Wednesday, September 21, 2005



Mozart turns 250 in 2006. This is a leap on next year's festivities:

"He roused my admiration when I was young, he caused me to despair
when I reached maturity; he is now the comfort of my old age."--Rossini

If you were lucky enough to have wonderful music education in the public schools, and this goes back forty years, then you might remember the portraits of composers that lined the music room walls. There was Beethoven in all his furrowed brow splendor. Mahler looked like he had a headache. Verdi scowled out at us as if about to count the box office take for "Rigoletto" or "Aida". Bach looked plump and prosperous. He had twenty kids. You'd think he'd look exhausted. Mozart was candy box pretty. He was in full white wigged regalia, with a pouty smile on his rouged lips, dressed in a fancy waistcoat with a medal or two pinned to his chest. Here's how he was described by his contemporary, Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who worked with Mozart in the first performances of "The Marriage of Figaro"

"He was a remarkable small man, very thin and pale, with a profusion of hair, of which he as rather vain. Though born of beautiful parents, Mozart himself possessed beauty only as a child; in his later years he retained nothing of his early looks but the pleasing expression. His eyes, which were rather large and prominent, had more of a languid than a brilliant or animated character. His head was too large or his body. His nose, which had been handsome, became so prominent a feature in the last years of his life, from the emaciation of his countenance, that a scribbler in the Morgenblatt of Vienna honored him with h epithet "enormous nosed."

You don't need to be pretty to be brilliant, and apparently Mozart was small-even by standards of the era-pock marked, and large nosed. He was also "vain about his hands and wrists as he was playing one of his own keyboard works." His self esteem was high. Mozart spoke reverently of Bach and Gluck, and with real love for Haydn, but Salieri and Piccini he dismissed. "Piccini's choruses are too weak and thin, and his music is monotonous" and complaining in 1781 that "the emperor cares for no one but Salieri."

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived for thirty six years minus a few weeks. That wasn't bad for the life expectancy of the time. He was well regarded as a composer but not always singled out. His music was played but often the backing for performances came out of his own meager pockets. The nobility patronized him in all senses of the word. It could be that in the age of Voltaire it was thought prudent to keep such a gifted man at arm's length. Here's how Virgil Thomson interpreted Mozart's life, writing in 1940

"Mozart was not embittered by illness or adversity, he was tempered by them.
Furthermore, he was acquainted with French libertarian ideas, having been fully exposed to these in Paris, where he spent his twenty third year. But he was never at any time a revolter. He was an absorber and a builder. He never tried to throw out the window his Catholic faith or his allegiance to the emperor, in spite of much unpleasantness form church and state. He merely added them to his belief in human rights, and his practice of Masonic fellowship he had learned in Paris and Vienna."

Mozart was indeed buried in a common grave, and so was everyone else outside the nobility. He adored women, flirtation, and sex. Bodily functions held for him no mystery or disgust. His marriage to Constanze Weber was rocky due to poverty rather than incompatibility. Constanze had been bred for a career on the stage. She must have been an extraordinary singer. Ask any soprano who has sung the 'Et incarnatus EST' form the Mass in C, music written for Constanze. Even flinty Leopold Mozart begrudgingly admired Constantine performance, but had no further use for his daughter in law or her family. Wolfgang was twenty six hen he finally married Constanze, after an affair with each of her older sisters, both of whom left him to marry elsewhere. If the formidable Frau Weber allowed her daughters to be passed around by Mozart, and presumably Constanze had decent prospects, it only be because Mamma believed Mozart had potential as a top wage earner. She was to be disappointed. Mozart lived at the mercy of wealthy patrons who often refused to pay. "Eine kleine Nachtmusik", that most famous example of background music, was intended as just that, music to eat dinner by. Copyright laws to protect the rights of composers did not exist, so that anyone could perform "Don Giovanni
and keep the gate. It was not that Mozart was a poor businessman, but that the business of music to protect the rights of the working class did not exist, either.

"The sonatas of Mozart are unique; they are too easy for children
and too difficult for artists"--Arthur Schnabel

Musicians have studied the notes on Mozart's pages for two centuries, but interpretation can always be argued. Must we know or care what the notes mean? Or, in the case of Mozart's perfection, the perfect symmetry of his work, does this music truly play itself? Mozart's music gives ample pleasure as pure music. Just listen to the "Concerto for Flute and Harp" written for a former girlfriend in Paris, or any of the piano concerti Mozart wrote for himself to play at concerts he had to pay for. The geometry, the sense and order , of Mozart's music is irresistible. We are always drawn to the finish, while savoring the journey, the harmonic twists, and the melodic deliciousness.

The great and harrowing figure in Mozart's life was not a wife or a child-he fathered six, only two of whom survived infancy-but his father, the forbidding Leopold Mozart. He's often presented as the villain in his son's life. Maynard Solomon discusses Mozart as the eternal child, and quotes Leopold writing to his twenty two year old son

"Those happy moments are gone, when as a child and boy, you never went to bed
without standing on a chair and singing g to me...and ended by kissing me again and again on the tip of my nose and telling me that when I grow old you would put me in a glass case and protect me from every breath of air, so that you might always have you with me and honor me."

Leopold was the stage father from hell. The stories of the five year old child being dragged all over Europe in the most primitive traveling conditions, roaming form one court to the next, of being put on show to play and improvise for a bored, wealthy audience are well substantiated. Leopold's goal , an audience with the Empress Maria Theresa, was hardly celebratory. The Empress, herself the mother of sixteen, was kind to the child, but no court appointment for father or son was forthcoming. The empress later remarked that the Mozart family resembled "trained dogs."

Leopold continued, dragging his family over poor roads and terrible weather, stopping at vermin infested taverns with terrible food or no food at all. As late as 1778, mother and son were on the road. Both parents were alarmed by Wolfgang's attachment to the Weber family, and in turn each of their three daughters. Frau Mozart and her son went to try their luck in Paris, and there suddenly Frau Mozart died. When the terrible news reached Leopold back in Salzburg, he had no pity for his devastated son

"You had your engagements. You were away all day, and as she didn't make a fuss, you treated her condition lightly. All this time her illness became more serious, in fact mortal, and only then was a doctor called, by which time it was too late."
(August 3, 1778)

Nonetheless, Mozart always addressed his father as 'mon tres chere pere', and dutifully reported every triumph and every setback. Leopold balked completely at his son's marriage, but instead of recriminations there were three months of icy silence. The breach later healed after a fashion, but Leopold remained in Salzburg while Mozart and Constanze settled in Vienna.
Leopold died in 1787.

"Oui, by the love of my skin
I shit on your nose
So it runs down your chin"

Mozart to his cousin, Maria Thekla Mozart ("Basle")

Of all he correspondence Mozart left us, none are more notorious than the Basle letters. "Basle" (female cousin) was the nickname given to Maria Thekla Mozart (1758-1841) the daughter of Leopold's brother Franz Aloys. Wolfgang wrote this in her autograph book

If you love that which I love
You will have to love yourself.
Your very affectionate cousin
Wolfgang Amade Mozart

But soon her was writing her

"Now I must close, because I am not dressed yet, and we'll be eating soon
so that afterwards we can go and shit again, as it so happens..."

"But now I have the honor to query how you are and whether you are weary?
Whether your bowels are solid or thin?
Whether you have scabs on your skin?
Whether you know and think of me?
Whether perhaps you are angry at me?
Whether you'd like to hang yourself from a tree?
Fool that I'll always be,
Whether you'll want to make peace in your heart,
Or by my honor I'll crack a big fart!

(February 28, 1778)

Peter Schaffer embraced Mozart's penchant for scatalogical language in his 1981 play, "Amadeus". In pitting the sublime but poor Mozart against the sophisticated Salieri, he gave the latter some important lines

SALIERI (Addressing a crucifix): From now on we are enemies, You and I.
Because You chose for Your instrument
a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy
and gave me only the ability to recognize
the incarnation.
Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind.
I will block you. I swear it.

But why does Mozart still move us? How could this "smutty, infantile boy" write such sublime music? Music went form his pen to the page without a thought. There are six hundred and twenty six Mozart works catalogued, the first written when the composer was five years old, to the "Requiem" left incomplete at his death thirty years later. Mozart's music has eternal freshness. It all sounds as if it were written yesterday. Over and over, we hear something wonderful, as if for the first time. No one did delight, or simple sadness better. Listen to the Countess's aria, 'Dove sono' from 'The Marriage of Figaro'. It's in C Major, the simplest of keys. The vocal range is less than an octave. A child could sing this.
The music is so simple, so linear, and so expressive that the sadness of this lovely character is evident to those who understand not one word of Italian. Mozart wrote music of the greatest clarity. He understood that two hundred years after his death, even without powdered wigs and ruffled shirts, that people and emotions weren't going to change. There';s great comfort in the continuity he provides us. Mozart's musical geometry is exquisite. There's never too much or too little. The harmonic spicing can be delightful, and ultimately right. That's the secret of Mozart: he always sounds, RIGHT.

"Whether the angels only play Bach praising God, I am not quite sure.
But when they are en famille, the play Mozart."
---Karl Barth

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