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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

So...Why Mozart?

Superconductor grapples with the nature of genius and the legacy of Austria's greatest export.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Mozart Writing the Requiem, Paitted in 1854 by William James Grant.
Property of the Royal College of Music, London.
Longtime readers of this blog will know that I write a lot of words, words, words about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Sure, Superconductor covers the annual Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center, performances of his solo, chamber and orchestral works, and the frequent programming of the composer’s seven major operas (he actually wrote twenty-two) at the Metropolitan Opera. So this afternoon, as I was listening to a new recording of La Clemenza di Tito, it suddenly seemed a good idea to write a post asking that vital question....

What’s so great about Mozart?

Mozart stands at the crossroads between the classical era of the late 18th century, (itself a genteel rebellion against the musical excesses of the baroque era) and the Romantic era which would gets its proper launch halfway through the career of one Ludwig van Beethoven. Mozart's music combines innovation with a certain skill of form. He wrote delicately turned phrases and constructions that sound “perfect” to the human ear, with everything as neatly arranged as the raked paths of a formal garden. This applies across almost all of his catalogue, from large-scale operas like Idemoneo to humble choral jokes like his canon setting of the words "Leck mich 'im arsch."

Mozart's perfection didn’t happen by accident. From the moment his talents were apparent (at the age of three) he was put through a rigorous and unforgiving regiment by his teacher: hisfather Leopold. Leopold Mozart was a composer and the author of an important text on violin method. Knowing he had hit a sort of musical jackpot in his son's talent, the enterprising father took little “Wolfie” on tour around Europe. This furthered young Mozart's growing reputation and (it could be argued) granted him a cosmopolitan exposure to the life of professional musicianship.

The child Mozart learned harpsichord and violin and would later apply his virtuosoty to both instruments. In his adulthood, he would be among the first in Austria to attempt to earn  himself a living as a composer-performer, setting a sort of economic model for the life of a performing virtuoso that still exists today. Blessed with perfect pitch and an uncanny memory, he showed a knack for composition, absorbing the universe of music that he was raised in and using it to create early masterpieces. Mozart wrote his first works of music at the age of five, symphonies at eight and opera at twelve years old.

However, that still doesn’t answer the question before us which is: why is Mozart’s music great, while those of his contemporaries (Beethoven and Haydn excepted) is invariably set aside?

One of the secrets to Mozart’s musical longevity might be called malleability. His music is so well-constructed in its form that it can withstand radical changes in style, tempo, interpretation and even orchestration. It still emerges with its extraordinary beauty intact. For example, one can play the overture to Don Giovanni with antique or modern instruments, or at a fast tempo or a slow one, and it loses none of its profound truth. The composer's concept still rings out in the notes, from the opening, a terrifying D minor chord, to the licking, rising flames of hell-fire that swirl in the strings. The skittering, racing theme of the protagonist reminds one that this is at heart a comedy with a tragic ending. All this is even more astonishing when you find out that this famous Overture was banged out by Mozart on the night before the opera's premiere.

Another reason Mozart appeals still was his ever-searchimg sense of creation and innovation. He took forms like the piano concerto, the string quartet and the symphony amd radically expanded them in length and ability to communicate meaning. His best concertos open with  a storminess and angst that continues to resonate today. They soothe in their slow movements, and close with high-speed finales that show a triumph over turmoil. This willingness to look inside his soul is part of Mozart’s deep appeal. There is a weight to this music that would later be carried by Beethoven, Schubert and their later musical heirs.

His music is filtered through the composer’s extraordinary and short life, and the legends that have grown up about him since his death on December 5, 1791. (Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, entertaining though it is, is fiction and a slander on the memory of Mozart’s friend and contemporary Antonio Salieri.) It is true that he died working on a Requiem that was commissioned by a mysterious customer (one Count Franz von Walsegg, who liked to pay for works and pass them off as his own) but there was no murder and no induced madness. It was over-work and simple pneumonia that felled Mozart in the flower of his being, leaving him the first, but by no means the last composer to die far too young. However, what he left us is ever-green and ever giving, music that restores the soul no matter how many times you hear it.

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