Missives from K-Mozart
November 17, 2013 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
When we see the great figures of history from our vantage point in the present, they become more than mere human beings. They become symbols, taking on narratives of struggle or ease, tirelessness or playfulness, adherence to authority or roguishness. Beethoven for example, is a figure we associate with struggle, creativity, perhaps even with fury, while Bach on the other hand seems to us to represent relentless hard work and humility. What then does Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart stir in our imaginations? We understand that he was a man with flaws and talents, who experienced love and loss, and who composed for thirty of his nearly thirty-six years. But he is also a symbol. His music represents pristine perfection, the epitome of the Classical style.
To put that into perspective, let’s explore where the Classical period falls in the context of music history.
Our Western music history charts a course from the written record started in the ninth century with the neumatic notation of Gregorian chant. (This early notation was not originally intended to be a record for the ages; it served as a mnemonic device to remind singers of tunes they already knew.) Of course music existed before this first writing—fragments of notation have been found in many parts of the world—but the notation of chant is the beginning of the record of the Western tradition. As chant became more complex, notation evolved to save the nuances on paper, and this continued apace through the Middle Ages. Music printing with moveable type was invented shortly after Guttenberg’s printing press produced the Guttenberg Bible. Although music printing was still arduous and time-consuming, mass production and dissemination was possible, spreading notation much further and wider than ever before. Because more music was available for study, certain musical forms and styles became standardized in both the Renaissance and Baroque periods. By the High Baroque period, the genres of the time were so firmly entrenched that the concentration of composers became complex decoration and ornamentation. The rate of change over those first two and a half centuries of music printing is astonishing when viewed in retrospect.
Then, sometime around 1730-50, it was clear that the style was changing. Complexity was giving way to simplicity. Symmetry and order were held up as ideals. This was a time period that visual artists and architects call “Neoclassical” because it looked back to the symmetry and formulaic perfection of Classical (Greek and Roman) art and architecture. These same principles were valued in music, although in music this time is simply called the Classical period (and not “Neoclassical”) since there was no ancient Greek and Roman musical record to emulate. (At least none that we can understand in full!)
To that end, musical forms were present for nearly every genre, and these forms show a balanced, logical flow. Mozart grasped the forms from a very early age, writing small keyboard pieces starting when he was five. His precocious childhood showed that he was adept at learning the music of others and performing it brilliantly, while simultaneously assimilating the best practices from the artists who came before. He was also developing a style of his own, a style that fit perfectly into the ideals of the time.
If he had been born fifty years earlier or fifty years later, Mozart might not have clicked so easily into the prevailing style. The Classical period lasted barely a century, and Mozart matured at the height of it. His talent was not primarily about pushing boundaries (although he did give a good shove now and then), it was about taking the established forms and making them seem fresh and new. He was incredibly inventive within these boundaries. There is no doubt that Mozart’s late compositions provide the quintessential examples of Classicism in nearly every genre.
Mozart died in 1791, one month shy of his thirty-sixth birthday. His contemporary Joseph Haydn, who was born twenty-four years before Mozart and outlived him by nearly two decades, was witness to Mozart’s development as an artist. In a letter from 1798, Haydn called Mozart’s works “inimitable,” “musically intelligent,” and “extraordinarily sensitive.” Mozart, for his part, was a great admirer of “Papa” Haydn (his nickname among the musicians in his charge), and learned a great deal from close study of, among other things, Haydn’s string quartets. In a New York Times article about the relationship between Haydn and Mozart, musicologist H.C. Robbins Landon says of Mozart: “Haydn taught him economy.”
Mozart’s “lasts” are of great interest to scholars because we mine them for clues of what might have been. What might Mozart have done with his forty-second symphony or his twenty-eighth piano concerto? What could he possibly have done to follow Die Zauberflöte? Arguably the most famous “last” of all is the one that stirs up the most questions since Mozart left it incomplete.
Mozart’s Requiem was written for a commission that the composer received from Count Franz von Walsegg. An amateur musician and music lover, Walsegg asked Mozart to write the Requiem for the first anniversary of his wife’s passing. The history of what happened after Mozart’s death is clouded. We do know that Franz Xavier Süssmayr completed the Requiem, but we are still uncertain as to how much is based on sketches and how much was newly invented. Mozart’s wife Constanze had a vested interest in getting people the public to believe that the work was entirely her husband’s. The money from Walsegg’s commission—and numerous benefit concerts—depended on that fact. Furthermore, Süssmayr, out of a sense of pride, eventually wanted people to know that he was responsible for parts of the revered piece. These interests, at odds with each other, have kept the truth at least partially obscured since 1791.
Mozart will always represent Classical perfection, clarity, transparency, and charm. He will also represent the artist who died too early, and because of that we will always wonder about where he might have gone and what he might have done had he lived to compose alongside Beethoven and Schubert. Would he have cracked open the door to the Romantic period and shouldered his way in? Or would he have died an old man, set in his ways, a Classicist to the end? He was a man, flesh and blood, which means that he could not go on forever. Luckily, though, his music can.