Soaked in Mozart

In 1787, a 17-year old Beethoven left his home in Bonn, Germany and traveled to Vienna with the express purpose of meeting and studying with Mozart, the greatest composer in Europe. Whether Beethoven actually met Mozart is debatable–the famous quotation attributed to Mozart (“Stanzi, Stanzi, watch out for that boy. One day he will give the world something to talk about.”) is surely apocryphal. So too is the story that Beethoven’s mother heard Mozart play and dreamt that night that her yet-to-be-born son would grow up to become a great composer.

What is not disputable, however, was the esteem that Beethoven held for Mozart and his music. He was, as a friend recalled, as “soaked in Mozart” as Mozart had been, according to his father, “soaked in music itself.” Beethoven’s debt to Mozart is significant and persisted throughout Beethoven’s life. Some influences are easier than others to divine.

Let’s begin by listening to one where Mozart’s original theme from Don Giovanni is expressly acknowledged:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Variation in C Major on Mozart’s “La ci darem la mano”:

Don Giovanni would remain a fertile source of inspiration of Beethoven throughout his life–in fact, next week’s post will be dedicated to my favorite of these.

Here’s one from early Beethoven. First, Mozart’s original:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Don Giovanni, “Notte e giorno faticar”:

And here’s Beethoven’s version:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Dirabelli Variations, Variation No. 22:

Beethoven’s Pathetique Piano Sonata, which featured in the prior entry, also cribs from a Mozart original for the famous middle movement.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 13: Adagio:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Minor, K. 457: Adagio:

There are, of course, many others, but let’s jump forward to the end of Beethoven’s life and hear one of the most famous:

Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, “Choral”: The Ode to Joy:

That famous theme of the Ode to Joy? Yup, that’s Mozart. Listen at around the 1:00 minute mark in the below.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Misericordias Domini, K.222:

Incidentally, I think Mozart’s Misericordias Domini is evidence that Mozart should have written a lot more choral music.

These selections merely scratch at the very surface of the deep Conversation that Beethoven had with Mozart over the course of his life. The question of whether they actually met in person is really besides the point: They connected in the one place that truly matters, in the realm of music.

Beethoven’s borrowing from Mozart (even as Mozart borrowed liberally from the Haydn brothers, among others) obscures the point: The two composers were frightfully original and revolutionary, often in very different ways. Before stepping forth into the relenteless imagination of Beethoven, let’s pause to reflect on some of Mozart’s more revolutionary works. Some have been cited here already; others are yet to follow. I’d like to imagine that had young Beethoven possessed an iPod, this would be his Mozart Playlist.