Mozart by JoAnn Falletta
I must confess my own amazement at seeing the manuscript of Mozart’s...
As the 250th birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart approaches in January of 2006, the desire to analyze, to dissect, to comprehend this most elusive of composers grows increasingly intense. In a sense, there seems to be a paradoxical need both to mythologize and to demystify the man and the miracle that is Mozart. From a purely economic point, the brief life of this Austrian musician is big business, particularly in his birthplace of Salzburg, a city which each year earns more that fifty per cent of its multi-million dollar tourist income from Mozart alone, attaching his image to almost every conceivable product including candy, beer mugs, clothing, postcards, umbrellas and toys. But even this presents a paradox: Mozart reputedly despised Salzburg as hopelessly narrow-minded and conventional, and left when he was literally “booted out the door” (the most famous kick in the annals of music) by his hated employer, the Archbishop Colloredo. At the time, much of Salzburg seemed to share the archbishop’s undervalued estimation of Mozart’s artistic worth. It was not until 1880 (almost one hundred years after his death) that a museum in his honor was erected in his hometown.
Yet Mozart remains to many musicians the pinnacle of achievement, the consummate artist, and audiences continue to flock to performances of his works. Mozart festivals abound throughout the world; CDs of his music still flourish while recording labels languish, and a large industry has been built upon the beginnings of research that suggests that Mozart’s music might stimulate children’s mental development and perhaps even raise our I.Q.
But who exactly is the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart we venerate? Despite over two centuries of research, we know very little about the man. Perhaps this should not be surprising. Mozart composed during a time when artists were workmen–artisans or servants who wrote for the needs and wishes of their employers. Beethoven would dramatically break that restrictive mold in a few short years, but Mozart had little alternative during his time. Indeed, when near the end of his life he chose to begin to “write for himself” he found himself without economic support, spiraling downward into poverty and illness. Since composers before Beethoven rarely imagined their work as “posterity,” we generally have little documentation about their artistic or personal lives. Much of what we know about Mozart comes from his letters to his father Leopold–letters that reveal impish high spirits, a bawdy sense of humor, and a sharp and pitiless judgment of less gifted colleagues. But when Leopold died in 1787, this source runs completely dry. From nine years of marriage there are only a handful of letters to his wife Constanze, from whom he was seldom and only reluctantly separated. There is a further complication: we do not know much about the concerts and musical events in which Mozart took part, even during his final ten years in the musical capital of Vienna. Newspapers of the time carried no public announcements of concerts, and the art of music criticism had not yet been “invented.” Even the few paintings of Mozart give little clue as to his character, ranging from a couple of bland cherubic images of him as a child to a recently discovered painting that shows a plain, weary and ill man near the end of a difficult life. The paradox of Mozart became even more pronounced as scholars sought to fill in the gaps in his biography with legends, anecdotes and embellishments. The image of Mozart has changed through the course of music history–from a view of him as an angelic wunderkind; to a deeply sentimentalized portrait as a spiritual, otherworldly artist; to the popularized cinematic version of an irreverent and free-spirited iconoclast; to a pervasive conception of Mozart as a perpetual child, incapable of surviving in a mundane world, unable to understand his genius. The real Mozart was probably at the same time simpler and more complicated than any of these images. It is safe to speculate that Mozart would have guffawed at any saint-like image of himself. Life for him held few illusions, and his devout Catholicism unceasingly emphasized the failings and sinfulness of man. As a youngster, Mozart experienced the exploitation of the child prodigy; as an adult, he knew all too well the fickleness of a public that inexplicably seemed to lose interest in his work.
Stories of his astounding gifts are legion–from accounts of his writing down long and complex pieces from memory after only one hearing, astonishing adults with his extraordinary ability to improvise as a child, composing note perfect pieces “in between” turns at billiards, to writing without errors, without corrections, without changes–every time. I must confess my own amazement at seeing the manuscript of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik–written in ink, without blot or blemish, each pen stroke sure, unhesitating and unwavering. This is no copy, no “second version,” but the direct and perfect translation of a masterpiece from brain to paper. Seeing such a manuscript makes it possible to understand the romanticized concept of “dictation from God.”
Mozart fact and fiction have become inextricably intertwined. Servant, free-spirited artist, perpetual child, none of these images have any impact on what truly matters–the incomparable miracle of the music. Mozart was his own fiercest critic; there was literally no one capable of really understanding his work. He dramatically exceeded even his exacting father’s expectations and then went in his own direction, a decision that ultimately destroyed their relationship. He mystified the Emperor Joseph II, his friend and nemesis Antonio Salieri, and most of the music loving public of Vienna. Yet all the evidence shows that Mozart tremendously valued his audience, yearning to be appreciated by the people for whom he wrote; when they did not respond, he set off upon some self-ordained path from which he never thought to waver. Fiercely loyal, Mozart remained committed to Freemasonry at a time when such activity was no longer opportune and had even come under the scrutiny of the secret police. His operas in Vienna contained so much politically inflammatory material that they barely escaped censorship and often offended powerful forces in the city. Yet Mozart persisted on a road of musical development and depth despite illness and an often desperate financial situation. For him, the life of a free-lance composer and teacher proved impossible to sustain, although much of the sublimely joyful music of his final years gives no hint of the bitter reality of his existence.
Beethoven is generally credited with having spurred the music world into the turbulent Romantic period and of having completely changed the course of compositional history. Yet the door had been opened before him by Mozart. In the dark harmonic complexity and the astonishing spirituality of his later works, Mozart sowed the potent seeds of the new world in a music that reflected the ambiguous heart of man in a way that no other composer would. Two hundred and fifty years later, that special relevance still shines in our own time, mirroring our emotional uncertainty and our impossible search for serenity.
The focus of the shifting image of Mozart may continue to be elusive. The paradox of his life is reflected, perhaps, in the essential ambiguousness of his music. In an era of mannerism, of form, of balance, of proportion, Mozart plumbed the deepest recesses of the restless human spirit. In an age marked by superficiality, propriety and facade, his music resonated with an uncanny understanding of the timeless poignancy of man’s search for himself.
We may never really know the man who was Mozart. But the music that flowed from his pen with an eerie and inexplicable brilliance continues to astonish, to console, to offer some hope of tranquility in the cauldron of a troubled world.