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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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.”


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