Swans Commentary » swans.com March 10, 2014  



Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
His Humane and Transcendental Brilliance


by Raju Peddada


Monuments of civilization: Analysis of classics  


Part I



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"Mozart is Music!"
—Charles Hazlewood, British Conductor & orchestral advocate for BBC.

"Mozart is oxygen to me!" —Dr. Heribert Moellinger, Lugano, Switzerland. (My co-passenger on Swissair flight 008, from Zurich to Chicago in December 2013.)

[Author's preface: On the 27th of January, Johann Chrysostomus Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's 258th birth anniversary innocuously sailed by us, like an aircraft carrier in the fog, while we sat at the pier, distracted with our trifles. The pastel acknowledgment on the National Public Radio stations across the land was the only tribute. This for a man whose music today is played in every sphere, 24/7. Mozart's originality is the hidden promise that people still cannot grasp, and he took away infinitely more, in the further development and invention of music, had he not physically passed on. His work is the monumental wonder we cannot see, but feel and enjoy. It is difficult for me to write about Mozart without in some way undermining or violating the sanctity of the man and his genius. But then, this is exactly the kind of adoration, from ordinary individuals, the maestro would have relished. Let us try to learn why our ignorance is inversely proportionate to his awareness, and why Mozart is Mozart.]


(Swans - March 10, 2014)   As I bring myself to write this in early February, I casually glance out of the cafe, sipping my coffee, and see this leaden pall descending on the day. Shadowless cars float listlessly behind each other, taking their occupants to their banal pursuits -- influencing my mood for that hallucinogenic, yet agitative Piano sonata No. 8 in A-minor (K310). Writing about Mozart is a melancholic endeavor. The story of irony itself: Short-lived flame begetting blinding immortality -- Shakespearean pathos. If art is a byproduct of living, then nobody has lived more intensely or passionately than him. And if one had even the thinnest residue of passion, it would not be difficult to comprehend the resolute probity of Mozart, in sustaining the integrity of his art. It is his naiveté and innocence that gifted us this wondrous purity -- and, where else can we find that purity, other than in children?

It was the last day of May 2013, 48 hours to their summer break. The boys were diabolically exuberant in their hilarity and horsing around, while I tried to enjoy Mussorgsky's romanticism (Modest Mussorgsky, 1839-1881). But, their boisterous repartee persisted through Chopin's instrumental ballads (Frederic Chopin, 1810-1849). Then came Mozart on the carrousel CD changer, with his serenades for winds in B-Flat Major, "Gran Parita" (K.361-370a, 1780-82 *). We felt a sudden, majestic, and palpable gust within in that oboe-horn combination (No. 10). It was a proclamation: the arrival of that long awaited summer!

It took all but a few seconds for the boys to abandon their horsing. First is was Mani, who simply collapsed on the sofa, with his hands behind his head, looking up at the ceiling, then Butch sat, with his knees pulled in under his contemplating chin, staring at the rug. I was so overcome by this effect on the boys that I had to steal myself quickly to another room. Later, I came out and asked, "What happened, tired...?" Before I could complete my question, Mani, with frustration, whined, "Daaady... I want to listen!" Just as serenade No. 10 started to fade out, Butch exclaims "Aaah! I was in an awesome garden... it was so cool!" That evening, every serenade was played twice, some numbers thrice. Why is it that kids register Mozart so quickly? Isn't it because they are fully invested in listening, unlike adults? Roger Fry was right (read "Overture: In Search of Mozart's Sublimity" Part I, on Swans.com). "The Mozart effect," by the pediatric psychologists, was an understatement.

How did this talent manifest in Mozart? Did some paranormal authority drip alchemistical libation through a secret trap door on his cranium? Was he a cosmic glob that piggybacked on a meteorite and crash-landed here like Superman, or does his genius reside in some esoteric equation? He definitely was not created by God (invention of insecure tribal men)! How could god, the author of human bestiality, create the creator of equality and sublime beauty? My hypothesis finds credence in the treatment of Mozart by the two acolytes of god, the Archbishops of Salzburg during his lifetime, who, in their presumptuous vacuity, never did recognize Mozart, even if he had sprouted wings. And there are many such "pious" followers of god who tried their best to reduce Mozart to their own level of futility. No, God did not create Mozart.

Individuals like Mozart are just like you and I, created by their fathers and mothers and the homes they make. We were blessed the moment Leopold's sperm fertilized Anna Maria's egg sometime in the spring of 1755. Mozart listened, while in his mother's womb. And, once born, the process of absorption was exponential, as music gushed in Leopold's house constantly, he being the deputy director for music for the Prince Archbishop. I am sure that the 46 pairs of chromosomes carrying 92,000 genes from Anna Maria and Leopold were imprinted with music that metastasized in our maestro. Is this some atavistic fantasy from 2156 AD? No, this was discovered and published by geneticists recently: our taste, and the choices we make, become genetic imprints that shape our progeny's destiny. ** Unfortunately, Mozart's brilliance obscures the three loved ones that shaped him -- his mother, Anna Maria; his sister, Maria Anna "Nanerl"; and most significantly, Leopold. We get great insight into his relationships and the tutelage that Mozart experienced in person, and through their letters, as both he and his father were passionate participants in this process.

Who was Leopold Mozart? He was the man who crafted Mozart -- he was his discoverer, nurturer, mentor, and promoter. Most Mozart scholars through the generations have given lip service to Leopold, and even brushed him aside, in their gushing over his son. I look at it differently -- his influence and impact on his son was callously underestimated. He was the greatest of musical teachers in Europe, and had issued "Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule" (A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing). It takes one creative man to recognize another. How many of us would take our 5-year-old seriously? Leopold did, and helped change everything in music. Here's an example of how Leopold treated his young student-son, with seriousness and respect:

"Mozart considered Andreas Schachtner's violin 'the butter fiddle' as he often played on it. One day while playing on it, Schachtner, happened upon him who asked 'What have you done with your butter fiddle?' Mozart stopped, and pondered awhile and then added 'if you have not altered the tuning of your violin since I last played upon it, it is a half a quarter of a tone flatter than mine here.' This unusual exactitude of ear and memory was first laughed at, but the father thought proper to have the violin sent and examined, and the result proved that the boy was perfectly correct." Excerpt from "The life of Mozart" by Edward Holmes, 1845

The singular genius of the greatest composer of all time, and his immortality, began to take shape on that fateful spring day in 1761. Leopold and his violinist friend Andreas Schachtner walked into the apartment to discover his little boy of 5, with stained hands, just putting finishing touches on a small piano concerto, decipherable, under the blots and smudges of ink. Leopold, dubious at first, and despite protests from the boy, took the paper, only to start weeping upon carefully reading it -- then, had the boy play it on the family harpsichord (KV1a Andante in C ***, KV1b Allegro in C&F, KV1d Minuet in F, and KV1e Minuet in C, all 1761). On the stained sheet, Leopold saw originality and ideas in music far beyond his boy's age. The concerto was written with a full score of accompaniments. Leopold convulsed with tears of pride, astonishment, gratitude, recognition of something profound, and most of all, anxiety -- as his life mission was changed forever.

Leopold staggered at the impossibility of telling his son anything which he did not already know. How could that be? This was so mystifying that he sat alone in the dark, almost every night to contemplate. What stupefied Leopold was not only his son's instant comprehension of a concept, but more than anything, it was his inclination to experiment and improvise. It is hard to accept, except with a dose of incredulity, that a boy, so early in his learning cycle, showed enterprise and enthusiasm towards the precise discipline of music, and more confoundedly its manipulation. This proclivity for improvisation was revealed in several incidents and accidents, pathetic and comedic in their unfolding. Leopold, astute as ever, saw into his son's "deliberate mistakes" as the signals for something far more profound -- the reinvention of music.

At a tender age, he could imagine the combination of instruments needed for producing sounds for moods -- his grasp on the "effects of sound," as represented by what was only written on the paper was stupendous to say the least. He, at a very young age, had the unfathomable capacity to compose, without the aid of instruments, something intimidating, even for advanced students of music. It was his sister, Nanerl, who gives us this rare window into Mozart's development in her invaluable journals. It also elevated Leopold's realization of the overwhelming responsibility and duty at hand. Home schooling Mozart was no easy task -- the teacher had to learn, to keep up with his student.

Leopold, inebriated with positive energy, recognized what would spur his son. He knew that stagnation always ruined talent. It needed air, transaction, inspiration, and support. Parental applause is great, but for someone like Mozart, was it enough? His skills were not just for the family room, but the for theaters of the world. Leopold was almost clairvoyant at how his son would respond, and his need to be on the stage, to be energized and to grow -- which meant playing in front of large aristocratic and musically savvy audiences. On the 9th of June, 1763, despite it being the last year of the war -- he and his entire family set out in a carriage to visit various capitals and courts to perform. This was the original promotion tour! Word of his magic spread like wildfire. Mozart and Nanerl were requested to perform concertos, with gimmicks like playing blindfolded, and reverse-playing compositions to the absolute amazement and disbelief of their royal audiences. Leopold was right. Here's an excerpt from his letter, to his friend, Schachtner, in Salzburg:

"In a word, what he was on leaving Salzburg is but the shadow of what he is at present; he surpasses all that you can imagine... the high and mighty Wolfgang, though only eight, possesses the acquirements of a man of forty. In short, those only who see and hear can believe; and even you in Salzburg know nothing about him, he is so changed!"

The one indubitable thing that distinguishes Mozart from other composers is his inexplicable and supreme capacity to improvise, on the spot -- which he had been known to do since he was 6. It was something congenital, even solecistic. Established court composers and conductors sat with him to play at improvisation. The musical experts would give him a lower or a minor key to start with, which Mozart took over (just like in the game, where a complete story is improvised from one beginning sentence) and issued forth a fountain of music, to the wariness and exasperation of the challengers. As Mozart blossomed in his repertoire, his peers' incredulity and astonishment slowly turned to envy, and then to systematic jealousy. Touring made Mozart a household name, but this publicity became a double-edged sword. Nobody understood this better than Leopold, who became increasingly anxious over his son's career.

One has to understand why almost every musical contemporary of Mozart: the nobles, the court musicians, directors, composers, and kapellmeisters, felt the way they did about him. If you can, for once, put yourself in the shoes of these gray, tenured, salaried, and pensioned court musicians of the time, scratching out a living in the wake of a war -- one day suddenly being presented and introduced to the little 10-year-old Mozart, in whose diffident and innocent smile they soon perceived their mediocrity reduced to musical futility and nullity. This reality was piercingly portrayed in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus (1984), directed by Milos Forman, where Mozart is summoned before emperor Joseph II and his coterie of court musicians to explain why he was writing the banned play The Marriage of Figaro as an opera. The scene is a perfect symbolic dramatization of how mediocre and clever men, through their deliberate composure -- hiding their pounding anxiety, sycophancy, seemingly prudent and sincere interest in public good -- try to derail the genius, except get annihilated by his passion.

"Genius gives birth to jealousies -- and they both are inseparable," Italian composer Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) observed, when recommending Mozart to a Roman theater manager, who expressed this after witnessing Mozart's work: "I could not say for certain whether his music would please at first, being somewhat complicated, but, that should Mozart be accepted, it would be all over for several masters in Europe." Before we get distracted into the Italian and German politics of music of the mid 18th century, let us accept in earnest that exquisite and discerning taste in music had been a German monopoly, one of the two they are known for, the other being wars. It's this superiority of German musical sensibilities that Mozart epitomized.

The 7-year war, from 1754 through 1763, was a geopolitical gangrene. What was this war that consumed so many nations? You guessed it -- more control and land. It was, for all intents and purposes, the first world war. It was ignited here in the U.S. as the French and Indian War for the control of Canada, with major repercussions. But what consumed Europe was the Silesian War between Prussia and Austria for the control within and outside of the Holy Roman Empire -- which involved the purging, as well as building, of alliances, successions, and treaties that included Prussia, Austria, and many other nations. In the aftermath of this war, every treasury was depleted, rulers were jittery, with tenuous borders, employment was spare and almost non-existent, and the mass migration began for the new world. And into this instability, yet a welcome calm, Mozart was born. By the time the war had receded into history, Mozart wrote his own, composing his first concerto at 5. It was as if fate intervened and proclaimed: "Enough of wars! Let's come together, in Mozart!"

The earliest biography of Mozart, in 1798, is the by Czech writer, Franz Niemetschek, who considered the maestro, the aesthetic rampart against declining public taste. The other attempt in 1826 was by Mozart's widow, Constanze, whose second husband, Georg Nikolaus Von Nissen, had compiled extensive papers on Mozart. Edward Holmes had once said: "Where can we start to apply objectivity to this phenomenon?" Holmes went on to issue a beautiful portrait of the master in 1845 titled The Life of Mozart, with excerpts from many letters. This brings us to the most revealing source of the Mozarts -- the almost 1200 letters, from 1755 through 1791. Mozart's letters were replete with common street humor, sometimes in fits of wrath, containing coarse and crude comments, and with inordinately large amount of scatological references. Immortal does not mean sterile hypocritical prudes, it's just being human. But all this information is still not enough to decipher his drive. Did he know he had only 35 years?

How do we explain Mozart? How can we rationalize a flashing comet that for a brief moment in time coruscates us, then vanishes? Perhaps the only way to understand Mozart is to fictionalize him, to conjure him as an allegory -- as some mythological figure, like Perseus or Hercules. Then maybe we could grasp his humility and humanity that overpowered his contemporaries, and the enormity of his creative genius in the most intimidating and emotive art form of all: the design of sound for our enjoyment. In the 223 years elapsed since his physical death, his story has taken the form of an ancient myth, fantastic in its narrative force that mocks oblivion in its face. What shaped this force that oblivion cannot swallow?

If we are to fathom Mozart's greatness, we must, vicariously, experience his era, conditions, circumstances, and people, and when we filter him through these variables, then perhaps we might understand his resolute and mysterious majesty. But if you really want to experience and understand the sublime in music, regardless of who the composer is, then just listen -- just listen to him -- and you will know all there is to know about him.


*  1780-82 The composition of the B-flat serenade (K-361) coincided with Mozart's decision to leave his position of "slavery" with the Archbishop of Salzburg, and move to Vienna. At the end of 1780 he was in Munich on a leave of absence, preparing Idomeneo, which had been commissioned for the Bavarian Court Theater -- fulfilling his greatest desire to write for the stage.  (back)

**  Discovery of Epigenetics, BBC; Why your DNA isn't your destiny, by John Cloud, TIME Magazine, Jan. 6, 2010.  (back)

***  KV1a Andante in C is actually his first composition in 1761, which changed the course of the history of music.  (back)


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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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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 10, 2014