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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

On Wolfgang

This year marks the two-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's birth. I've yet to say anything about it, because I'm not really sure what to say about it -- another blogger droning on about what a genius Mozart was would just be, well, another blogger droning on about what a genius Mozart was. I'll figure something out eventually, since this blog is all about personal reflections and meditations and such. In the meantime, here's an excerpt from a chapter of a quite wonderful book I recently read, Of Music and Men by Deems Taylor. The book is copyrighted 1937, which means that Taylor was writing in a time when Stravinsky was still an active composer, Aaron Copland had yet to really hit his stride, "talking motion pictures" were still fairly new, and jazz was still in a kind of infancy (which explains the mainly dismissive, and at times almost nasty, tone Taylor adopts when he mentions it).

Taylor was a prominent music writer during the first half of the twentieth century, although he's probably now best known for his appearance in the Walt Disney film Fantasia (Taylor's the man who delivers the "program notes" in between selections in the film). I learned, reading Of Music and Men, that Taylor was also a composer. I've heard not a single note of his music, and I am now fairly curious about it. In addition to several operas, Taylor was one of the composers who wrote a fanfare at the behest of Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conductor Eugene Goossens, only one of which -- Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" -- is ever heard today. (There's a cool recording idea: putting all of the Goossens fanfares on a single CD.) Maybe he'll turn up on Naxos's "American Classics" series at some point...but until then, here's a bit of one of Taylor's essays, about the idea that a composer's music represents in some way the inner emotional life of the composer. A good chunk of the essay is about dear Wolfgang:

No one pretends that by looking at a painting you can tell whether or now the artist had the money to pay his rent; and very few people would undertake to tell you, from reading a poem, whether or not the poet was hungry at the time. But people who talk about music, including a good many critics and commentators who ought to know better, insist on confusing the emotions they feel on hearing music, with the mental processes of the composer. Most of Mozart's music is simple and cheerful in character; therefore Mozart was a cheerful little man, whose sunny disposition made him impervious to worry.


Take Mozart first. He was born in domestic service. His father, Leopold Mozart, was a musician attached to the household of the Archbishop of Salzburg. As such, although he was a violinist and composer, he had the standing of a servant. Actually, that isn't as bad as it sounds. Such was the social standing of nearly all composers in his day. Things have improved since then, of course. Formerly, we paid them to compose, and made them eat with the help. Now, we let them eat with the family, and don't pay them anything. At least, Mozart's father had a living. Ont he other hand, we do know that his brilliant son resented the life he led.

Between his sixth and twenty-first years, Mozart made nine tours of Europe as a pianist and composer. It is customary to assume that his father was a mercenary and heartless tyrant, who exploited his son's talents for his own advantage, and so wore him out with incessant traveling and public appearances that the strain eventually killed him. This isn't strictly true. What Mozart's father was trying to do was to find some European ruler or church dignitary who would engage his talented son as a staff musician -- in other words, give him the only opportunity a composer had, in those days, of supporting himself. Incidentally, he never found one. The actual money returns from those trips barely paid expenses. He did make about $3,500 on one tour, but for the most part the elder Mozart would return with his son to Salzburg with a collection of snuffboxes, watches, rings, and fine words -- and no money. Nevertheless, I believe that those first twenty years were the happiest in Mozart's life.

In 1772, when he was sixteen, he did get a position as concertmaster to the new Archbishop of Salzburg, at a salary of about $75 a year. Even Mozart couldn't live on that, so in the intervals of turning out musical masterpieces he gave piano lessons. In his twenty-third year the Archbishop raised his salary and made him full Kapellmeister. But the two didn't get along. The Archbishop felt that since Mozart was in his employ, he ought to do what he was told, and go where he was told. Mozart had different ideas. He felt that his talents entitled him to some freedom of action, and he didn't like being placed above the cook and below the footmen at the dinner table. He and his employer finally had a serious quarrel, and parted forever.

In 1782, when he was twenty-six, Mozart married. And by some grim coincidence, from that time on he never had any permanent source of income. He lived by giving piano lessons -- including some to an eighteen-year-old boy named Beethoven -- and by what money he could get from his compositions. It mat seem strange that he didn't make a comfortable living out of his operas, many of which, notably Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute, were extremely popular. But popularity was no source of income in those times. A composer was paid a flat sum for an opera, which then became the property of whichever theatre took it first. it could be resold in turn to dozens of other opera houses, but the money went to the original owner, not to the composer. Even to make a living just above the starvation line, Mozart had to compose continuously, selling outright everything he wrote.

In '87 he did get a $400-a-year job as chamber musician to the court of Vienna. But he lost even that position two years later. His last commission came in the summer of 1791, from a Count von Walsegg, who had a habit of buying works from composers and having them played as his own. The Count wanted a requiem mass, and Mozart set to work on it, although he was on what proved to be his deathbed. Incidentally, to the credit of the Count, be it said that when he did have the mass performed, two years later, it was under the composer's name. Mozart died before the mass was finished, on December 5, just before his thirty-sixth year. Everybody was very much upset by the news. One of his former patrons, the Baron von Swieten, actually called upon his widow, the next day, to advise her not to spend too much money on the funeral. She didn't. She didn't have it to spend. Mozart was buried in the pauper's field in Vienna -- just where, no one knows.

[Here Taylor gives a similar bio of Tchaikovsky and compares their two lives.]

How much actual reflection of Mozart's unhappy life do you find in his music? Almost none at all. Most of his greatest works were written during his worst years, financially, but you will find little in them of gloom or despair. He did write a requiem mass virtually for his own death, but just before that he had written a successful musical comedy, The Magic Flute< the champagne of whose score still sparkles.

And what of Tchaikovsky? A great critic once wrote of his work: "Tchaikovsky's music awakens in the breast the haunting, unanswerable questions of life and death that concern us directly and personally." That is quite true. It is also quite true of any great music, whether it be Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Mozart's G-Major, Brahms's First, the Liebestod, or The Afternoon of a Faun.


If you want to know what a bad time Wagner had during the 1850s and '60s, go to his letters, not to his music. In the former you will find the outpourings of a tormented and discouraged man. In the latter you will find only the triumphant achievements of a musical djinn, a creative demon whose sole concern was with turning out masterpieces of art without the slightest regard for the miseries of the highly uncomfortable human being that it happened to be inhabiting.


The truth of the matter is that no composer has the time or the energy to spare, when he sits down to write music, to think about his private troubles. When he is writing music he is practicing his profession, and any preoccupation with his own affairs is a hindrance, not a help, in practicing it. If his life is a troubled one, his music is all the more likely to be a refuge, a denial, of that life. I cannot say, with any authority, exactly what went through the minds of Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky when they wrote their symphonies. One one thing I am sure: that as they wrote, they were thinking, not about Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, but about music.

I'm not sure how much of that I totally agree with, but I do agree with quite a lot of it. I've always viewed the creative act as a kind of intersection of two worlds, where the creative mind is seeing something (or, in the case of music, hearing it) that exists in some kind of almost Platonic realm, and the artist's job is to represent that Platonic thing in our world as best he or she can. But I also believe that at some point, something of the artist creeps in to the mix: Mozart was a staggering genius, no doubt about it, but he was also a man who created those works, not just some vessel through which those works poured into our world from the nether region where all perfect art resides.

(By way of a tangential rumination, it occurred to me a while ago that I think that maybe the main reason why I've never totally warmed up to Gustav Mahler's music, although I admire it a great deal and even love a significant portion of it, is that Mahler seems to take eighty minutes of a symphony to say less than Mozart was capable of saying in twenty-five with an orchestra one-third the size. But then, I'm also a person whose greatest musical love is not Mozart but Berlioz, so it doesn't seem totally correct to me, either, to ascribe my love of Mozart to the man's brevity and restraint. I guess that, in the end, it's not Mozart's ability to say so much more in so much less time and with so much smaller a musical force that makes me love him so. It's just pure response to what he has to say in the first place.)

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