Mozart: ‘Prodigy of Nature’
Zaubertöne, Mozart in Wien 1781–1791 1990–September 15, 1991
June 8, New York. “Mozart: ‘Prodigy of Nature,’ ” the exhibition at the Morgan Library, is a humbling experience. Some fifty Mozart manuscripts are displayed (and one Beethoven, a copy of Mozart’s Quartet KV 387) ranging from four pieces composed at age five to a draft page of the Requiem; fourteen autograph letters, early and late; and programs and documents, including Mozart’s marriage contract. John Russell’s polished report in The Times begins by remarking that “great music falls from the air” and “in almost every case the autograph manuscript of that music is right there beneath our noses…. The thing heard and the thing seen are one.”
Yes. But we cannot turn the pages, and when one of the Queen of Night’s arias fell from the air while I was studying a sketch for the Priests’ March, I could only stop, not look, and listen, being unable to read one score while the attention of the ear was monopolized by another. The nonstop recorded concert does feature performances of the manuscripts on display, however, and after two or three visits, and on an uncrowded morning, the visitor would probably be able to chase from one showcase to another in time to glimpse the first few measures of whichever concerto, symphony, sonata, aria, or quartet has come up on the tape.
Mozart’s manuscripts are neat. Johann Anton André, who purchased the bulk of them from Mozart’s widow in 1799, remarked that the notes are “small, fully shaped and show no signs of hesitation.” But to follow them during performances, now possible in several facsimiles, is an acquired skill. The lack of vertical alignment, the long note or long rest placed in the middle, instead of, as today, at the beginning of the bar, is an impediment. Another is that musicians have become accustomed to reading Mozart’s appoggiaturas in written-out form. The Morgan exhibition is for the musically literate.
And for those who read German. Only a few passages from the letters on display have been translated, and none of the marginalia. One of Mozart’s scatological letters to his cousin Maria Anna Thekla Mozart is left entirely in German over a caption describing the contents as “vulgar to the point of being unprintable.” Dear me! Do musicologists not read contemporary fiction and not go to the movies? Nor is the catalog’s sniffy dismissal of the “Bäsle” letters (Maria Anna’s nickname) as “notorious” any help. Freud found them perfectly normal.
Twelve of the autograph scores are of symphonies, twenty-one are of music for small chamber-music combinations—quintets, quartets, trios, duos—and twelve are of keyboard works, including the Preambulae and the great A minor Sonata. Only four operas are represented, the Magic Flute as aforesaid, the Impresario by the complete full score, Tito by the Act I duettino, Figaro by the draft of an aria and an arrangement of another, “Non so più cosa son,” for violin and piano.
Otherwise the most important treasures …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.