Appreciating Mozart

Near the beginning of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, Antonio Salieri, now an old man, recounts his stunned reaction upon first hearing a composition by Mozart many years earlier. He cries out to the audience, “Ah, the pain! Pain as I had never known it. I called up to my sharp old God, ‘What is this? . . . What is this pain? What is this need in the sound? Forever unfulfillable, yet fulfilling him who hears it, utterly. Is it Your need? Can it be Yours? . . .” In both the play and the film adaptation, Salieri comes to believe that Mozart’s music incarnates the very voice of God, a voice which taunts him both for his own mediocrity as a composer and for the fact that Mozart has been blessed with the gift that Salieri presumed was his. His resentment of the “sniggering, conceited, infantine Mozart”, and his conviction that God has broken a solemn pledge to grant him the gift of conducting the divine voice, eventually leads him down the path of madness. It is grand entertainment, and an astute portrayal of the psychology of a mercantile religion in which man creates a God of Bargains in his own image to serve his selfish ends.

My first exposure to Mozart didn't yield such dramatic consequences. It was 1989, and I was in the living room of our apartment in Bowling Green, KY, listening to the first classical disc I had ever purchased. It included two compositions, the Clarinet Concerto and the Oboe Concerto. What caught my attention was the Adagio, or slower second movement, of the Clarinet Concerto. Composed in 1791, the year of his death, it has struck many as one of Mozart’s greatest works, and one of the greatest works of any composer, and it’s not hard to understand its wide appeal. As the sound filled my room, I suspected I was hearing something extraordinary, though I had no resources to help me understand why and little idea that this and other compositions by Mozart would over time become so important to me. Like the Clarinet Quintet with which it is often paired on recordings, the concerto has the autumnal feel characteristic of the clarinet. Yet as is the case with much of Mozart’s music, there is a seamless union of contrasts that makes any simple description of mood impossible. I hear a wistfulness, and a longing at once sorrowful and celebratory. “Joyful melancholy,” as I once described it to an enquiring student. The German word sehnsucht comes to mind, especially as illustrated by CS Lewis throughout his work. It is little wonder that theologians such as Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI have been so captivated by Mozart and the beauty that shines through his music.

Any informed appreciation of Mozart will have to reckon with what these and other admirers have said about the beauty of Mozart’s music. But there are barriers to such appreciation, and Mozart’s music and reputation have endured many misunderstandings over the years, some of which hinder even otherwise well-educated listeners today.

One problem in appreciating the man and his music is the number of half-truths and misrepresentations about Mozart's life and personality that have flourished since the nineteenth century and which in our day have been popularized by Shaffer’s play first staged in 1979, and the better-known film adaptation of 1984. Together with the celebration of the bicentennial of Mozart’s death in 1991, the film played an important role in the tremendous growth of the Mozart industry over the past two-and-a-half decades. Both play and film, however, focus less on Mozart than on his fellow composer Antonio Salieri’s war with the God he believes has betrayed him by showering his blessings on Mozart. But they are also filled with enough references to the received mythology to mislead anyone who treats them as biographical. Neither are meant to give an accurate picture of the historical Mozart, Salieri, or their relationship, a point sometimes lost on critics, who have faulted Schaffer for his supposedly sloppy handling of the material, as well as those who saw only the film and assumed it to be an historically accurate portrayal.

Among the more popular myths Shaffer exploits: Mozart was stunted in his emotional growth by a domineering father; Mozart was a boorish brat who flouted social conventions and whose speech was marked by an unusual amount of scatalogical language; Mozart was a compositional genius who wrote fully formed masterpieces without need of revision; Mozart was never appreciated by the Viennese public or fellow composers; Mozart lived and died in obscurity and poverty; Salieri played a key role in Mozart’s death. Any decent biography of Mozart, along with a perusal of Mozart’s correspondence, will offer the needed corrections, and several monographs are available that chronicle the development of these and related myths (see the links below). 

Another obstacle to an informed appreciation of Mozart is the belief, especially popular in the early twentieth century, that his music is too simple for serious musicians and listeners drawn to the greater challenges of greater composers, particularly the titans of the Romantic era. In this view Mozart’s music is light and sweet, attractive on the surface because of its pretty melodies, but lacking in the profundity encountered in the music of composers like Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Wagner.

Artur Schnabel, one of the most important pianists of the first half of the twentieth century and famous for his cycle of Beethoven sonatas (the first to be recorded as an entire cycle), responded to this stereotype by praising “the unfathomable, transcendental qualities” of Mozart’s music. “Children are given Mozart because of the small quantity of the notes,” he said to a woman who wondered why he valued so highly a composer whom children played so well; “grown-ups avoid Mozart because of the great quality of the notes—which, to be true, is elusive!” And Artur Rubinstein, one of the most beloved pianist of the twentieth century, said with a touch of hyperbole that “Mozart can express in a few bars more than Beethoven in a whole movement of a sonata.” A more winsome expression of this sentiment came from the great Reformed theologian Karl Barth, who once claimed that upon arriving in heaven he would seek out Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin only after first sitting at Mozart’s feet: “It may be,” he wrote in A Letter of Thanks to Mozart, “that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille, they play Mozart and that then too our dear Lord listens with special pleasure.” Many scholars and musicians in the past half-century have offered similarly elevated assessments, placing Mozart at or near the top of the list of Greatest Composers along with Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner. While this is likely in part the result of changing musical tastes, it is also, and more importantly, a recognition of the depth in Mozart that has always been there.

The man behind the myths—Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart (“Amadeus” is the Latinized form of the fourth name; according to the way he signed letters, he seems to have preferred “Amadè")—saw himself principally as a craftsman. He composed music, in keeping with the standards of the day, to fulfill his employer’s needs and to earn a living. In his last decade, while residing in the competitive musical world of Vienna where obtaining secure employment proved difficult, he became a freelance artist of sorts, earning money, if not always consistently, through a series of concerts and the sale of his compositions. The notion of the artist as a tortured, anti-social, and impoverished figure, driven by an inner need to create Great Art and doomed to be misunderstood by most everybody, would not begin to take the form we are familiar with until long after Mozart’s death, and played no part of Mozart’s self-conception. Shaffer’s deliberately exaggerated portrayal in both play and film continues to mislead the lazy or gullible on these points.

Like every craftsman, Mozart nurtured his native abilities through the hard work of writing and rewriting, as manuscript evidence reveals. A consistent outpouring of first-and-only-draft miracles makes for a compelling story, but genuine miracles need little embellishment if received with gratitude. Mozart’s efforts yielded compositions in numerous forms, from large-scale operas to solo piano works. I think it safe to say that no other composer produced a greater number of recognized masterpieces in more forms than Mozart. Trying to plan a suitably diverse schedule for a musical season would be difficult even with musical giants such as Beethoven or Bach; with Mozart, the variety of great works is astonishing, and an all-Mozart year is easily conceivable. There are a handful of operas, at least a half-dozen symphonies and ten piano concertos, several wind and violin concertos, numerous other orchestral pieces that include serenades and divertimentos, several Masses including the famous unfinished Requiem, and a variety of chamber and solo works, including string quartets and quintets, that qualify as extraordinary in any age and which are performed on a regular basis. 

For some Christians Mozart’s close association with Freemasonry will be difficult to overlook. I’ll leave it to interested readers to track down the necessary information on the role the Freemasons played in 18th-century society, as well as discussions of just how “Catholic” Mozart was. Dangers abound, however, for anyone who insists that an artist must be theologically orthodox to be enjoyed by the faithful. “Being Catholic” in Mozart's world looked different than it does today, and those who complain that he wasn’t Catholic enough run the risk of historical anachronism, not to mention chronological snobbery. And we should always be on guard against the merest whiff of utilitarianism, a plague that has become nearly impossible to wipe out of the modern mind. Flannery O’Connor issued this appropriate warning about asking for the wrong things from art and artists: 

“Saint Thomas Aquinas says that art does not require rectitude of the appetite, that it is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made. He says that a work of art is good in itself, and this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten. We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and of itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.”

Benedict XVI has expressed his love for the music of Mozart on numerous occasions, claiming that “his music still touches me very deeply, because it is so luminous and yet at the same time so deep. His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence.” Karl Barth said something very similar: “What he translated into music was real life in all its discord. But in defiance of that, and on the sure foundation of God’s good creation, and because of that, he moves always from left to right, never the reverse. This, no doubt, is what is meant by his triumphant ‘charm.’” Triumphant for a host of reasons, only some of which I have suggested. Let the final word come from Red, the long-time inmate of Shawshank State Penitentiary, whose first-hand knowledge of suffering and despair makes him a fitting candidate to understand Mozart’s music, even if he admits his ignorance.

A few links

From Gramophone Magazine, here is a brief online guide to sorting through recordings of some of Mozart’s best-known works. Gramophone also used to publish a yearly guide to classical music recordings; despite a noticeable bias toward British conductors, musicians, and labels, it was useful, especially when starting a CD collection. For reviews of older recordings of Mozart and other composers, check out the wonderfully opinionated Classical Music, which is far more inclusive than the Gramophone guides, even if it is growing more dated every year. If you're interested in historical recordings, you'll want to get a copy of this. My own collection of historical and more recent recordings has also been guided by excellent customer reviews by well-informed listeners on Amazon. Some dross, yes, but some jewels, as well. I've found that reviewers of classical music on Amazon tend to be more trustworthy than reviewers of other products.

The Mozart mythology is discussed in William Stafford, The Mozart Myths: A Critical Reassessment and Roye E. Wates, Mozart: An Introduction to the Music, the Man, and the Myths. I highly recommend the Wates book as an entry to everything in its title; this might be the best single book for beginners interested in learning about Mozart.

A helpful, annotated selection of Mozart’s letters is Robert Spaethling, Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life.

H. C. Robbins Landon has published several excellent studies of Mozart. He edits the invaluable The Mozart Compendium: A Guide to Mozart’s Life and Music, which provides overviews of the life and music by leading Mozart scholars. Other standard reference works include The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia and The Compleat Mozart: A Guide to the Musical Works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The authoritative biography, first published shortly after World War I and recently updated with annotations on each page, is Hermann Abert, W. A. Mozart. This will help you appreciate the term “weighty tome.” Peter Gay's Mozart: A Life is also accessible, if a little uneven, while Maynard Solomon's Mozart: A Life is often marred by attempts to psycho-analyze Mozart that have the effect of making him easier to fit into modern categories.

Karl Barth has several short pieces on Mozart collected in Wolfgang Amadeus MozartAnd Hans Küng, the former bad boy of Catholic theologians, offered his reflection in Mozart: Traces of Transcendence.

Finally, a recent and excellent documentary is “In Search of Mozart,” featuring commentary from composers and musicians.

Anthony DiStefano