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Mozart

February 15, 2011

This is part of a series of informal pieces about composers I like, why I like them and why you should like them too.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791

I am sometimes asked by people who are interested in classical music but don’t know much about it, where they should start. My instinctive answer has always been Mozart. Mozart is instantly likeable, charming, tuneful and falls nicely about halfway through musical history (which I will controversially define as beginning about 1600, basically when they started using instruments more). It’s also helpful that there’s a film about him. I shy away from starting with Bach (too ‘intellectual’) or Beethoven (‘too difficult’) in favour of something that seems to me easier. My instinct is wrong. In my experience people are often drawn to classical music by precisely Bach or Beethoven. In fact Mozart seems to be the least popular of the popular composers. Otherwise cultured people seem to have no qualms about admitting that they don’t like Mozart and some seem to take a perverse pride in it. These people are obviously completely wrong, but why should it be Mozart that seems to cause such antipathy.

Mozart lived during the period that marks the height of the Enlightenment before the French Revolution, dying in fact halfway between the fall of the Bastille and the execution of Louis XVI. In musical history this is the period characterised by the style known as Classical (note the capital C). As the name suggests, this was a style influenced by rationality, harmony and order which  the ancient Greeks were considered to personify. Classicism strives for the perfect marriage of form and content and the almost complete submission of the artist to his/her art. In music it followed from the Baroque with its emphasis on invention and rhetorical effect. Classical music is less showy than the Baroque and less emotional than the Romantic which came after, and here I think is part of our problem. Today we are not altogether accustomed to the idea of restraint in art. The ideals of Classicism are perhaps the furthest from us in a culture which fetishises individualism and in which the claim of self-expression is often used to mask self-indulgence. Of course all this means is that we should exercise a little imagination and think ourselves into Mozart’s world. The inability to do this has been described as ‘historical provincialism’ and is disturbingly common in a culture which abhors geographical provincialism (i.e. xenophobia).

I think Mozart also suffers from a prejudice, widespead among ‘serious’ people, against comedy. It might sound strange to describe Mozart as essentially a comic artist but nobody even blinks if you describe Beethoven as a tragic one. In fact it is something of a cliché. I have in mind exactly that opposition. By comic I mean life-affirming, social, non-individualistic, the art of Spring and Summer. It is often noted that Mozart wrote much of his music in the form of conversation. It seems that instruments or themes are playing characters in a drama; that even when writing string quartets or piano sonatas Mozart was always an opera composer.

The operas are the conclusive proof of Mozart’s greatness, in particular the three operas he wrote with the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. The first time I came across the claim that Mozart could be ranked with Shakespeare as a writer of comedy I was sceptical but having got to know the operas I can confirm that it is so. In Le Nozze di Figaro Mozart sets a perfect farce weaving music of sparkling beauty around a plot which would probably take longer to explain than it does to perform. Like a Shakespearian comedy it involves a battle between the sexes and, again as in Shakespeare, it is won by the woman who proves that she is cleverer, wittier and more resourceful than the men. In Don Giovanni Mozart pulls off one of the great theatrical coups. The first part of the opera is predominantly comic and involves the Don’s various erotic adventures. He is destined to be punished for his sins, however, and will be dragged down to hell. Mozart achieves the switch from burlesque comedy to gothic tragedy with a single chord. Through careful preparation from the beginning of the overture he has built up a set of associations for us which mean that when the moment comes he can change the atmosphere of the opera in a second. The third of these operas, Così Fan Tutte, has bemused audiences since it was written. It is, I think, a surprising and disturbing deconstruction of not only the Enlightenment ideals of Mozart’s time but also of patriarchy itself.

For all this there is a very simple reason for liking Mozart: he wrote wonderful music. His gift for melody, his wit, the beautiful way he can use woodwind, the way his music can constantly surprise yet always sound right. Mozart gives us a great gift and one which is not to be looked down on: sheer sensual pleasure.

I thought I would add some recommendations at the end, just in case anyone is still reading and found the above interesting.

Symphony no 25 in G minor, K.183

I think this provides a nice sample of different sides to Mozart’s style. It’s used in Amadeus.

Mass in C minor, K427

A great example of Mozart’s virtuosic vocal writing. The way the two sopranos sing around each other always makes me think of butterflies.

Piano Concerto no 20 in D minor, K466

Perhaps the piece which, at least in the dark first movement, most anticipates Beethoven and Romanticism.

Don Giovanni, K527

Because it’s so dramatic this often appeals to beginners. It also displays Mozart’s range and has quite a few famous arias.

Requiem in D minor, K626

As is well known, this is what Mozart left unfinished when he died. If I were able to attend my own funeral I would have this played.

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From → Composers, Music

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