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Sublime but not divine
Andrew Clark

          Did God choose Mozart? For the past 250 years an influential body of opinion has assumed so. His elder sister told an obituary writer that even as a three-year-old Mozart had shown "extraordinary, God-given talent". When Mozart was 12, his father Leopold defended the decision to exhibit him round Europe by saying it was his duty "to proclaim to the world a miracle, which God allowed to be born in Salzburg". After his death in 1791 the notion that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had been uniquely blessed took hold. He had been chosen by divine providence sent something perfect.
Nothing in the intervening two and a half centuries -- not even disclosures about Mozart's less-than-divine language or lifestyle -- has succeeded in denting this view. Barely a month ago the German news magazine Der Spiegel carried a cover story under the headline "Das himmlische Kind" (The heavenly child). It maintained that "just a few bars of his music are enough to make it immediately obvious why, in subway stations where Mozart's music is played, the crime rate drops". Mozart opens the ears of the unborn, it says, he reawakens a belief in God.
It is easy to understand why the divine view of Mozart still holds sway. The 19th and 20th centuries spawned all sorts of Mozart myths, encouraging people to believe that not only was every piece of music he wrote a work of genius, but that it flowed from his pen without effort. Milos Forman's 1984 film Amadeus compounded those myths, while creating one of its own: that Mozart was a clown. To this day Mozart's music is generally believed to represent a perfection of pleasantness. And perfection is not human.
The divine inspiration theory is a convenient way of ducking the question most fundamental to a proper understanding of Mozart: what made him special? Why was Mozart, more than anyone else, able to create music that has resonated down the ages, transcending barriers of age, ethnicity, taste and education? And what are the particular characteristics that distinguish a Mozart score from the work of his contemporaries?
You might have expected these questions to come into detailed consideration somewhere in the deluge of books published to coincide with the 250th anniversary of his birth on January 27. But no: Mozart's "specialness" is so all-encompassing, so self-explanatory, that no musicological explanation or contextual analysis is apparently necessary. It is as if, by recounting the life, appraising the works and sketching the background, it will be obvious why Mozart holds the place he does.
And anyway, asking what made Mozart special is to ask the unanswerable, isn't it? Despite the enormous advances in genetic research over the past 40 years we still don't know what biological factors govern the distribution and concentration of talent. All we can say is that Mozart's "gift" was a unique fusion of genetic happenstance and musical environment.
Even if science has not advanced far enough to divine the secret of his genius, the latest Mozart bibliography at least furnishes us with a more accurate picture of his life and music than was previously available. The weightiest of these new tomes is the Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia. It cites personality traits that have had little place in the traditional view of the composer, such as complacency, arrogance and a need to be loved for himself and not for his musical achievements -- the latter a product of his being paraded around Europe like a circus animal from the age of seven.
Stanley Sadie brings us closer to the composer's skin. Mozart: The Early Years 1756-1781 is the most balanced guide to Mozart's youth ever published in English. Sadie's self-confessed aim is to be comprehensive and it is to his great credit that he wears his learning lightly while reaching so many corners of Mozart's world. All the more tragic, then, that Sadie, one of the most eminent English musicologists of the past 50 years, should have died before completing a companion volume on the composer's final-decade. His book nevertheless stands well on its own, because it diverts our gaze from the fully formed works on which Mozart's reputation is staked and focuses on the youthful experiences and influences that made them possible.
In Mozart and his Operas, by contrast, David Cairns homes in on the mature masterpieces, examining them from a noticeably more Anglophone viewpoint than Sadie. Unlike Sadie, who lays out the evidence and leaves us to draw our own conclusions, Cairns writes with the zeal of a missionary, arguing his case with evidence drawn from a lifetime's fascination with his subject. Mozart's music, he writes, "is an ever-expanding universe. The better we know it ... the more marvellous it becomes". But this is a partial view, hanging on a narrow slice of Mozart's output.
Where Cairns scores is in his analysis of Mozart's attitude to women. Of the three da Ponte operas, the only one revealing a split in the approach of composer and librettist, he says, is Cosi fan tutte. Lorenzo da Ponte's view of the sexes was one-sided; Mozart's music restores the balance. By implying the incompleteness of the lovers' reconciliation at the final curtain, Mozart makes it "true to life" -- an issue delicately sidestepped in Anthony Holden's The Man Who Wrote Mozart. Despite the title of this new biography of da Ponte, Mozart emerges as the senior partner.
As for Emanuel Schikaneder, Mozart's other great librettist, Cairns says the original draft for Die Zauberflöte is "full of condescending or disparaging comments (about women] fit to raise the hackles not simply of feminists but of anyone with the most elementary sense of justice". Here again Mozart transcended his librettist's misogyny: "By the middle of the second act Pamina and her progress have become the central issue of the drama and the inspiration of the most intensely charged music."
Reappraisal of Mozart's women, to the point of tipping the balance from one extreme to the other, is very much in keeping with our zeitgeist. So is the process of going back to sources, weighing their reliability and revising inherited interpretations. In his short prologue and epilogue, Cairns debunks as many of the myths surrounding Mozart as he can find. So does Jeremy Siepmann in his brief study, Mozart: His Life and Music. But the best equipped in this regard is Early Music enthusiast Nicholas Kenyon. His Faber Pocket Guide to Mozart is not just the cheapest but the most down-to-earth and succinct of anniversary commentaries.
We know now, for example, that the Sinfonia Concertante for wind instruments, long-established in the Köchel catalogue of Mozart's works, was almost certainly not composed by him; that the published score of Mitridate includes an aria by Quirino Gasparini, who had already written an opera to the same libretto; that the Requiem is as much a fabrication of posterity as an authentic Mozart score.
More significantly, new light has been thrown on Mozart's use of language, his health, finances and working methods. Contrary to popular belief, the frequent references he made to "shit" and "arsehole" -- a supposedly infantile fascination for the scatological that still shocks believers in the "divine" Mozart -- were not personal to him or indicative of a scatty nature. No, these words and references were a lingua franca in the Mozart family, including his mother.
Studies of the paper he used have shown how he sometimes started works and broke off -- countering the notion that Mozart always wrote fully finished masterpieces straight from his head. As to his earnings, it transpires he was probably not as impoverished in his final years as has been claimed. And his corpse was definitely not given a pauper's burial or flung into a communal grave. The third class funeral chosen by Constanze, his widow, was one that most Viennese opted for -- the result of Emperor Joseph II's reforms, aimed at curbing the costly and ostentatious burial customs popular in 1780s Vienna.
Of course, the myth of a pauper's burial may be too deeply entrenched to be destroyed: it suits the notion of the miraculous being who vanished as mysteriously as he had come. If so, the chasm between academic research and popular perception is set to grow, not narrow.
Which makes it all the more vital that scholars descend from the clouds and specify what it was in Mozart's nature and nurture than made him unusual, and what are the ingredients that distinguish his music. No one today could convincingly claim there's something "special" about Mozart's early works. Their only value is the light they shed on his development, illustrating how he taught himself from others' music and built the foundations for his own creativity.
What distinguished Mozart was not just his receptivity to sound and musical organisation -- something that was determined genetically. There has to be more to it than that, because many other musicians, from Felix Mendelssohn to Nat King Cole, have proved themselves equally receptive. I would even venture that similarly great talents exist today -- but they have little or nothing to say because their talent does not correspond to the time in which they live.
Mozart's talents corresponded exactly to the time in which he lived -- an aesthetic world of extreme formality, which he used as a backdrop for his great powers of expression. And he was given the ideal introduction to it, being raised and educated by a man, Leopold Mozart, who had written the foremost book on music-making of his time; a man who was himself an accomplished composer, who had the wherewithal to recognise and exploit his son's extraordinary talent. By the age of 12 Mozart had met just about every major living composer and, in Mannheim, worked with the greatest orchestra of his day. It was an advantage of humungous proportions.
Mozart worked within the strict musical forms of his time but transcended the limitations of his contemporaries. What enabled him to do so was his sense of invention and improvisation, harmonically as well as melodically. No one else made scales and simple melodic passages sound so interesting. The material itself is not "difficult", but Mozart adds ingredients that keep it from sounding routine. Even when he introduces dissonances, the music is never ugly. In its highest state, it is the expression of utter beauty. That is what makes it immortal.
If Mozart had lived in Siberia or the Sahara it is unlikely he would have written music of such proportion and depth as the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola. If he was born today I doubt if he would be writing music at all. But the wonder of Mozart is that no "ifs" are necessary. He is a rare instance of one man, one time, one place, the fusion of which gave us a musical legacy that is heavenly for its very humanity.
Under syndication arrangement
with FE


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