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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

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.

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