Swans Commentary » swans.com January 13, 2014  



In Search of Mozart's Sublimity
Part I


by Raju Peddada







My younger boy, Mani, 5 years old, while listening to symphony No. 40: "Daddy, is this Mostart?" I thought, "Most-art, how insightful!" I smiled and nodded yes.

"The most tremendous genius raised Mozart above all masters, in all centuries and in all the arts."
—Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

"Mozart is the highest, the culminating point that beauty has attained in the sphere of music."
—Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

[Author's preface: We all know that brilliant inventions are always replaced by new ones -- and I am convinced that all ideas have an expiry date -- even beauty. But, if someone could author sublimity, from his innate naiveté, vulnerability, emotions, humanism and perseverance, it would be something that could transcend every form of expiry. And, we have had such an author! It would be utterly remiss of me -- of us -- if we just careened into Mozart without understanding the fundamentals: of music, the aesthetics, and his genius. We'll use our imagination, by only gleaning from these three philosophical icebergs, referred to above, to just try and grasp at Mozart's unsurpassed magnificence. Society of equals -- that is what our egalitarian genius accomplished: ethereal harmony, without a price.]


(Swans - January 13, 2014)   In the pantheon of exceptional creative geniuses, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart stands alone at the apex. Shakespeare's work was imitable commentary on the human condition of the Elizabethan England. But was it accessed by all? Great masters of the word, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Laurence Sterne, Jonathan Swift, and Stendhal remained unread and obscure till the middle of the 19th century. Canonical salutations by the academics and literary critics not withstanding, their writings were far removed from the masses. Isaac Newton, science's preeminent sage, couldn't be deciphered, even by many erudite contemporaries, let alone someone illiterate. Leonardo da Vinci, genius without a doubt, created and investigated everything for his own satisfaction. Robert Oppenheimer and his team's creation incinerated souls. But Mozart's freed the souls, that soared rapturously, in infants to individuals, of every race and vocation: his work made everyone, from intellectuals to the illiterate, and from prince to pauper, rich!

The world has devolved into a bubble of inveterate logic, where the algorithm is the crutch for every problem, even our innate subjectivity -- at the expense of intuition, taste, sensations, and sensitivity. We must pity those who choose to remain ignorant of the improbable and glorious sublimity of Mozart's work -- monumental wonder that cannot be seen, except felt. Those who think that Mozart is something optional and unimportant, in their convulsions for a life, are missing the essence of it; they are foregoing an incredible opportunity to an edifying and illuminating experience, at no price at all. His creations are the treasure -- but alas, no such treasure beckons most of these unfortunate! To many, Mozart's work is not a subject that merits their pursuit. This brings me to another generational contention: music as a subject.

Influential Austrian music critic Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904) had once asked: "Has music any subject?" Many prominent philosophers like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) professed that music had no subject. Known physiologist and physicist, Hermann Lotze (1817-1881) and Hermann Von Helmholtz (1821-1894), also endorsed the same hypothesis -- their opinions carried force, because they also were accomplished musical authorities. However, those with contrary views were far greater in number -- among them were literary luminaries trained as musicians who shared similar conjecture. In fact, many indignant luminaries railed vehemently against this hypothesis of meaningness in music.

In a convoluted sense, music has no content, no subject matter in the sense that the subject to be addressed is something extraneous to the music notes: written music. Professor of literature and musical aesthete Karl August Timotheus Kahlert (1807-1864) stridently and emphatically substantiated that music, unlike painting, accepts no "description in words." He says that music constitutes a concatenation in forms of sound, and those alone make up the subject -- it has no external subject beyond the combination of notes we hear. He claims: "for music does not only speak by means of sound, it speaks nothing but sound!"

In music, form and substance make the subject and its realization -- the conception and the visualization are inexplicably and mystifyingly fused in one undeconstructable whole. This intrinsic and whole fusion of form and substance is exclusively characteristic of music -- a piercing counterpoint to all the other arts, like poetry, painting, and sculpture. And because of music's morphology, its inseparable creative and performing quality, its degree of difficulty, and its coagulatory yet discrete structure, it demands long periods of study, even by brilliant individuals, to attain some level of proficiency, let alone perfection. This is exactly why Mozart is magic -- something astounding and mysterious to behold, with his magnitude of perfection: in his 25 seminal symphonies that blueprinted the future of the symphony format, by the ripe old age of 18!

Mozart was the master of moods -- in fact, he took advantage of music's unique property, of showing the same form in countless hues, from the most harsh contrast down to the finely nuanced shade -- as he did with many of his compositions, and especially with his paradigmatic D-Minor Piano Concerto, and the Symphonies No. 40 and No. 41. This subtle and nuanced characteristic of music, like that Pantone Color System, causes it to be fecund and powerful in its effectiveness -- it was infinitely obvious in Mozart's hands. When composing music, the creator is under a bubble of hues, as in moods -- he only thinks and works in sound, away from the realities of the external distractions.

Music possesses beauty of form, without any visual extrinsic subject; this does not deprive it of any individuality. The invention of a particular theme and its method of realization is a highly unique process that defies inclusion in the wider spectrum of inventions. Mozart's compositions reside on an inviolable independent foundation, as any creation or invention would, like any sonnet by Shakespeare or a poem by Goethe, an epigram by Oscar Wilde, a statue by Rodin, or a painting by Picasso -- they are personal, individual expressions, therefore eternal. In any art form, the word "expression" is the currency of recognition, while expression is the very soul of music -- there is no music without it.

Susanne Langer (1895-1985), professor of philosophy from the Connecticut College, wrote the essay "Feeling and Form" that explored this term "expression" as applied to music. She conjectured that the study of musical excellence grew from an earlier metaphysical postulation, on the proposition and implication of a popular term, "expression." In the world of aesthetic literature, the word expression holds a lofty status and is used in more than one sense. And in the realm of expression, the point of departure from the visual norm is music -- the tonal formulation we refer to as music entertains and supports a convincing parallel to the forms of human feelings: forms of augmentation versus attenuation, speed or arrest, excitement followed by calm, or subtle nuanced activation of reveries, or poignant departures -- everything deeply felt. Music is that tonal equivalent of emotive life, and if expression is the word that consecrates music, then Mozart must be its synonym.

Langer goes on to explore and explain that "music is not stimulation of feeling, but the expression of it," in her 1941 dissertation titled "Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite and Art." Music is a metaphoric in form -- the composer learns and evolves, as well as expresses concepts of human sensibility. It, music, projects his imagination of feelings, rather than express his own emotional condition. What is mind numbing, as well as confounding, is the fact that Mozart, at a very early age -- in his early and late 20s -- could imagine the most poignant pathos and profound abyss of human feelings, and articulate them in musical form for his compositions and operas -- whether it was in Idomeneo, Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, or The Magic Flute! How could a person, naive and still growing, with limited life experience, fathom the human heart in its abyssal misery, or in soaring exuberance that David Hume spent a lifetime to explain?

Spoken language is a "discursive engagement" in reason -- a concatenation of reasonable utterances; this derivation is known as discursive reason. But music absorbs and projects meticulous grammatical symbolism that is completely devoid of any discursive element, and because of this inherent quality, it imports -- absorbs, the pattern of sentience, an awareness -- the pattern of life itself, and as a consequence, gifts us with Dynamic Subjective Experience (DSE), that language is oddly unfit to convey. DSE is what you are rewarded with when you experience high art. How do we experience this art? What is our investment and involvement for that reward -- that experience?

British artist and critic Roger Fry (1866-1934) euphemistically admonished the listeners and spectators in his essay "Vision and Design," claiming that the audience never quite acquires the state of oneness with art -- they never attain that "disinterested intensity of contemplation" -- the one condition in which the audience can perceive a work of art and experience the beauty in emotions. Unfortunately, most people are too occupied or lackadaisical to delink their minds from their usual interests before looking at a painting or listening to music. Mozart was a listener beyond compare, for that matter; it was his listening intensity, from his time in the womb till he passed away, that metastasized his genius. He was a collector of sounds. I agree with Roger Fry's observation. It is a terrible affliction of inattentiveness and apathy that consumes most of us and keeps us from connecting intimately with the sublime, and this is exactly why most of the Viennese, during Mozart's latter inventive phase, couldn't grasp the purity in his creations. Mozart himself ruefully admitted that his friends in Prague had better taste. Here's how Fry puts it: "In proportion as art becomes purer the number of people to whom it appeals gets less."

The discovery and design of musical scale goes back almost 2,500 years, and within the circumscription of the musical scale, antiquity built a theory of everything. The contemporary Western scale descended, in part, from the foundational arithmetic of Pythagoras. Legend has it that Pythagoras stumbled across the numerical ratios that define musical intervals while strolling past a blacksmith's shop. The hammers beating out iron on the anvil gave out sounds that were most harmonious in combination with one another. Such accidental perfection was intoxicating, but could that be recreated?! Thus, Pythagoras was credited with the consciousness that there was an innate affection between mathematics and sound. He discovered that the intervals -- interludes in music -- could be attained by the precise ratios of lengths of string or pipe used to create notes, thereby influencing instrument design. It's the grasp of such fundamentals that make Mozart so rare. As if the genius of antiquity, Pythagoras, and the genius of classical music had that esoteric telepathy across the ages.

Mozart completely understood the preciseness of simplicity, minimal and elegant ideas, and musical metaphors that enabled him to craft such refined compositions with the bare essentials, to the point that the minutest deviation became meaningful; henceforth, never actually exhausting the nuances nor the resources that made his creations profoundly original. And originality invariably equals beauty. This brings me to the taste and beauty in music that we fail to grasp by being somnolent. We are, for the most part, indifferent discursive beings, and it is hard for us to register within that preciseness of musical beauty, therefore missing out on the wondrous sublime, created by someone like Mozart. Perhaps Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) "The Critique of Judgment" would help us extrapolate the meaning of beauty from the philosophical heavings of aesthetics.

It's an imperative for any listener, or any fan of art, to understand the definition of taste if we are to appreciate the father of taste in music, Mozart. Having good taste means having that faculty of estimating the beautiful. But then, judgment of taste always involves a reference to understanding: the objectivity of analysis. Our cognition is a limited capacity tool in the estimation of beauty. What we need is detachment from our vanity and self interest, and focus our emotional imagination if we are to afford ourselves that intimacy and that rapturous high in art. In this way, we can gauge beauty in our feelings of pleasure. We also must understand that if we require beauty to represent a goal, an ideal, then it cannot be beauty. Real beauty is free and is at large -- it has this mysterious power of equality and freedom.

In his book Speaking of Beauty (2003), the Irish literary critic Denis Donoghue contradicts Hegel, as well as Kant, by proposing something rather interesting: "A beautiful thing holds its own and remains unintimidated by the analytic zeal" that Hegel ascribes to understanding. Hegel claims that the work of understanding is to analyze an idea; that is, to bring to bear upon it the power of the negative, to rid the idea of the form, in which it has become familiar. But beauty, powerless and helpless, despises understanding, because the latter extracts from it what it cannot perform. This means that beauty cannot deconstruct itself, cannot have itself broken into elements, or allow its form to become a possession of pure self-consciousness. The beautiful thing possesses its transcendent secret by allowing us to only perceive that it has one. Imagine the conscious dissection of Mozart's work, as opposed to feeling it!

The beauty in a musical composition is ascertained not only by its tonal structure, and not only by its historical context, but in part by the actual means of producing or making the structure audible. Imagine a musical composition "R" with specified performing means (SPM: instruments, players, and location) "H" which gives us a specific aesthetic quality "K." Therefore, performing means "I" would unequivocally produce something different than "K" -- or produce "K" to a greater or lesser degree than before. This leads us to the recognition, as well as the assertion, that SPM is an essential component that contributes to the beauty of the composition. This paradigm was distorted by Mozart, who "dropped" notes -- blanks on his composition sheet, for the parts that he could improvise on the spot based on the mood and atmosphere. To the utter amazement of his peers as well as his audience familiar with the composition, nothing was sacred -- that was his genius!


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About the Author

Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines.   (back)


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Published January 13, 2014