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Mozart: In Search of the Roots of Genius

On the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth, the author scours Salzburg and Vienna for traces of the master's mischievous spirit

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It is the kind of joke Mozart would have appreciated. Like the wit in some of his operas, it is unexpected, mischievous, deflating, childish, even a bit humiliating: it can be found on the outskirts of Salzburg, Austria, at Hellbrunn, an elaborate Baroque palace built by Salzburg’s archbishop Markus Sittikus in the early 17th century. In an intimate outdoor amphitheater where statues celebrate the glories of Rome, there is a rectangular marble table around which ten immovable stools are mounted. The table contains a spring-fed well, used to cool wine during outdoor banquets. Sittikus would sit facing his guests in all of their summer finery, his formal gardens and ponds stretching out before him. Then he would give a signal. And lo, out of every seat but his own would come a jet of cold spring water. No sooner would his guests leap up in surprise than another series of fountains would erupt from hidden openings in the floor’s surface, creating arches of spray.

One reason I thought of Mozart while watching these Wasserspiele (trick fountains), of course, was because I had come to Salzburg, the town where the composer was born, January 27, 1756, and Vienna, the city where he died a scant 35 years later, likely of complications from rheumatic fever, to survey the terrain before this year’s celebrations of the composer’s 250th birthday. The city of Vienna is spending some 30 million euros on musical commissions, concerts and academic symposiums, along with a festival of new works overseen by theatrical director Peter Sellars; a new six-floor museum there has been shaped out of the building in which Mozart lived for just over two years. Salzburg, which boasts the two apartments Mozart called home before he settled in Vienna at age 25, possesses two museums devoted to Mozart, along with his childhood violin, his clavichord, a lock of his hair and paintings of the composer and his family. The avant-gardish theater director Robert Wilson has also been brought in to impose his vision on Mozart’s childhood apartment; all of Mozart’s operas will be performed at this summer’s Salzburg Festival; even a “Mozart Cycling Path” links points of interest, with signposts of Mozart’s silhouetted head marking the route.

Hellbrunn is not part of these celebrations, but perhaps it should be. For 200 years, every important visitor to Salzburg’s court was taken there; by the 18th century much of Hellbrunn had become a grand public park. I imagine Mozart visiting as a child, during one of the interludes between his epic journeys through the courts of Europe, where his father, Leopold, was showing off his prodigious children.

If he did visit as a child, he would also have seen Hellbrunn’s newest novelty, a mechanical theater in which 200 automated wooden figures populate an Austrian town square, accompanied by music from a hidden, hydraulically operated organ. It was an animated music box run by water, a marvel that would have caught the attention of Mozart’s father, who composed music for the mechanical organ in the fortress that looms over Salzburg—music still heard here.

Of all the Mozartean landmarks I saw in Salzburg and Vienna, Hellbrunn most profoundly captures something essential about his spirit. This is worth understanding, because over the past 200 years, Mozart has continued to elude our grasp. He began his career as a wunderkind—a literal wonder child over whom the courts of Europe fawned—and ended it in debt and dismal circumstances, but he is one of the touchstones of the Western classical tradition. In the popular imagination, he is the eternal man-child, whose music is so energized with healing powers that it is thought to increase infant intelligence (the so-called Mozart effect). Even to cognoscenti, the composer of the Jupiter Symphony and the creator of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni seems to inhabit an otherworldly musical realm. And that makes it all the more remarkable to follow in his all-too-earthly footsteps, to trudge up the narrow staircase in Mozart’s Geburtshaus (birth house) in Salzburg and look out at the building’s congested courtyard or to walk the short distance his coffin was carried in Vienna from his deathbed to the church where friends, family and admirers paid their last respects before his body was unceremoniously dumped in an unmarked grave, the fate of most of Vienna’s untitled populace.

The heavenly music and the mundane man: Can they be reconciled? This was the problem famously posed in Peter Shaffer’s play (and movie) Amadeus (to be performed on a floating stage on Salzburg’s river this summer): How does genius and beauty arise out of vulgarity, pettiness, ordinary life? Walking in Salzburg, one is brought up short trying to imagine what any of this might have to do with the painful beauties of the music. The ornate churches and regal halls of Salzburg must have shaped Mozart’s aesthetic, their grand ambitions combined with meticulous attention to detail, their elaborate rhetoric combined with cultivated refinement. But these settings overwhelm in ways Mozart’s music does not, dwarfing the viewer with self-conscious magnificence.

That is why I keep thinking of Hellbrunn, where another spirit reigns. It is not a religious place, though an archbishop built it. It is not intent on creating something awe-inspiring or timeless. It never leaves behind the human, yet it also seems to look beyond it. It is playful but not frivolous; serious but not solemn. In this, it is almost Mozartean. The treachery of the stone table, for example, is part of an epic mythological journey along a path through the gardens filled with mechanical and natural wonders—grottos, fountains, citrus trees, statuary—with water providing the gurgling musical accompaniment. Sittikus constructed a grotto seemingly carved out of the stone by flowing waters, in which Orpheus plays violin for a sleeping Eurydice, hoping to save her from the grasp of Hades. Fools and comic figures jest in adjacent ponds. In another grotto devoted to Neptune, its walls mosaicked with shells, a devilish head leers with blinking eyes and flicking tongue—a robot moved by hidden water currents; water jets erupt unexpectedly out of the floor, and as one flees Neptune’s powers, other jets spout in spasmodic provocation. Music, myth, trickery and water all create a fantastical realm. Anything is possible, everything is significant, but nothing is what it seems. It is like the garden in the finale to Figaro, where the characters are fooled by mask and shadow, or the priest Sarastro’s world in The Magic Flute, in which fire and water offer threatening trials that only music has the power to overcome.

At Hellbrunn, though, the spirit of jest reigns supreme. And that is crucial to understanding Mozart. We know so much about Mozart’s early life—more than about almost any other composer’s—because as he grew to maturity, he spent much of his time in coaches with his father, traveling between major European courts where he and (at first) his sister, Nannerl, four years his elder, displayed their accomplishments. Letters had to be written home. By the time he was 20, Mozart had spent half his life on the road. The letters home—Wolfgang’s own or his appendices to his father Leopold’s sober accounts of travels and monies earned and medals awarded—are more spirited, playful and revealing than the music he wrote under his father’s guidance.

At 16, he wrote a letter to his sister with alternate lines upside down. “Oidda,” he would write in reverse Italian, or even sign his name in the same code: “gnagflow Trazom.” Just after his 22nd birthday, he wrote a letter to his mother full of jests about muck and gas and effluvium. Another letter Mozart wrote to his sister is so full of diversions that translator Emily Anderson tried to mirror its playfulness: “I can’t write anything sensible today, as I am rails off the quite. Papa be annoyed not must. I that just like today feel. I help it cannot. Warefell. I gish you nood wight. Sound sleeply. Next time I’ll sensible more writely.”

But there was a larger point to these jests. Sitting in that small coach riding over often primitive roads that could leave Wolfgang picturesquely complaining about his sore bottom, a large-scale social drama was taking place: the old system of court patronage was being loyally challenged by the father and playfully provoked by the son. Leopold, employed by Salzburg’s archbishop and given generous leaves of absence to display his son’s genius, was a stern master, determined to school Mozart and Nannerl not only in music but also in the ways of the world. Though employed by the court, he chafed at its expectations and scorned his “always fawning” colleagues. His intention was to earn more money and find a better court position for himself, using his children as bait. “Wolfgang’s good fortune and success,” he wrote to his wife, “will be our sweetest revenge.”

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