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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

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.”

Wolfgang, who, at first, worshiped his father (“next to God comes Papa,” he wrote), loved dressing in courtly clothing, but he also treated it all as a form of play, as a variation, perhaps, on his musical trickery, when he amazed listeners at his ability to reproduce music heard once or displayed his ability to recall quarter-tone variations of pitch. Leopold’s correspondence recounts that the 6-year-old Wolfgang jumped into the lap of Maria Theresa, empress of the Holy Roman Empire, “caught her around the neck, and vigorously kissed her”; after such familiarity, what kind of awe could the adult have for ruling power? “These are the people who can help you,” Leopold would instruct him. But Wolfgang, in letters home, would write playfully about bodily functions, make multilingual puns (he called the sea near Italy the Merdeterranean), and sketch risqué doodles. To Leopold, Wolfgang kept slighting matters that had to be taken seriously. “Your whole intention seems to be to ruin me,” Leopold once wrote, “simply in order to go on building your castles in the air.”

But Mozart’s playfulness would not be quashed. It was a flexing of intellectual muscles as well as a provocation. He wrote a scatological acrostic on the word “papa.” And his jests could be cruel. “I can never resist making a fool of someone,” he confessed. When he lived in Vienna, Mozart wrote horn concertos for a Salzburg musician, Joseph Leutgeb, but at a price: Mozart tossed his scores around the room and required Leutgeb to assemble them on all fours. On the autograph of one such concerto, Mozart calls the horn player an “ass, ox and simpleton.” Mozart’s wit was not always ethereal.

But it was iconoclastic. And as a target, Salzburg was high on the list—something that might seem startling given the city’s reinvention of itself. “How I detest Salzburg,” Wolfgang wrote in 1778, “and not only on account of the injustices which my dear father and I have endured there.” Of Salzburg’s musical scene, he complained: “One hears nothing; there is no theater, no opera.” In a letter to his father in 1781, he wrote that “when I play or when any of my compositions are performed, it is just as if the audience were all tables and chairs.” Salzburg, he declared, is “no place for my talent.”

The distaste became mutual. As Mozart biographer Maynard Solomon points out, Salzburg was astonishingly late among European cities to create any kind of a Mozart memorial. Not until 1842 was a statue, by Ludwig Schwanthaler, erected in his memory. But look closely: its monumentality is out of character with Mozart’s music; it seems even to displace him, as if imitating monuments celebrating Beethoven’s brooding genius.

There was bad blood here, even if it now seems difficult to fathom why. In the old city of Salzburg, Mozart’s visage now almost defines the city, appearing on tourist literature, wrapped around chocolates, labeling liqueur bottles; his name appears on a bridge, a plaza and, this celebratory year, just about anything else that can be labeled. But Salzburg still has the aura of a place of retreat. It escaped many traumas of Bavarian and German warfare over the centuries because it was off the main trading route (at least until the Nazis saw its prestige as a cultural front). And though the city’s Hohensalzburg Fortress is far from Mozartean in character, the ways the city combines Italianate ornament in its Baroque facades makes Salzburg seem more playful than imposing; warmth is mixed with eruptions of fantastical grandeur. The spirit of Italy shaped Salzburg’s brand of the German Baroque. Italian architects designed Hellbrunn and the Salzburg Cathedral; Italian opera singers and musicians commanded higher salaries than German counterparts (a source of complaint even in Mozart’s time). Mozart’s training was considered incomplete until he had toured Italy and written Italian opera.

But in Mozart’s accounts, Salzburg is more like a realm ruled by the dark empress in The Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night. During his time, it may have been a provincial locale with all the limitations at which a genius would bristle, but it also boasted a university and a vibrant musical tradition that included Heinrich Biber in the 17th century and Michael Haydn (Franz Joseph Haydn’s younger brother) in Mozart’s day. Salzburg was notoriously conservative—in the 1730s 20,000 Protestants were exiled from the Catholic town; and in 1762 a witch was burned there—but as Robert W. Gutman points out in his recent biography of Mozart, Leopold and others were devotees of the Enlightenment (his estate contained two microscopes and a telescope). The power of the court was also mitigated by the growing power of commerce. Mozart’s patrons were not well-born noblemen, but wealthy burghers such as Johann Hagenauer, a banker and wholesale grocer who owned the house in which Mozart was born. From the Mozarts, one sees only Salzburg’s provinciality and venality; from the history, one also sees cultural attainments and a highly educated mercantile class.

Those contradictions are still reflected in today’s unpredictable mixtures of vulgarity and refinement. Mozart tourists are steered to a dinner concert at the Stiftskeller St. Peter, the oldest restaurant in central Europe; the Mozarts ate there when it was already more than 900 years old. As musicians perform in period costume, a three-course dinner is served (including, when I attended, an ice-cream dessert decorated with a chocolate syrup treble clef and a distinctive cocoa-powder profile of Mozart). A perfect recipe for kitsch, perhaps, but the selection of Mozart’s arias I heard between courses had as much refinement as the cooking. Elsewhere, expectations are also undone. In the museums created out of Mozart’s birthplace and the house in which the family lived after 1733, venerated objects—a lock of Mozart’s hair, his agate snuffbox—are mixed with unimposing replicas and copies. It seems at times that there is more museum space devoted to Mozart than there are objects to fill it or ideas to shape it. A “multimedia wax museum” called Next to Mozart—located literally next to Mozart’s birthplace—contains wax scenes of 18th-century Salzburg, scenes from The Magic Flute, and even a climactic vision of Julie Andrews’ character Maria and the von Trapp children from The Sound of Music, much of which was filmed in and around Salzburg.

Consistency, at any rate, is not to be had, and probably never was. But the conflict shaped Mozart’s life. And his rebellion came at the precise moment that the old social models were also weakening. When Mozart, along with his father, was contracted to serve Archbishop Colloredo’s court after years of acclaim for his prodigious abilities, he bristled at his duties. “I never know how I stand,” he wrote his father in 1778. “I am to be everything—and yet—sometimes nothing!” He was, in other words, an employee. Colloredo’s reputation has been sullied by his famous intolerance of both father and son, but the archbishop may have had reason. Leopold, a violinist, ultimately settled into playing second fiddle, so to speak, to both his son and Michael Haydn. But Mozart squirmed under the mantle of servitude, and carried himself with what must have been intolerable swagger. “If you will not serve me properly,” the archbishop once told him, “clear out.” When Mozart traveled with the archbishop’s staff to Vienna in 1781, he provoked a quarrel with Colloredo that led to a shouting match. “Even if I had to go begging,” Mozart wrote to his father after he was kicked—perhaps literally—out of service, “I would never again serve such a lord.”

So there he was: at the age of 25, Mozart had cut himself off from the only musical world he had known and was left alone in Vienna to make his way as a freelancer—putting together concerts, soliciting commissions, teaching piano, staging operas—preferring uncertainties of liberty to obligations of indentureship. It was, in its mundane fashion, something of a cultural revolution. After Mozart, composers were no longer court composers. Mozart was, like Leporello in Don Giovanni, justly wary of the demands of any kind of service, and like Figaro, intent on undermining the perquisites of nobility. Vienna, at any rate, is where Mozart shaped this new kind of existence. He called it “a glorious place—and for my métier, the best in the world.”

The room in which Mozart likely slept during his most productive and prosperous years in Vienna (1784-87) still has its original wall coloration: trompe l'oeil plasterwork that makes the walls of this bourgeois room seem palatial in character if not in dimension. The plaster is subtly colored to look like marble, with minute veins and variations. On the ceiling’s plaster medallions, putti fly, streaming gilded vines in their wake. At the ceiling’s center, a goddess rests upon clouds, holding a garland. Mozart did not ask that the room be decorated in this fashion; the previous owner of the building was Alberto Camesina, one of the most famous stucco artists of the 18th century. But Mozart must have found the room congenial, recalling the palaces in which he performed as a child. He may have been a rebel against the old order, but he appreciated its pleasures. A block from the old city’s center, this nearly 2,000-square-foot apartment declared its occupant a success. It is also the only Mozart Vienna residence that still stands, which is why it is now at the center of the new Mozart House Museum.

Of course, one is reluctant to put too much weight on places that just happen to survive the wrecker’s ball. And Mozart the composer was never really concerned with place. His music does not strain to evoke natural phenomena or scenes, like Haydn’s or Beethoven’s. Even his letters are less concerned with place than behavior: what was said and done, how somebody looked, what came to mind. Did he even notice the sublime scenery he traveled through? Mozart liked to compose with bustle and noise around him, not because he was imitating it, but because he was opposing it: composing was an act of focus. Mozart’s music is not powerful because of where it was written. It created a place; it did not evoke one.

But we celebrate the places in which Mozart composed because they give us something to grab onto, some way of grasping the relationship between our mundane world and Mozart’s ethereal one. A sense of place also reminds us that even transcendent music does not really transcend. If we treat it divorced from this world and its experiences, we are missing some of its resonance, some of its opposition and some of its jest.

This is why it is so intriguing to gaze out from Mozart’s marbleized room on the second floor and look straight down on narrow Blutgasse. The composer lived above...Blood Alley. There is no agreement about how Blutgasse got its name: Was it the site of medieval executions or the butchering of animals? At any rate, could Mozart not have been aware of the irony? Here is the apartment where he played billiards, enjoyed evenings of music making and acclaim, but one look outside could bring him back to earth. Mozart’s triumphs often have that kind of doubleness, as when, at the peak of his success, he invited his father to visit.

In February 1785, Leopold, vastly skeptical about his son’s prospects, came to visit him in Vienna for the first and only time. Leopold was all too ready to express disapproval of his son’s marriage in 1782 to Constanze Weber, the daughter of a former landlady. Could a skeptical father have met a more triumphant demonstration? The apartment was in tumult as Mozart was supervising the copying of a piano concerto he had written for a concert the evening of the day that Leopold arrived (the father called the work “superb”). The following day Joseph Haydn, the era’s master of composition, visited the apartment to hear Mozart’s most recent three string quartets. According to Leopold, Haydn told him: “Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.” The next evening, during another concerto played by his son, Leopold said, “Tears of sheer delight came to my eyes”; he also witnessed the Emperor of Austria salute his son. The concerts, dinners and flow of money, both in and out of Wolfgang’s coffers, dizzied Leopold.

But the pace also wore. Or perhaps it became clear to Leopold that he had been wrong in dismissing Wolfgang’s ability to make his way in the world, and that he, Leopold, had become superfluous. Eventually, he complained to Nannerl: “Concerts every day and unending teaching, music-making, and composing. Where am I supposed to go? If only the concerts were over! It is impossible to describe the confusion and commotion.” In fact, the visit seemed to solidify a rift between Mozart and his father, and also between Mozart and his sister. In early 1787, perhaps, before moving out of this very apartment, and before his father’s death, Mozart began to write a kind of a farce he called Der Salzburger Lump in Wien—“The Scamp from Salzburg in Vienna”—in which his barbed rebelliousness came into play. Its main character is Herr Stachelschwein—Mr. Porcupine—who rejoices over the inheritance he will get upon his father’s death. As it turned out, Mozart was less fortunate. Leopold left nearly everything to his daughter. Mozart even had to struggle to get his scores back from his father’s estate.

Maynard Solomon’s biography explores the immense struggle waged by Mozart during these years, in which his roles as son, husband and brother were all at stake. Later, the money flowing in flowed out even faster. Debts mounted. Was there gambling? Loss of money at billiards? There were rumors of promiscuity, tensions with Constanze, pleas to friends for loans, all accompanied by changes in Vienna’s cultural and political scene that may have made it more difficult for Mozart to sell his concerts.

Not even genius can escape human frailties. Vienna, the scene of Mozart’s greatest triumphs, is also the scene of his greatest trials. Perhaps this accounts for the slight edge to Vienna’s 2006 celebrations of Mozart. Major performances, of course, are planned, and the historic Theater an der Wien will reopen as an opera house: home, this year, for Mozart operas. But Peter Marboe, director of the city’s Mozart festivities, writes in his prospectus: “This is not to be a year of marketing or spectacular events, not to be about nostalgia and definitely not a Mozart promotional year.” Rather, he goes on, it is “far more about considering our times and our future, with the aid of Mozart, in the spirit of Mozart.” Peter Sellars’ mini-festival in November and December 2006, named after Mozart’s Masonic Lodge (“New Crowned Hope”), will celebrate Mozart, Sellars says, as “the world’s greatest composer of forgiveness and reconciliation” who helped prepare “a path for a new society.” The festival, with other partners, has commissioned new operas, compositions, architectural and community projects and international feature films—all presumably inspired by Mozart, and featuring artists from around the world.

Whether these works will carry forward a Mozartean vision or whether they will change our perceptions (some of these works will be heard later in the United States) will not be known for some time. For one thing, it is still unclear just what kind of vision Mozart himself represents. It may not be as utopian, forgiving or as grandly international as Sellars’ themes suggest, but more tragic, concerned with opposing realms, the heavenly and the netherworldly, the ethereal and the mundane. And somehow, the power of jest plays a role.

Biographer Solomon describes a Viennese carnival in 1786 in which Mozart, dressed in robes like an Oriental philosopher, distributed a broadsheet titled “Excerpts from the Fragments of Zoroaster” containing eight riddles and 14 proverbs. The riddles were darkly personal, filled with imagery of imprisonment, mutilation and betrayal. One starts: “We are many sisters; it is painful for us to unite as well as to separate. We live in a palace, yet we could rather call it a prison.” (Answer: teeth.) For the “scamp from Salzburg in Vienna,” the riddles were attempts to tease harmony out of a world of paradox. Mozart jubilantly played with language as a youth; in his maturity, he became increasingly more clever and dark.

During these years, Mozart also, in collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte—himself a master of masquerade, born a Jew, educated as a priest, a restless lover and an avid trickster—wrote his greatest operas. In their collaborations—Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte—the accepted order of things is undermined by trickery, by seduction, by savvy manipulation; in each opera too, there are scenes of masquerade and confusion. And in varied ways, the listener is lured into differing reactions to a revolution in sensibility: we cheer it in Figaro, we fear it in Don Giovanni, we worry over its power in Così. It is as if the very nature of humanity were being tested in these operatic laboratories, exposing it to the diverse forces of the Enlightenment. In Vienna, I saw a production of The Magic Flute at Schloss Schönbrunn that did this in yet another way: it was performed entirely by marionettes—their movement synced to a masterly recording by Karl Böhm. Nothing was missed. The music deeply humanized the characters; the puppets, in turn, revealed how artificial the human can sometimes be. That too is a form of knowledge. While working on The Magic Flute, Mozart wrote to Constanze: “If I go to the piano and sing something out of my opera, I have to stop at once, for this stirs my emotions too deeply.”

Which brings us back to Hellbrunn. Mozart once fantasized about creating a secret society in Vienna, one even more exclusive than the Masonic lodge he had joined; he was going to call it the Grotto. Could he have had the mythological grottoes of Hellbrunn in mind? Their creator, Sittikus, had also been a music lover. Hellbrunn may have hosted the first performances of opera north of the Alps, including Monteverdi’s Orfeo, which might have left its influence on the Orpheus grotto, with its tale of the musician who tries to lead his love out of Hades. In fact, the natural springs that feed Hellbrunn’s fountains were thought to connect literally to the underworld. That realm’s German god is named Hel; Brunn means well or fountain; hence, Hellbrunn. These were fountains linked to Hell and streaming into our world—watery versions of Mozart’s ghostly Commendatore, who drags Don Giovanni back down with him, in retribution. But Hellbrunn is not a celebration of Hell. After all, an archbishop built these fountains. Instead, many of its mythological statues and fountains deal with the crossing of realms, the negotiation of boundaries, the combination of opposites. The netherworld is not abolished or denied; it is, instead, acknowledged, incorporated, and thus, transcended—something that may have been Mozart’s dream as well.

Over the door in one room of Hellbrunn there is a painted Latin motto, numen vel dissita iungit (“a divine power unites even opposites”). But for Mozart it is not water that makes these connections. It is music.

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