Mozart at 250: no signs of slowing

"Every genuine musician looks up to him, happy and disarmed."

mozart portrait 88.298 (photo credit: )
mozart portrait 88.298
(photo credit: )
It is now 250 years since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria - and some 245 years since this prodigy among prodigies fashioned his first little pieces for keyboard under the helpful eye of his father, Leopold. The world has changed radically since 1756 but Mozart remains a constant - we continue to regard the mixture of clarity, grace and formal balance in his music with undiminished awe. He seems to have been incapable of vulgarity or overstatement: In his mature works, there is hardly a wasted gesture or a note out of place. And yet it all seems so effortless, so absolutely spontaneous. Indeed, because Mozart's music is so flowing, direct and eloquent, many listeners think it must be easy to perform. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although almost any third-year piano student can read through the Mozart sonatas, it is a different matter entirely to play them well. Many other composers demand more in terms of muscle, pyrotechnics and flashy virtuosity, but there is an extraordinary transparency to Mozart's music, and any imbalance, no matter how slight, is glaringly obvious. As such, the interpretation of Mozart remains one of the supreme tests of any great musician. Today, January 27, marks the anniversary of Mozart's birth, and every composer's stock rises in notable birthday years. In 1970, the Beethoven bicentenary, it seemed every other new recording was devoted to one of his symphonies or sonatas. In 1985, we were served helping upon helping of Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Georg Philipp Telemann, the tricentenary birthday boys. Now it is Mozart's turn. Yet he is always a familiar presence in the concert hall and opera house, even when it isn't "his year." In New York, Lincoln Center has presented an annual festival, appropriately titled "Mostly Mozart," for the past 40 years: No other composer could fill the house so reliably. I suspect that a principal reason for Mozart's popularity is his universality. He speaks to almost everybody (the only convinced Mozart-haters who come to mind are Noel Coward and Glenn Gould) and he never pushes us. If all you want from one of his compositions are some good tunes and seraphic harmonies, he will surely provide them. If you want much, much more, Mozart, in virtually all of his mature pieces, will provide that, too. This sets him apart. Charming composers such as Vivaldi and Telemann offer a good deal of pleasure but usually - usually - not much else. And there is necessarily work involved in coming to terms with the greatest music by Bach and Beethoven; it is impossible to imagine, say, a late Beethoven quartet or Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" playing as background music. But it is not so impossible with Mozart - indeed, turn on your television late at night and prepare to shudder at the uses to which this composer's music is put. In no way am I trying to justify such debasement, nor am I suggesting that Mozart is somehow less deep than Bach and Beethoven. But Bach and Beethoven tell us exactly what they want to tell us, while Mozart lets us find what we want in him, on our own levels of need and understanding. And - as sorry as this fact makes professional musicians - a good percentage of any classical audience merely wants to sit back and be entertained. So be it. The depths will always be there for those who are ready to plumb them. For example, I first heard The Marriage of Figaro as a 12-year-old boy and found it sweet and pretty and ever so much less impressive than, say, Tosca or Cavalleria Rusticana, which had blood and guts and bawling and mad passion. But then I heard Figaro again, and then again, and I heard more and more in it, until it became my favorite opera. Now, almost 40 years since my first encounter, every time I play Figaro - or, even more happily, see it performed - I marvel anew that one of my fellow human beings actually managed to pull himself far enough out of the mud to create this miracle of order and civility. Yet it's such a friendly masterpiece - warm, funny, forgiving, even downright silly - and if there is an important universal emotion that is not explored, musically and dramatically, over the course of the opera's duration, I don't know what it is. The legend of the eternally cheerful, periwigged boy wonder to the contrary, Mozart worked hard throughout his life. From earliest childhood he was a breadwinner for his family, a crushing responsibility for any child, as the example of artists ranging from Jackie Coogan to Michael Jackson can attest. He suffered first from parental exploitation, later from a certain immaturity that comes from being detained in childhood too long, and finally from melancholia, dissipation and frail health that led to his death at 35. He was buried in an unmarked grave - a common practice in 18th-century Vienna, and certainly no disgrace. Still, many have always found it deeply disturbing that we have no way of locating the remains of this great genius. And yet he need not be sought, for he is all around us. In 1906 the pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni was asked to write a series of aphorisms to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Mozart's birth and - 100 years later - most of us would echo what he had to say. "Up to now he is the most complete manifestation of musical gifts," Busoni began. "Every genuine musician looks up to him, happy and disarmed. ... He disposes of light and shadow, but his light does not pain and his darkness still shows clear outlines. Even in the most tragic situations he still has a witticism ready; in the most cheerful, he is able to draw a thoughtful furrow in his brow. He is young as a boy and wise as an old man - never old-fashioned and never modern, carried to the grave and always alive." "His smile, which was so human, still shines on us transfigured." (The Washington Post)