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Mozart at 250

The view of Mozart as a master of a conventional, respectable style obviously called for revision, and it was sensibly provided by an age of expressionism in the early twentieth century. With the generation of Arnold Schoenberg, the qualities of morbid passion, tragedy, complexity, and radical experiment were restored to Mozart: he became a modern composer. The most systematic expression of the new view was found in the work of the greatest biographer of Mozart, Hermann Abert; he revised Otto Jahn’s nineteenth-century biography, but made it into basically a new work, with the emphasis on the music, its sources, and its development, rather than on the life3 ; he also wrote the article on Mozart for the 1929 Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, a once indispensable reference book. The editor, shocked at its dark revisionist view of Mozart, printed it out of respect (Abert had just died), but protested that Mozart had always been compared to Raphael, while this made him seem much more like Michelangelo.

It is significant that this new view restored the sense of difficulty that Mozart’s contemporaries had found in his work, but making it a virtue rather than a failing. As late as 1812, the novelist Ludwig Tieck, protesting the latest works of Beethoven, had written: “If we may call Mozart mad, Beethoven often cannot be distinguished from a raving lunatic.” The difficulties of Beethoven’s art were correctly attributed to his adherence to the tradition of Mozart.


Today, the most recent generation of music historians has attempted to dismantle the view of Mozart as a radical visionary and reduce him to an ordinary artisan, better at his job than anyone else, of course, but just trying to make a living. Nicholas Kenyon, after an excellent summary of the changes of Mozart’s reputation in his Faber Pocket Guide, gives a sympathetic account of the new perspective:

We cannot be sure if “composing freely” is a concept that Mozart would have understood or desired: all the evidence is that he yearned to be needed and appreciated—to be asked to write music because people wanted it, to show off the skills of his singers and players as well as possible, to make the most of whatever practical performing circumstances he was faced with. Yes, he wanted his audiences to enjoy his music, and to show by their attention that they were enjoying it. Yes, he wanted his music to be better, cleverer, more passionate, and more memorable than everyone else’s, and probably believed it to be so, but there is not a shred of support for the idea that he ever consciously wrote for some far-distant future.

We have, however, at least a shred of evidence that Mozart thought beyond the immediate practical circumstances suggested by Kenyon. In a letter on February 12, 1778, Leopold Mozart went somewhat beyond his usual exhortations to his twenty-two-year-old son to make enough money to support his parents:

Now it depends solely on your good sense and your way of life whether you die as an ordinary musician, utterly forgotten by the world, or as a famous Kapellmeister, of whom posterity will read.

There is, after all, something missing from Kenyon’s picture of Mozart’s ambitions. He wants to be a success, he wants to be loved by his performers and his public, he wants his music to be acknowledged as better than everyone else’s—but he seems not to care what kind of music it is, he has no artistic principles, he never tries to win over listeners or musicians to music they might not have expected. That is not the Mozart of history. Already at the age of twenty-two, when the leading singer at the Munich opera complained that in the quartet of I domeneo (“the highest musical achievement of the opera,” according to Rushton) he could not spianare la voce, that is let the voice float lyrically and evenly above the orchestra, Mozart retorted that the singer didn’t seem to know that in an ensemble you were not supposed to sing spianato but parlando, with a speaking effect. In fact, if Mozart had not so often been intransigent about imposing his own standards, his own vision of music, he might have been given the permanent post in a large city that was always refused him and that went to more accommodating composers like Salieri,4 about whom posterity reads only because they had some contact with Mozart.

Each of these successive views of Mozart has its merit. He was, as so many of his contemporaries thought, a difficult composer whose music was challenging to follow. More than twenty years after Mozart’s death, E.T.A. Hoffmann was still defending him against claims by other musicians that his harmony was incomprehensible. The comparison to Shakespeare and Schiller made sense, as the dramatic power of his work is still astonishing today. Kierkegaard’s insistence on the erotic element in his work was certainly accurate. Mozart could write a love duet as erotic as Wagner (in Cosí fan tutte, the music of the duet for Guiglielmo and Dorabella graphically illustrates the caresses of his hands as he feels her heart beat), although he was constrained by the musical language of his time—he could not, like Wagner, make a love scene last three quarters of an hour.

Mozart as the correct composer, the Raphael of music, is equally persuasive: he was a master of all the conventional tonal procedures of his time, and the correctness of his counterpoint impressed Chopin as much as the work of Bach (when he tried to explain counterpoint to a layman like Delacroix, he was just as likely to refer to Mozart as Bach). The early twentieth century’s image of a turbulent Mozart drew attention to his expressive power, and it is still to some extent the approach of those who are most passionate about his achievement. It has, however, the disadvantage of diminishing an appreciation of his technical skill. In spite of his radical experiments, Mozart could be one of the most conventional composers of his time—except that no one ever handled the basic conventions with such skill and such ease, and he must have gloried not only in his ability to shock, but also in his facility at producing the conventional with such purity and grace.

Long phrases of absolutely conventional figuration and banal motifs articulate his works at the end of short sections, and give the structure its clarity. (Beethoven imitated Mozart closely in this respect, but he had the knack—already to be found in Mozart, but with less panache—of making one think that he had invented the most conventional motif expressly for each piece.) Writing about Mozart, we are always tempted to dwell on the extraordinary purple passages without noticing that in every case they are followed or preceded by the most conventional devices.5 They complement and support each other.

After a century of modernism, it is hard for us to delight in the simple craftsmanship of Mozart. The advantage of the most recent approach, above all in the brilliant researches of Neal Zaslaw and Cliff Eisen, is that it restores this craftsmanship, makes us understand Mozart as artisan, not working in a void but with the everyday problems of singers, instrumental performers, impresarios, and patrons, and it has enlarged our understanding of how his art came into being, and how it worked in his world. The preoccupation of both writers with the everyday aspect of music production, however, tends to impose an image of Mozart as an accommodating fellow, always giving his patrons, singers, and public what they wanted. But there are too many cases of Mozart willfully going his own way to make this tenable. After receiving the first of three commissioned piano quartets, for example, the publisher canceled the contract: the music was too difficult.

A comic example of Mozart’s suiting himself rather than his clients is the Sonata in D Major for Piano, K. 576. In The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, there is some difference of opinion about this work. According to Cliff Eisen on p. 184, this is one of the easy keyboard sonatas that Mozart said he was writing for Princess Frederika of Prussia, but on p. 470 John Irving writes that “the whole of the sonata K576 is technically beyond all but the most experienced performer.” Eisen is right, as a glance at the slow movement will show (there is a beautiful section of exceptional simplicity where the young pianist need play with only one hand at a time). But I have heard great pianists like Walter Gieseking and Solomon mess up the first movement.

What happened is that Mozart was unable to resist showing off his polyphonic ingenuity; the main theme lends itself easily to stretto (a contrapuntal device like “Row, row, row your boat” in which a melody is played with itself by having a second voice come in with it after the first has started). In K. 576, the second voice enters and combines with the first after one beat, then after three beats, then again after six beats, and some of this is difficult to play, particularly when the two voices are only one beat apart, because the strong accent of the theme no longer coincides in the two hands. The only phrases of the first movement that are difficult to execute are in simple two-part counterpoint (that is, when each hand has to play only one note at a time), and Mozart mistakenly seems to have thought that this was easy—much like J.S. Bach, whose Two-Part Inventions were also intended for beginners and are actually very hard to perform. It is clear, however, that Mozart miscalculated out of vanity or exuberance, displaying his contrapuntal skill just as he did in the finale to the JupiterSymphony, the Wind Octet, the second-act finale of Cosí fan tutte, and so many other works. In any case, the rest of the sonata is easy, unless one tries to make the last movement, which should be played at a sedate tempo, into a stormy virtuoso piece.


No one really writes for posterity. Occasionally a stubborn, hardheaded artist produces work that is not immediately popular, but hopes that the public will eventually come around. Nevertheless, the concept of posterity had a clear and novel importance for musicians in Mozart’s day: he arrived on the scene together with the invention of the history of music. The first significant attempt to write such a history came from Giuseppe Martini, called the Padre Martini, a Bolognese composer and scholar, with whom Mozart studied briefly when he was fourteen—he always mentioned him with reverence afterward—and from whom he derived much of his contrapuntal learning. It was at this time that the Padre was working on his history: the publication did not get very far, only through classical Greek music theory, but some of the medieval material was in manuscript. He certainly intended to include the contemporary scene, since he collected portraits of all the important musicians of his day, including one of the young Mozart.

The first publication of a history of music that dealt with both the medieval and the contemporary age arrived from Charles Burney when Mozart was twenty years old in 1776. Burney did not really know Mozart (although Mozart, at the age of four, had sat on his lap), and he later recorded another musician’s opinion that the prodigy had not lived up to his early promise. His interest in the history of music, however, marked a radical change in the conception of the art. For the first time, musicians could be placed on a level with painters, writers, and architects: they could be compared to Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo.

This was a moment of crisis for composers. Patronage and support for music from church and court was diminishing and even being withdrawn. Haydn, professionally imprisoned in a small court at Esterhazy, found his independence and international prestige by exporting his symphonies to Paris, by publishing his quartets, and, released from his duties at Esterhazy, by traveling to London and directing his works in concert—that made him a fortune. Furthermore, like Figaro in Mozart’s opera, composers were beginning to resent their status as servants to the aristocracy. An enhancement of their prestige had become imperative.

Mozart was perhaps the most ambitious composer in the history of music. He produced at least one and generally several imposing masterpieces in almost every genre of music—concerto, song, opera (serious and comic, German and Italian), string trio, string quartet, string quintet, quintet for piano and winds, trio and quartet for piano and strings, quintet for wind instrument and strings, divertimento for wind octet, double concerto for violin and viola, symphony, piano sonata, violin sonata. Although he left no completed major work of religious music, his two fragments—the C Minor Mass and the Requiem—are monumental even in their unfinished state. In comparison, Haydn’s major successes were largely restricted to the two genres of symphony and string quartet; only when he was much older than Mozart ever became did he create his most impressive piano sonatas, piano trios, and the important vocal works with the late masses and the two oratorios. And only after Mozart’s Prague Symphony had surpassed in size and weight any of Haydn’s orchestral works, setting an example, did he expand his symphonic style.

Mozart expanded the forms of his time by combining genres. The finale of his Piano Sonata in B-flat, K. 333, is a large concerto movement, with imitations of the contrast of orchestra and soloist, and a huge cadenza like an improvisation. He introduced operatic effects in his chamber music, and symphonic and concerto passages into his opera arias. His concertos have moments of intimate and complex chamber music. The finale of the JupiterSymphony has an unprecedented display of learned counterpoint, simultaneously combining six themes. He magnified almost every genre in which he worked.

Mozart’s string quintets and string trio have a spacious gravity never before achieved in chamber music. The power and drama of his Fantasy and Sonata in C Minor were not to be found again in piano music until Beethoven appeared on the scene. The Marriage of Figaro was much longer and more serious than any comic opera before; Da Ponte apologized for the length by claiming that he and Mozart had created “something absolutely new.”

Mozart was to trump that achievement two years later with Don Giovanni, in which a mythical, iconic figure of two centuries of European renown was given a tragicomic artistic form that crushed most of the previous incarnations as well as those still to come. In a spectacular effort in the first-act finale, Mozart placed three dance orchestras for the ball on the stage, each one playing entirely different and even contradictory rhythms but in perfect harmony, the greatest pyrotechnical display of contrapuntal art ever put on the stage. With The Magic Flute, he went still further, combining popular Austrian style with music of religious gravity, a double fugue for an overture, a chorale prelude on a Lutheran hymn (in Catholic Vienna!) in the style of J.S. Bach, a virtuoso display of coloratura passagework that is still dazzling, and music of the most exquisite and moving simplicity to celebrate the ideal of fidelity in marriage.

No wonder he was never offered an important official position at court. Although famous and even celebrated, he had to live by occasional, well-paid commissions and by teaching piano.

  1. 3

    A translation of this important work will finally be produced this fall by Yale University Press, and—for which we should be very grateful—brought up to date by Cliff Eisen.

  2. 4

    In 1787 a modest function with a modest salary was created for Mozart in Vienna to supply dance music for the court balls.

  3. 5

    In the last piano concerto, for example, in B-flat major, K. 595, the development section begins of course in the dominant, F major, but disrupts the harmony with a series of phrases that make it difficult to decide what key we are in, and finally settles in B minor, the most distant possible tonality from F major, and certainly shocking to eighteenth-century ears. The music then goes rapidly through C major, C minor, E-flat major, and E-flat minor; then it delicately implies C-flat major, A-flat major, and F minor without affirming them, and finally arrives at G minor. This last, which is the relative minor of the B-flat tonic, was the most conventional way of rounding off a development section, used by Haydn more than 90 percent of the time in quartet, sonata, or symphony, and Mozart follows this with a series of extremely conventional phrases, exquisitely tailored. The juxtaposition of the revolutionary and the banal is standard procedure for him.

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