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Eavesdropping on Our Knees: Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Theophilus Mozart, 1756 - 2006

This appreciation of Mozart has been adapted for Ionarts from an article by Robert R. Reilly for a past issue of Crisis Magazine.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born two hundred and fifty years ago this month. In 1991, the bicentennial of his death was the occasion for massive Mozart festivals and grand recording projects, as well as reappraisals of his genius and meaning. Fifteen years later, the reappraisals continue. Unfortunately, they often tell us more about ourselves than they do about Mozart. Here is an assessment from the highly praised biography of Mozart, Mozart: A Life, by Maynard Solomon: "[Mozart] was put on earth, it seems, not merely to provide an anodyne to sorrow and an antidote to loss, but to trouble our rest, to remind us that all is not well, that neither the center nor the perimeter can hold, that things are not what they seem to be, that masquerade and reality may well be interchangeable, that love is frail, life transient, faith unstable" (p. 509). Really? I would have thought that description, but for its first part, fit for almost any 20th-century artist of angst. But for Mozart? Perhaps this is another attempt to help us understand Mozart by making him more like us. There have been a range of such attempts, many of them centering around the bicentennial, most of them concluding that we can relate to Mozart because he was really a modern neurotic man.

W. A. MozartMozart has been enfolded in the modern perspective by transforming him into a proto-Romantic, if not a revolutionary. This has been done in a popular, vulgar way and also through modern scholarship. The first was accomplished by Milos Forman's very popular but perverse film adaptation of Peter Schaeffer's brilliant play, Amadeus. In the play, Mozart's infantilization serves a legitimate dramatic purpose in firing Salieri's anger at God: how dare God assign to an idiot savant, Mozart, greater musical powers than He did to an obedient and faithful servant, Salieri? The more ridiculous Mozart is made to appear, the more dramatic the question of God's providence becomes. In his film, Forman shifts the focus from Salieri to Mozart, whom we are invited to see, not within the context of Salieri's relationship with God, but as a misunderstood genius who transcended the conventions of his time. This is stylistically conveyed by having Mozart alone act as if he were thrown from the 20th century back into the 18th. The message was clear on a large poster in the foyer of the movie theater in which I saw the film: "Mozart -- the first punk rocker." Indeed, the spasmodic gestures, the bug-eyed looks, the gyrations and hand movements of actor Tom Hulce were unique to the punk rock youth of the 1980s. This trivialization served no dramatic purpose but was understandably popular for its implicit message: Mozart, just a punk rocker ahead of his time.

The more sophisticated way of revolutionizing Mozart is to psychoanalyze him and his works with the diagnosis: "an obsessional, anal-fixated, paranoiac personality." This is actually a compliment. It shows Mozart as out of tune with his times, and therefore ahead of them. Several years ago in the New York Times Arts section, music professor Richard Taruskin said that for radical critic Rose Rosengard Subotnik, "Mozart is the first composer who suffers as we do from the malaise of modernity." She finds evidence in Mozart's last three symphonies of a unique "critical world view" and a mind under stress from the pressures of constructing a personal reality outside of social norms. Likewise, fellow radical critic Susan McClary suggests that the piano soloist in the Piano Concerto in G Major (K. 453) is "blatantly sacrificed to the overpowering requirements of social convention," just like Mozart supposedly was. This is a Mozart for the end of the 20th century: a modern, alienated man like us.

But Mozart was not like us. We cannot understand him by assimilating him into our own times -- by pretending that he was a premonition of what we now are. This kind of temporal provincialism requires either denigrating Mozart as a punk rocker or as anal-fixated. We should not look forward in history to understand him, but backward, not because he was a product of his times, but because he wasn't. In fact, if anything, we should look to prehistory, to the preternatural for some grasp of his genius.

All the models through which the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st are trying to grasp the meaning of Mozart are flawed with our own failings. Mozart was not a deviant or a revolutionary. He went beyond the musical conventions of his time without changing them. Unlike Beethoven, he worked within the formulas of harmonic development and motivic usage that he received. Mozart expressed his artistic credo in a letter in 1781, in which he wrote that "passions, violent or not, may never be expressed to the point of revulsion, that even in the most frightening situation music must never offend the ear but must even then offer enjoyment, i.e., music must always remain music." Through an inspired level of basic material, Mozart brought the received forms to their greatest level of perfection. Never trite or even predictable, he had originality without overstatement. But perhaps as much could have been said of Haydn.

Mozart has something else, something close to ineffable that is nonetheless expressed in his music. Every culture tells of a golden age from which man fell. Almost every culture tells of some path to its restoration. Within Western culture, the story of Eden contains an account of man's preternatural powers, taken from him at the Fall. Mozart is our musical Eden. Somehow, in his musical ability, he escaped the stamp of original sin and sings with purity of the first days. Aaron Copland expressed it this way: "Mozart . . . tapped once against the source from which all music flows, expressing himself with a spontaneity and refinement and breathtaking rightness that has never since been duplicated."

But as a fallen man in every other way, Mozart also expresses the depth of loss. This is the sadness of his perfection. Even Mozart's galant music can provoke longings that belie its sparkle and lightness. The delight it induces ironically produces a sense of loss that the imperfect feels when faced with the perfect. As someone once put it, "his lightness is infinitely grave." But loss is not despair. Karl Barth pointed out that, at the end of Mozart's last opera, The Magic Flute, we hear "The rays of the sun drive out the night." This is not a facile happy ending. It is rather Mozart's supernal connection with something essential in existence itself. Barth, like Copland after him, speculated that Mozart's "'sound' . . . is in fact the primal sound of music absolutely." Primal, ontological. In other words, this very preternatural quality of Mozart's music, which occasions a sense of loss in hearing it, also points to a recovery from that loss. Yes, as Mr. Solomon would have it, Mozart reminds us that "all is not well." But Mozart's music is a sign that it will be. The existence of Mozart's music is almost a promise that the loss is not irretrievable. The world to which it refers and out of which it comes really does exist. True happiness exists; true love exists; so does complete joy -- but not here. As it preceded us, it will follow us. The sense of loss behind is also a sense of hope ahead. This is why Mozart's mention of death as man's true best friend is not morbid. Death is our means to completion.

Though he died while writing the Requiem at nearly thirty-six years of age, two hundred and five years ago, a sense of completion also exists in respect to Mozart's work. It is hard to believe that there could have been more. The question as to why he died so young is always superseded by: How could he have existed at all? How could you ask more of a miracle? Miracle is the exact word used by Goethe and by other agnostics and unbelievers in reference to Mozart while he was alive and shortly after he died. The Voltairean encyclopedist Friedrich Melchior von Grimm, who heard Mozart in Paris in 1763, said of the seven-year-old prodigy, "I truly fear that this child will turn my head if I hear him again; he has shown me how difficult it is to preserve one's sanity in the face of a miracle."

Karl Barth, who accepted the sanity of the miracle, had perhaps the most beautiful thing to say in his "Letter of Thanks to Mozart": "I have only a hazy feeling about the music played there where you now dwell. I once formulated my surmise about that as follows: whether the angels play only Bach in praising God I am not quite sure; I am sure, however, that en famille they play Mozart and that then also is the Lord God especially delighted to listen to them."

We are mere mortals eavesdropping.


Sir G said...

"he worked within the formulas of harmonic development and motivic usage that he received"

perhaps, yes, but WAM is an important innovator in music nevertheless: mozart in his haydn quartets, in the course of that wonderful exchange with haydn, and, of course along with haydn, made an important contribution to the creation and development of a new art form. his novel contributions to opera are even more important -- the idea of quartets and sextets on a symphonic scale, or the brilliant finale of act 2 of Le Nozze, or the concept of uniterrupted musical drama. nobody had done it before mozart and i dont think anyone has done it since quite as well.

of course i agree with the central sentiment of your post: "We are mere mortals eavesdropping". yes.

Sir G said...

sorry, this is a comment on your Reilly post from 18.8.04. i post it here because i susect that posting it on 18.8.04 was useless -- i doubt you look that far back for comments. and i would like to hear your answer to the following. (hope you forgive me this impropriety)

"are all fruits indeed created equal? sure, strawberries and melons may be on the same plane; but the experience of the tropical fruit market (like the one here in Chiang Mai) teaches that there are rather not so accomplished types of fruit. for example, there is something called Dragon Fruit which looks amazing but has no taste at all. but it is dramatic, beautiful, and cheap, so it sells.
perhaps some of these fuits, given a few hundred years of horticulture, can be bred into varieties which are as delicious as today's mangoes, but right now they are little more than a valiant new entrant, a hopeful rather than a great.

OK, analogies are imperfect anyway. but do you *honestly* believe that rock-and-roll or heavy metal or tango or jazz or flamenco or fado as genres are/can be remotely comparable to the classical style of composition (Mozart, Haydn) or renaissance polyphonic masses? never mind that there are no arguments one way or another, i am asking for a statement of your honestly held belief."


jfl said...

well... if you know my predilections, my reactions to Bach, certain Mozart... you will know that - although I know such values to be arbitrary - I feel strongly about the superiority of some art over other art. but as a genre I really don't think that any one musicke is superior to another... on average they are all pretty mediocre. what i may grant is that amidst the many valleys of crap, classical music, baroque et al. may offer some particularly high peaks... perhaps higher than others. that said: Yes: Tango, Fado, Rock, Jazz can compare to the classical style (well... not compare, as I point out in that article - but stand their own). I take Piazzolla, Led Zeppelin and Thelonius Monk over Wagenseil and the other composers that don't even have the reputation of Wagenseil.



Sir G said...

hm... led zeppelin (best in rock, i guess you mean to say) over CPE Bach (average classical)? we must have different brains! (my brain loves and respects yours nevertheless)

jfl said...

CPE - more "gallant" or "mannerism" than "classical" - is good enough not to have endure having other musick chosen above him. but Led Zeppelin over Wagenseil? Yes, probably. :) I hope we have different brains... different brains with their collective experiences agreeing and disagreeing (all in one, when the situation is or the gods are sympathetic) is more fun than would be eternal agreement.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately you have been fooled as far as the alleged Mozart portrait on this page is concerned. It doesn't show the composer, but the Munich merchant Anton Steiner (1753-1813) (see: To call Solomon's Mozart biography 'highly praised' is a slightly curious statement, given the fact that it was thrashed by European reviewers as "father-bashing psychobabble'. Whole chapters of this book are based on non-existent primary sources.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately you have been fooled as far as the alleged Mozart portrait on this page is concerned. It doesn't show the composer, but the Munich merchant Anton Steiner (1753-1813) (see: To call Solomon's Mozart biography 'highly praised' is a slightly curious statement, given the fact that it was thrashed by European reviewers as "father-bashing psychobabble'. Whole chapters of this book are based on non-existent primary sources.