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The Viennese Muses

Musicians are inclined to argue that the quantity of paper described above is a mere superfluity, that if you are interested in Mozart there is plenty to listen to; but this seems at best prim and at worst a sacrifice of pleasure to a puritanical aesthetic—it simply complies with the pretense, very common in theoreticians of all the arts, that our minds and imaginations suddenly become preternaturally pure when we are listening to music or looking at pictures or reading. It was not only knowledge but the experience of a particular world that made Mozart a better composer at the end than earlier on, and it seems very perverse to suggest that we are not better listeners for improving ourselves similarly. And some relevant knowledge can be had from books of this kind.

I had never read right through the letters, and now that this re-issue of Emily Anderson’s famous edition has given me the chance to do so I feel free to advise others who may have been similarly negligent to do likewise. All the composer’s letters, including the dirty ones, are included; there are a great many of Leopold’s as well, and one or two by Mozart’s mother, who shared the family interest in ordure. I won’t say there are no trivial and boring pages, or that Wolfgang is especially endearing or interesting as a person. Also one might, unfairly, complain that he regularly failed to discuss what one would like him to have discussed. The fact is that the only musician he ever wrote to was Leopold; he naturally didn’t do so when they were together, and in the last and greatest years of his life there was a coolness inhibiting correspondence. So many of the supreme works are hardly mentioned at all. Otto Erich Deutsch’s documents* partly fill the gap by recording some contemporary discussion. And there are crumbs of consolation in the letters—tough professional notes on virtuosi and singers and librettists, a long commentary on Osmin’s angry aria in Die Entführung; we might prefer another aria, but this is an aspect of the randomness of letter-writing, which produces compensating benefits.

The place of Mozart in the society of his day seems to me of legitimate musical interest. He was famous throughout his life, or anyway from the age of six. The Pope made him a Knight of the Golden Spur at fourteen, and his last illness, though he died poor, seems to have been a cause of general anxiety and concern. Unlike Gluck, who had the same papal decoration, he rarely called himself Chevalier, though Leopold had him painted wearing the Order. It would, however, be wrong to assume that he was indifferent to it. He was a gentleman, even a nobleman. His fury at the Archbishop Colleredo’s treatment of him has of course something to do with the slighting of his talent, but more with his sense of outraged honor.

THE WORRY ABOUT STATUS was one among many inheritances from Leopold. The father divides opinion; he was an excellent musician, a man of more general culture than his son, and he coped well enough with the prodigious child. But he was also an oppressive toady, a self-pitying Polonius. Wolfgang’s imprudence drove him into understandable tantrums, but he often sounds like a lower-middle-class snob: Wolfgang was to avoid “all familiarity with people of our own profession.” “You can always be perfectly natural,” he writes, with appropriate underlining, “with people of high rank; but with everyone else please behave like an Englishman.” On the other hand he ceaselessly urges the boy to ingratiate himself with noblemen, while at the same time watching them carefully. Applause is not enough, cries of “genius!” not to be taken seriously: they are “incidental…you must not lose sight of your main object, which is to make money.” Aristocratic sprezzatura has no part in the Chevalier’s career. He must everywhere show everything he can do, a musical acrobat selling performances prima vista, improvisations, virtuosity on all keyboards, if necessary in competition with local favorites; selling lessons all day long. Mozart replies that he is a composer; his father tells him he is lazy and feckless as well as unprepossessing. There were quarrels, notably over the young man’s involvement with the Weber family or rather its girls, and his misconduct (purely financial) in Paris; Wolfgang protests, but the censorious tone of his father later comes out in some letters to his wife. In fact he was, like Leopold, industrious, petty on occasions, and socially self-conscious. He sat on the knee of Marie Antoinette and sometimes talked familiarly to princes, but he belonged to the Salzburg low-bourgeoisie. Though under protest, he sat between the valets and the cooks at Colleredo’s table, and when he quarreled like a man of honor he was literally kicked out into the street.

There is a Vienna letter to Leopold which expresses clearly Mozart’s identification of problems of justice with problems of honor. A theatrical producer of his acquaintance (a “nobleman”) had been drawn, under intense provocation, into a street brawl with a baron at Innsbruck. He was arrested and sentenced to twenty-five lashes, and on his appealing, as a nobleman, against this savage punishment, the sentence was increased to fifty lashes. Then “before he lay down on the bench, he cried out ‘I am innocent and I appeal publicly to the Emperor.’ But the corporal answered him with a sneer: ‘Perhaps the gentleman will first take his fifty lashes and after that the gentleman can appeal.”’ Mozart is deeply agitated and indignant; he, for his part, would demand the same punishment, plus enormous damages, of the Baron, or, failing that, “run my sword through his heart.”

This social and professional insecurity was inherent in his profession, and the accident of his having once been a prodigious child merely increased it. His gifts were acknowledged to be unique, but not valued at the high rate reserved after for great “art”; he was a craftsman, like a cabinet-maker, and being a sort of nobleman merely meant that payment was more likely to be in compliments. So he sought security in professions of respectability, in conventional religious observance, in the Freemasons. There was as yet no modern concept of genius, and no escape into Bohemianism. He had to sell his produce in a buyers’ market, do anything anywhere. “My son will write whatever kind of composition you may consider most profitable,” writes Leopold to Breitkopf. A good offer will take him to London or to St. Peters-burg: have clavier, will travel. The business of marketing was not helped, as Leopold too candidly told him, by an unprepossessing appearance and manner. Tieck, in a memoir reprinted by Deutsch, recalled him as “small, rapid, of movement, restless, and with a stupid expression.” Karoline Pichler, a pianist who had lessons from Mozart, remembered both him and Haydn (the great composers of the age) as “men in whose personal intercourse there was absolutely no sign of unusual power of intellect, and almost no trace of intellectual culture.” The letters do little to contradict this opinion. Apart from one or two famous passages, in which he speaks of “a kind of emptiness, which hurts me dreadfully,” or of death as a friend, there is nothing in Mozart’s writings to suggest a reflective or speculative turn of mind. Prose meditation of that order would have been above his station, out of his period.

SO ONE SEES WHY one necrologist speaks of him as having been born as well as having died too soon. But this really makes no sense. His “period” hampered him, it is true; he could not live sensibily, he wrote much music he didn’t want to write, for people and for instruments he disliked. But there could hardly be a better example of the terrific indeterminacy of genius, which always makes nonsense of Hegelian, Marxist, Tainian theories of art-history. And, quite apart from that—which really has to be studied in the music—there is a more difficult point to take, which is that the society which seems, on one view, to have reduced Mozart played an essential part in the creation of his and also of later music. Not surprisingly, a layman can unaffectedly declare an interest in such a situation, though a musician, enjoying a revolutionary freedom which in part a legacy from Mozart, may think it not worth his interest.

Socially we may think of Mozart’s audience as extending, as to rank, from his own to the Emperor’s. Musically it stretched, with only very tenuous correlations as to rank, over much the same field, though also from amateur to gifted amateur to professional. To this society music was a matter of everyday interest. Its capacity, as audience, was very high, and it was often very close to the composers who night well be their own instructors. The “master” was so in virtue not only of his art, but as a teacher. There was a shared language, which the professionals spoke only more resourcefully, more creatively, than the amateur audience. The musical advantages are obvious. Mozart was never anything but a musician, and always wrote for an informed audience. The three conditions traditionally necessary to great achievements in art were there: not man, milieu, and moment, but man audience, and a shared language capable of development.

I am, so to speak, soaked in music…I am immersed in it all day long.” The stories of Mozart blind to the Alps, composing in his coach, fit the truth. As a boy of fifteen he spoke of composing in a house which also contained two practicing violinists, an oboist and a singing-master: “good fun…it gives you plenty of ideas.” He made musical jokes, experimented with a kind of “random” minuet; he moved with ever-deepening power in the abstract forms of music, inventing unexpected but always beautiful key-relations (beautiful to his informed audience, though beyond their practical power). He saw past the conventions which come, in all the arts, to look like rules, and says of the poets who produced libretti: “if we composers were always to stick so faithfully to our rules (which were very good at a time when no one knew better) we should be concocting music as unpalatable as their libretti.” Without forgetting the lower elements in the audience, the wrote when he chose for the musical elite, connoisseurs like his father. One can hardly exaggerate the degree of novelty involved in, say, the opening of the C major Quartet in the Haydn series, or in the D minor clavier concerto; but there was little astonishment.

Haydn,” says Leopold, “turned over the pages for him and at the same time had the pleasure of seeing with what art it is composed, how delightfully the parts are interwoven, and what a difficult concert it is.” This of a work recognizably a new kind of thing, with many answers omitted, arches, apparently supported by only one pillar, the unpredictable G minor episode in the slow movement. Leopold noticed that the orchestra found it difficult; and of the twin clavier concerto in C major he said that it was “astonishingly difficult…but I doubt very much whether there are any mistakes” in the copy. Leopold knew what this kind of newness meant (an autonomous development in the art, that in the end destroyed the relevance of the Colloredos to music) but he also saw its relation to the old language.

Naturally there was, in the orchestra and elsewhere, a sense of strain. Mozart was “no great lover of difficulties” (he hated Vogler for making a virtuoso piece sound hard) but he moved rapidly out to the limit of the amateur’s range. Gerber, writing in his biographical dictionary before Mozart’s death, expresses this sense of strain:

This great master, through his early acquaintance with harmony, has become so profoundly intimate with it that an unpracticed car finds it difficult to follow his works. Even more experienced one have to hear his things several times. It is fortunate that he attained to perfection when still young, and among the pleasing and playful Viennese Muses; he might otherwise have met with the fate of the great Friedemann Bach, whose flights the eyes of but few other mortals were able to behold.

That the Viennese Muses allowed him to fly, but kept him mindful of an ordinary pitch, is part of the interest of these letters. But of course nobody made him study the polyphony of J. S. Bach (so foreign to him that it was the only music he had to work out on paper); what stimulated him to that was his unique sense that a valuable aspect of the shared language had fallen into neglect.

AS HE ASKED MORE of himself, he asked, at times, more of the audience. The performers were essential to him, and he prided himself that he fitted voices as a tailor fits bodies; but he pushed them beyond their obvious gifts. The critics protested. Of Don Giovanni Hamburg said that such music “could never appeal anywhere to more than a handful of the elect…one must have…the right, educated notions.” Berlin found the same opera learned and academic, lacking in passion. Weimar declared it artificial, difficult, overloaded. The shock, which we have lost, was in part the result of an apparent confusion of genres: Come scoglio is “all wrong” in opera buffa, Ah, fuggi il traditor in a burlesque joke. Important generic laws were violated, the sopranos sang as in opera seria, broad sexual jokes develop a terrible seriousness; though the wronged women have in their power not Don Giovanni but only Leporello, the music is wholly tragic. The novelty of the situation comes out in the remarks of a Hanover critic on Die Entführung: “there is a want of unity in the style…the composer has been too loquacious with the wind instruments. Instead of only reinforcing the melody where that is required, supporting the harmony as a whole, they often darken the former and confuse the latter.” In general, he says, this comic work “approaches too near the style of serious opera.” He had in mind especially. Costanze’s Martern aller Arten, ancestor of so many huge Mozartian soprano arias. Perhaps Goethe also had it in mind when he said that Die Entführung had “ruined everything”—meaning his attempts to collaborate, with the musicians of Weimar, on Singspiel.

For Mozart the languages of music and life were at their closest relation in opera, so that life too had to burst out of its generic specializations. The genres reflect caste in society. Figaro belongs to its date, 1786, prefiguring revolution: the choice of subject, the consciously revolutionary meditations on what operatic comedy might be, testify to this. But of course there had to have been an existing caste-opera which could provide him with singers, with a Countess, a Susanna, a Cherubino, even with a Barberina worth the broken cavatina at the opening of the last act. There had to be an Elvira and an Anna, a Fiordiligi and a Dorabella. Since the Viennese Muses had also fostered tenors, he even wrote for them (though he might not have enjoyed hearing Don Ottavio singing both Dalla sua pace and II mio tesoro). He honored these voices, though in the more abstract music of the great ensembles he suppressed their vocal exhibitions. It was an elaborate contract, or a delicate balance. He used the opera house as he used the clavier.

However, if we want to re-imagine the whole situation, the fruitful tension between this wholly musical man and his society, we have to think not only of five revolutionary operas but of works which strain and then extend a purely musical language—the clavier concerti already named and that in B flat (K.595); the G minor quintet, the final G minor and C major symphonies. They belong to, and at the same time announce the destruction of, the musical society of such as Colleredo, the touchy singers and secretive trumpeters, the critics saying, “Although I see what he’s at, the man goes too far.” It was a world that gave a musician the conditions in which he might specialize, and so made it inevitable that the relations between his and the purely Viennese Muses should grow strained and break. A time would come when even the “educated” could no longer, out of ordinary knowledge, cope with the specialization. The final crisis, musical as well as social, was delayed until the twentieth century, but the whole story must run parallel to that told of painting by E. H. Gombrich, and its climax is not remote in time from that of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. If we ignore such documents as those collected by Anderson and Deutsch we shall be that much less able to understand both this crucial historical phase, and some of the problems of our own time.

  1. *

    Mozart: A Documentary Biography, Stanford, 1965.

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