows–in G minor. At about the 30 second mark, Mozart transitions to the second theme–this is the bridge, which connects the two key themes, but also serves to modulate to the relative major key, B-flat Major. The second theme concludes about 20 seconds later and Mozart wraps up the Exposition with a closing theme. The roughly three minutes of Exposition are then repeated.

The Development begins at around the 3:30 mark, starting in F# minor, which Mozart begins to develop chromatically: Bits of both themes return here, in fragments and in different keys, finally modulating back to G minor. After about a minute, Mozart brings the opning theme back in its original G minor. An expanded bridge, leveraging some fugal techniques, leads back to the second theme–which now remains in the tonic (G minor). Mozart takes the final 20 seconds to tie everything up in a nice bow.

There are, of course, further layers to appreciate. Mozart’s functional harmony is based on chords I, II, IV, V and VI, with the melody largely carried by the strings and the woodwinds providing the harmonic (homophonic) texture.

It is extraordinarily well-made music and, beyond its extremely memorable tune, worthy of its inclusion among Mozart’s masterpieces.

W.A. Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in G Minor:

Finally, just as Mozart stood on Haydn’s shoulders, Beethoven’s admiration of Mozart knew no bounds. There will be much to say about the many Conversations between the two great composers in time, but for now, here is a playlist to demonstrate that Mozart was more than just the pretty face in the crowd–this is powerfully emotional music that anticipates the Romantic Period as much as anything Beethoven wrote.

Mozart, Innovator of Advanced Harmonics

The sheer impossibility of doing justice to Mozart is beginning to show—so much great music has been ignored here. But as we gather steam on Mozart’s influence on the Romantics, half a century later, let’s take a look at one of his most daring compositions, the Quartet No. 19 in C Major. In or around 1781, Mozart heard Joseph Haydn’s recently composed Op. 33 quartets, perhaps even at their premiere. Mozart was also deep into the study of Bach at the time and the combination pressed Mozart to even greater heights as he started to reincorporate counterpoint into his compositions. In the coming years, Mozart would write scores of string duos, trios and quartets, including six quartets dedicated to Haydn. Returning the favor, Haydn attended the premiere of these works (Mozart played the viola!), leading Haydn to observe that Mozart was without question the greatest composer of the age. Haydn, master of the obvious.

There is so much to say about the 19th, the last of these six, so let’s just focus on its brilliant first movement, which earned the composition the name “Dissonance.”  This is brooding, anxiety-ridden music, where the contours of the harmony are so distorted that it is a shock to learn that this is in fact Mozart and not Beethoven (who was surely aware of and inspired by this work), if not something composed in the 20th century.  The story is that Mozart’s publishers were so sure that there were errors in the composition that they sent the score back to him for correction.  As if. 

This is one of Mozart’s most radiant scores, fully exploring the harmonic possibilities of the C major key, while remaining ever loyal to the principles of the Classical Period—sonata form, counterpoint and development.

W.A. Mozart, Quartet No. 19 in C Major “Dissonance”, I. Adagio-Allegro:

Here an excellent live recording of the Hagen Quartet doing the entire quartet.

Be for us a foretaste

Mozart’s brief motet, Ave Verum Corpus, was one of the springs that fed the Romantic period.  Written in the last year of his life as a gift to a friend to thank him for a kindness, it is hard not to consider the prophetic words of the prayer: “Hail, true body born of the Virgin Mary, who truly suffered, sacrificed on the Cross for man, whose pierced side overflowed, with water and blood, be for us a foretaste in the test of death.”

The Ave Verum Corpus is one of the great Conversation in history and ground zero for the lasting influence of Mozart throughout the generations, even though it is not among his most popular or most performed works.  The great Romantic composer Franz Liszt (more about him later), transcribed this work—the best Romantic composer (in my view) giving direct credit for his inspiration.  Mozart’s harmonic innovations, subtle as they are, would influence composers for the next hundred years.  The opening is presented in a simple D major progression, a “happy” key for the birth of Christ, before the tonal center changes to A major and with its three sharps, more chromatic lines are added to create a density in describing the significance of the crucifixion and of Christ’s suffering.  The passion itself—the line “on the cross”—is presented in a perfect fourth by the soprano, rising above everything else in the music, before the Christ’s death and the implications of our own mortality are presented in Mozart’s favorite key of D minor. 

And all of this in about 3 minutes of music. Genius indeed.

W.A. Mozart, Ave Verum Corpus:

W.A. Mozart, (arr. F. Liszt), Ave Verum Corpus:

And, of course, Liszt wrote his own version, in 1871, demonstrating how small the step it is from Mozart to the height of the Romantic Period.

Franz Liszt, Ave Verum Corpus:

Mozart the Virtuoso of the Piano

Mozart’s virtuosity was often and best expressed at the insturment he is most closely associated with–the piano. His series of piano concertos, Nos. 20-24, rank among the greatest music ever written. 

First up is the Andante of the 21st, which is one of Mozart’s most famous tunes, popping up in movies with stunning regularity.

W.A. Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major

Next up is the 23rd. This was, if you can believe it, Stalin’s favorite piece of music, famously ordering it to be played on the day he seized power.

W.A. Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major:

My favorite, however, is the 20th in D Minor. D Minor is without question Mozart’s favorite key–Don Giovanni and the Requiem are also centered around they key of D Minor. It’s also perhaps my favorite key—a shocking percentage of my selections in this blog have been in D Minor, far more than would be statistically probable.

Here, in the 20th, we can hear a preview of Don Giovanni being dragged to hell at the end of the opera. The music is dark, brooding and proto-romantic. This is the Mozart I love most, trying to break free of convention and let the music in his head truly take flight. In fact, the 20th is yet another example of how Mozart delayed putting music down on paper. His father noted in a letter that the copyist was frantically trying to finish even as the concert began, with Mozart, as was his custom, conducting from the piano. Perhaps his delay in transcribing the work did not allow him sufficient time for editing.

Although my usual preference is for historically informed performances, there are exceptions to all rules and this is one for me. The great Argentine pianist Martha Argerich ignores all sense of history here, bringing her singular romantic focus to Mozart. It works brilliantly. Before turning to the music, a few words about Argerich. I’ve seen her about half a dozen times live and have booked tickets for her concerts far more often than that. She is notorious for cancelling: Only opera divas have a greater cancellation rate. Argerich’s career is legendary. Arguably (and in my view) the greatest living pianist, Argerich burst onto the scene in spectacular fashion when, at I believe 23 years of age, she went into Abbey Road Studios (yes, that Abbey Road Studios) and laid down Chopin tracks that, if translated into heat, would have started the second great fire of London. More on that later. Here she is doing Mozart, as if he were Lizst or Chopin. Bring the heat!

W.A Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor:

Mozart the Virtuoso of the Opera House

At the peak of his powers during the 1780s, Mozart’s ability to weave a mesmerizing spell of music remains pretty much unrivaled in music history. There are hints of something darker and wilder lurking behind this music, but those doors would remain closed for the time being. Ever the businessman, Mozart was concerned about alienating his audience—in other words, leading them down a musical path where they would not follow him. So instead, we got this—Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, a truly perfect opera.

This is Figaro’s great aria, sung by the bass Luca Pisaroni. His Figaro is one of the best on the world stage today.

W. A. Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro, “Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso“:

Of course, every one of us has heard this opera before. It figures in one of the most memorable scenes from The Shawshank Redemption, which effectively sums up why Mozart retains his immense popularity today, nearly 300 years after his birth.

I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away. For the briefest moment every last man in Shawshank felt free.


I don’t think anyone has better described the effect that great music has on the human soul. Get busy living, Red, wherever you are.

Breaking Away

The entry from last week left off with Mozart freshly returned to Salzburg from his disastrous trip to Paris. Mozart again found himself, at 24, chaffing under the twin yokes of his father Leopold (who had decidedly not forgiven his son for allowing his mother to die in Paris for want of medical attention) and his employer, the Archbishop. Although the Archbishop surely relished having a monopoly on the “genius that God allowed to be born in Salzburg”, he did allow Mozart to accept a commission from the Elector of Bavaria for a new opera. To date, Mozart’s operas had been largely Italianite in style, dating back to and influenced heavily by his studies during his teenaged visit to Italy.

But in Paris, Mozart had seen Gluck’s operas and had been inspired. Finding Italian opera wanting, Gluck had sought to amp up the drama by making the music subservient to the plot. But if Gluck had been good at this, Mozart was an entirely different thing altogether. The opera that Mozart created, Idomeneo, ushered in a new phase of Mozart’s life and career. A huge success at its debut in Munich, Mozart’s ambitions could no longer be satisfied in Salzburg. Freeing himself at last of his employer and, to great extent, his father, Mozart headed to Vienna, bouyed by the gusts of Idomeneo’s success in his sails.

This is Mozart in 1780. The boy is no more. He is now, without a doubt, the very real deal.

W.A. Mozart, Idomeneo (excerpts)

Special Birthday Edition

Happy birthday to me. And on my birthday, I will choose to be serenaded, by Mozart, through the magic of Jascha Heifetz.

If you are curious, this is the fourth movment of a much larger work, composed by the 20-year old Mozart in 1776 for the wedding of Marie Elisabeth Haffner (the same family commissioned one of Mozart’s best known symphonies, which is also dedicated to them). The Rondo of the Haffner Serenade was a staple encore piece for Heifetz, whose total control over every element of technique can be seen here. He makes the technically precise look routine.

Mozart played the violin and there are many accounts of the child prodigy being placed on a stool to play so he could be seen by everyone. While Mozart’s public performances shifted to the piano as he got older, this composition betrays his deep familiarity with the instrument. There are no uncomfortable fingerings here and the music lends itself to interesting coloration through bowing choices.

Here is the full verison of the work:

W.A. Mozart, Serenade for Orchestra in D Major “Haffner”:


The very first entry of this blog was devoted to how Pythagoras created the Western musical scale through the use of mathematical ratios. It is not surprising, therefore, that the most famous of all ratios–Euclid’s golden ratio–would find its way into the music. While interest in the golden ratio was common in the ancient world, artists renewed their interest in it through a sequence of numbers created by mathematician Leonardo Pisano: The Fibonacci Sequence. In the Fibonacci Sequence, each number is the result of the sum of the previous two: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc. As the Fibonacci Sequence increases, the closer it gets to the golden ratio of 1.618.

When the Fibonacci Sequence is drawn, it looks like this:

Leonardo da Vinci, for example, used the Fibonacci Sequence in many of his works. For example:

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virtuous Man

Now, let’s layer the Fibonacci Sequence over it:

And that’s not the only famous Leonardo image based on Fibonacci:

Leonardo was hardly alone. Consider these famous images. All Fibonnaci inspired.

Just as the Fibonacci Sequence helps artists to create pleasing proportions in their paintings, the golden ratio helps composers create music that is intrinsically pleasing to the ear. While he wasn’t the first to do so, it is worth noting young Mozart was nearly as infatuated with math as he was with music. In his first piano sonata, Mozart based the overall structure of the first movement on the golden ratio. It is written in classic sonata form (exposition, development, and recapitulation). The exposition is 38 bars; the development and recapitulation are 62 bars combined.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Sonata No. 1 in C Major, K. 279: I. Allegro

Erik Satie, composing a century later, used the golden ratio for the beat counts in each movement of his Trois sonneries de la Rose+Croix. Later scholarship found contemporary correspondence with Claude Debussy in which the composers had discussed utilizing the golden ratio in their music. This video, which annoates the score, is a great introduction to Satie’s remarkable music and his use of the golden ratio.

Erik Satie, Trois sonneries de la Rose+Croix:

Interest in the golden ratio transcends eras and genres of music. For example, the prog rock band Genesis incorporates the golden ratio into The Firth of Fifth, which features solos 55, 34, and 13 bars–all golden numbers. Unsurprisingly, The Firth of Fifth is often rated as the band’s best song.

Genesis, The Firth of Fifth:

Other bands have taken the golden ratio and Fibonacci Sequence to extremes. Dream Theater structured their eighth studio album, Octavarium, around the Fibonacci Sequence–even the title, which alludes to the number 8, has 5 syllables. Fives and eights feature all over the album and booklet, with the key being shown on page 5 of the booklet by dominoes showing a five and and 8. Radiohead is also famous for using the golden ratio to organize their music, most notably on the album In Rainbows. That album is 42 minutes, 34 seconds long. If you divide that by the golden ratio (1.618), you find yourself at 2 minutes and 49 seconds into Reckoner, where the background vocalist can be heard singing “In rainbows.”

Lest this entry go too far down the progressive rabbit hole, I’ll also mention a song written by a really talented NYC kid that some of you might have heard of. Although she was accepted into The Juilliard School to study piano, she decided instead to try her hand at pop music. That worked out pretty well for her. And in this song from 2016, the dramatic key change comes at the 111 second out of 179 seconds–bang on 1.618. Yeah, that’s right–Lady Gaga bringing math and classical music theory to the masses.

Lady Gaga, Perfect Illusion

The Real Mozart

Mozart’s music can be heard to hover: between innocence and experience, ideality and sensuousness, comedy and tragedy, sympathy and mockery, intimacy and transcendence. It offers no blind faith yet no paralyzing doubt; it is not just a longingly imperfect reach for the infinite (Schiller’s sentimental art) nor just a comfortably perfect grasp of the finite (Schiller’s naïve art); it is childlike yet knowing.

Scott Burnham

When J.S. Bach died in 1750, you can imagine that many in the musical world might have said: “What a genius. We won’t see his like again.” They were right. For about 6 years.

Mozart was born into a musical family in 1756. His father, Leopold, was a noted violinist and teacher. Mozart’s maternal grandfather was also a gifted amateur musician. So he had the music gene on both sides of the family.

The first inkling that Leopold got that his son might be special was when Wolfgang was 5. Wolfgang the Toddler loved to watch Leopold instructing his older sister at the harpsichord. By 3, he was playing chord progressions. By 4, he was playing actual works. But when the 5-year old Wolfgang presented a “score” that he had scrawled out, his father and his friends initially just laughed at the toddler’s imitation of musical notation — just a bunch of random dots! They stopped laughing when Mozart seated himself at the harpsichord and started playing his composition. Yeah, that’s our Mozart!

W.A. Mozart, Minuet in G, K.1

By 6, Mozart had taught himself to play violin, in addition to whatever keyboard he was presented with. Viola soon followed. Mozart the Child began filling out the family trio and pretty soon settled right into the local orchestra in Salzburg. Fame and fortune were right around the corner.

For three years, Mozart traveled to European capitals with his father and sister, playing for the aristocracy who were singularly bemused by tiny prodigy. Stories of his escapades abound. Presented with a theme, he was asked to compose variations on the spot. Mozart sat down and played for half an hour. His first symphony dates from his time in London and reflects the influence of a composer he met there, one J.C. Bach, J.S.’s youngest son. Mozart was 8 at the time.

W.A. Mozart, Symphony No. 1, K. 16

During an extended stay in Vienna, the 11-year old Mozart decided to try his hand at opera. He wrote two.

W.A. Mozart, La finta semplice

Later that year, he assumed the post of honorary Concertmaster at the Salzburg court. And that takes us through the pre-teen years.

At 13, Mozart and his father took another tour. This is the one that took him to Rome, where the pope gave him the honor of hearing Allegri’s Miserere in the Sistine Chapel and which Mozart copied down from memory, ending the papacy’s monopoly on the most beautiful music ever composed. During his time in Italy, Mozart studied Italian opera, still the key calling card to the best court positions of the day. He composed several operas, along with assorted symphonies, quartets, and divertimentos. Here’s a personal favorite from this period, which I played in camp when I was about the same age as Mozart when he composed it. Unreal.

W.A. Mozart, Divertimento, K. 136

At 18, Mozart came into his maturity as a composer. Finding Salzburg too confining, and opportunities not sufficiently lucrative, Mozart hit the road again. This time, his mother accompanied him. The trip was a disaster. Turned away in Munich, Mozart headed to Paris, where he found some work. But this is where tragedy struck. His mother fell ill and, while waiting for a proper German doctor to treat her, died.

Mozart was now 21. Whether it was true loss, guilt, age, or a combination of all three that led Mozart to a different emotional place we will never know for sure. But for the first time, that dark minor coloration that characterizes his best works begins to creep into his compositions. And, here, from Paris, a first masterpiece.

W.A. Mozart, Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, K. 364: II. Andante

I love the Sinfonia Concertante so much, so much so that it will warrant its own entry in the coming weeks.

In the wake of his mother’s death, Mozart left Paris, stopping in both Munich and Mannheim on his way home. He arrived home in 1780. Mozart was now nearly 24. Over the next 11 years, he would compose works that form the backbone of the classical repertorie to this day. Nothing, and I mean nothing, was beyond the man’s abillity. Opera? Do you prefer seria or buffa? Maybe German singspiel? Or perhaps something new–a contemporary style of opera that pushes Gluck’s innovations further? Sure, want drama or comedy? How about both? Prefer oratorio? No problem. Symphonies? Check. Chamber works, concertos, sonatas? Mozart wrote them all, and wrote them all with such skill and craft that they remain as exemplars of their kind, right through to today. I will do my best to chronicle some of these in the coming weeks.

But what about the man? Well, Mozart was a bundle of contradictions. Like the great rock stars of today, Mozart was highly compensated. In his latter years, he was easily among the top wage earners in Vienna. But, also like a rock star, he spent more than he earned. Showing disdain for the life of a court composer (i.e., the hired help), Mozart lived as an aristocrat and used his fame to freelance as a composer. In so doing, Mozart created the business model for composers that endures to this day.

Mozart was a quick wit and flirtatious to a fault. He was also an intellectual, a Freemason, who exchanged views on a wide range of subjects with the most prominent men in Vienna. But he was also obscene, obsessed with with–how to put this delicately–scatalogoical subjects. His extremely inappropriate letters to his mother, cousin, and various other women reveal what we today would call a pretty serious kink. He even composed a six part canon about it (I will not translate the German):

W.A. Mozart, Canon in B Flat for Six Voices: Leck mich im Arsch, K. 231:

Mozart the Composer was hardly God’s transcriber, as he is so often portrayed. Yes, he carried around significant chunks of scores in his head. But the idea that he simply transcribed what was in his head to paper with no corrections? Ridiculous. The fact is that, like a great painter, Mozart did a lot of sketch work–bits of composition that he thought up and wrote down lest they be forgotten. He frequently started a composition, only to put it away for months if not for years. He constantly re-wrote his music until he got it exactly right. Few bits of these sketches or drafts remain. We likely have his wife, Constanze, to thank for this. Perhaps she didn’t like scraps of paper lying around all over the house; perhaps she didn’t want anything of Mozart’s to become public that wasn’t pristine and perfect. We will never know.

And that doesn’t even include the frequent editing that Mozart must have also been doing inside his head. Combined with the prodigous output over the last 11 years of his life, you have to agree with Constanze’s assessment: Mozart worked himself to death. Mozart may have been a genius, but he was also an incredibly hard and diligent worker, a perfectionist to the last. And that, in the end, is why his legacy is so formidable–Mozart was nothing less than the Michael Jordan of music.

The real Mozart died at 35. Not as a pauper, but as a very rich man with even richer debts. He was buried in a common grave in Vienna, as was customary for anyone not of the aristocracy. His funeral mass was held at St. Stephan’s Cathedral in the center of downtown Vienna. And yes, his Requiem debuted there, in his honor.

In closing, I will leave you with a bit of fantasy, courtesy of musicologist Alex Ross, who postulated about what modern critics might say about Mozart’s anniverisary programming, had he lived until 70.

Opera houses focus on the great works of Mozart’s maturity–“The Tempest,” “Hamlet,” the two-part “Faust”–but it would be a good thing if we occasionally heard that flawed yet lively work of his youth, “Don Giovanni.”

Alex Ross

If only.

Classical Music II: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Let’s get this out of the way—pretty much everything you know about Mozart from the movie Amadeus is a lie. Here’s what the movie gets right: There was a guy called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was a child prodigy and a remarkable composer. He lived most of his adult life in Vienna, where he composed for royalty and the people alike. He composed the music that is attributed to him in the film. He knew Salieri. He died young, with his grieving wife by his side. That’s pretty much it.

Mozart was not a supercilious man with a ridiculous laugh.  He was a very, very serious composer and member of a broader intellectual community in Vienna.  He was a Freemason—whose brothers paid for the monument at his gravesite:

And despite the fact that he began composing at such a young age, Mozart was first coming into his full mature voice in the years leading up to his death. More than any other composer, it is Mozart’s premature death (not caused in any way by Salieri, btw) that is the great “what if” in music history. Mozart died right as Beethoven was taking off—how would they have influenced each other had Mozart lived? How would our music have evolved differently? How would he have reacted to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony while still in the prime of his career? What about Berlioz? Mozart would have been 74 at the dawn of the Romantic Period.

It hurts too much to speculate; On to the music he did create.

Like Bach before him, it is impossible in this brief outline to come close to summarizing the genius of Mozart.  So, what makes Mozart such an enduring force in music?  It has to be his unrivaled ability to spin out a truly memorable tune.  It really didn’t matter what Mozart was composing for, solo instrument, orchestra, oratorio, or opera (or indeed any form of opera)—everything his touched was gold.  His father Leopold wrote:

Two opposing elements rule his nature, I mean, there is either too much or too little, never the golden mean.

A true artistic temperament. But what Mozart could not achieve in life, he poured into his music.  One critic observed:

Other great composers have expressed the extremes in life: affirmation, despair, sensual pleasure, bleak emptiness, but only in Mozart can all these emotions coexist within the space of a short phrase

The critic Alex Ross concurs:

Mozart inhabits a middle world where beauty surges in and ebbs away, where everything is contingent and nothing pure . . . ‘it is a place where genres meld, where concertos become operatic and arias symphonic; where comedy and tragedy, the sensual and the sacred, are one.’

Mozart composed both for the cognoscenti and the general public alike, in the same piece—all received to popular and critical acclaim.

Over the next few weeks, I hope to convey that sense of Mozart’s Golden Mean, of the musical genius lurking below the melodic pop star. I’ve also attempted to group the works by style. We have Mozart the Pure Classicist—light, breezy tunes with a clear musical progression. Then we have Mozart the Virtuoso—the composer who seemingly within the confines of contemporary forms, rises above them, the complexity masked entirely by melody and sensuous harmony. Finally, we come to Mozart the Visionary, through a set of compositions dominated by his late works in the second half of the 1780s to 1791 when he died at the age of only 35. Was this a phase or was this merely a glimpse of what was to come? Sadly, pathetically, tragically, I firmly believe it was the latter. Mozart was unlocking musical doors that would have propelled music in new directions. Beethoven would unlock some of those doors a decade or two later, but Mozart of course would have done things differently—he would never abandon his Golden Mean. And who knows how music history would have been different had he lived. Thinking about this is literally painful for me.

For me, it is Mozart, even more than Haydn, who is the artistic embodiment of the Age of Enlightenment. Mozart’s remarkable achievement was to propel music to the forefront of art, lighting the path for the other disciplines. Just like Leonardi da Vinci was the embodiment of the Renaissance, Mozart was the singular genius of his age. Let’s put it this way, the Classical Period, as blogged here, in some sense can be represented visually by Fragonard’s The Swing. But Enlightenment scholars hated that painting. What they wanted was this:

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat

This, for me, is the singular painting of the period—even if it did cause a scandal and forced David to flee France to save his life.  Remember this image when we get to Don Giovanni and the Requiem.  Much is made of the sensuality of Classical art—Goodall calls it the “pleasure principle.”  But Handel was composing music for the pleasure gardens back in the Baroque.  No—the Age of Enlightenment was about the nobility of man, as evoked in the writing of Rousseau.  Mozart was a man of his time and place to the core—he would ennoble all who heard his music, even if they didn’t know it.  

So, where to begin?  Let’s start with two selections from Mozart’s works for solo piano.  These are familiar tunes, but in the hands of Kristian Bezuidenhout, playing a historically accurate fortepiano, it’s like discovering them for the first time.  I’ve included a Spotify link to some of the best of his recordings. Otherwise, we have Mitsuko Uchida is also a brilliant interpreter of Mozart, as this selection from Mozart’s Turkish Sonata and Rondo in A Minor demonstrate.  I can think of no other music that so easily demonstrates Mozart’s “golden mean.”

W.A. Mozart, Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major, III. Allegretto:

W.A. Mozart, Rondo in A Minor, K. 511: