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:

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