Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died 5 December 1791. 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. Twenty years later, the reappraisals—and the grand recording projects—continue.* Unfortunately, they 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.” Really? I would have thought that description, but for its first part, fit for almost any twentieth-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.
Mozart 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 Shaffer’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, Mr. 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 twentieth century back into the eighteenth. 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 proper 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 his works as the product of an obsessional, anal-fixated, paranoiac personality. This actually is a compliment. It shows Mozart as out of tune with his times, and therefore ahead of them. In The New York Times arts section, music professor Richard Taruskin says 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 twentieth 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 anally 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 twentieth century is 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, 225 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.
*See the latest, and the grandest, of several Complete Mozart Editions here.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on December 4, 2020.
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