Monday, February 3, 2014

Unity of the Muses

Mozart encompasses the entire domain of musical creation, but I've got only the keyboard in my poor head. –F. Chopin

Most minds relish the familiar. We like familiarity, consistency, and sameness, whether it's in our television programming, house furnishings, or daily routines. Yes, some people seem to worship all things new, but that's just an attempt to relive the thrill of novelty. Smart people are not exempt either, most only holding a few stock ideas about which they ramble before attaining senility. Even the mind of a genius is usually confined to relatively tight quarters. Yet we have all-encompassing geniuses like Aristotle and DaVinci, and lesser polymaths from Cicero to Jefferson, but far-seeking minds are the most rare, and the most rare of them was Mozart. Mozart absorbed, innovated, and perfected with a speed which amazes and terrifies. The Greeks would have called him δεινός, marvelous, wondrous, and terrible.

21 piano sonatas, 27 piano concertos, 41 symphonies, 18 masses, 13 operas, 9 oratorios and cantata, 2 ballets, 40 plus concertos for various instruments, string quartets, trios and quintets, violin and piano duets piano quartets, and the songs. This astounding output includes hardly one work less than a masterpiece. –George Szell

Absorbed, innovated, perfected. Each of those words needs a little qualifying. Mozart absorbed the work of his models with astonishing rapidity, from his father's early assignments at the harpsichord, in which little Woferl delighted, to string quartets, concerti, and fugues. One story from April 1770, when Mozart was fourteen and impressing the Italian contrapuntists in Rome, paints the picture. Herr Mozart and his son attended a performance of Gregorio Allegri's Fiftieth Psalm, a passion piece for two choirs, four- and five-part, which concludes with a finale that interweaves both choruses in nine-part counterpoint. Shortly after the performance the teenage composer proceeded to write out the piece from memory. (W. A. Mozart by H. Abert. p. 135)

From this immense facility for absorption grew Mozart's own interpretations in his early maturity. Hoary polyphony and contrapuntal exercises became the ebullient Salzburg masses. Mozart devours set after set of Haydn's string quartets and again and again throws the spear from sight. The prettified keyboard tinkering of the galant becomes an endless parade of Mozartian characters. The snoozy nocturnes and pompous end-of-semester finalmusik become the serene lightness of the Gran Partita. Endlessly rhyming, sing-songy, and audience pleasing singspiels become the the giddy love of Die Entführung and a frightening, untamed spirit is breathed into old an workhorse text in Idomeneo.

Finally, perfection unto death. The body of Mozart concerti is one of most stupendous achievements ever, without qualification. The endless variety of melody, the relentless ability to tease excitement and novelty from sonataform and even rondo, shifting keys, moods, and characters, is nothing short of astounding. Not only do we find with glee intellectual rigor and structural novelty, but even in its most tumultuous depths, the cosmos-rending D minor, the Mozart concerto is life-affirming, pleasing the heart and the mind. And what love Mozart has for his instruments: the jovial horn, the oboe here sprightly there melodious, and the chimerical clarinet.

All the while, through the counterpoint and delayed tonal areas of the quintets and the vast sonataforms of the operas, and the ever more-delicate symphonies, always we find a unity of style and affect. We're never distracted by learned or simple elements for all is reconciled by the most perfect taste and order. We don't hear a contrapuntal marvel when we see finale to Act I of Don Giovanni, we see a carnival. We don't hear a north German choral in Die Zauberflöte but see the initiate poised before his sacred trial. We don't listen for fugato in Piano Sonata No. 18, but delight in the interplay between these wildly diverse themes. There is only the music, unifying as it goes: time, place, us, everything.

Mozart tapped the source from which all music flows, expressing himself with a spontaneity and refinement and breathtaking rightness. - Aaron Copland

Mozart's earthy side confuses many, whether it's by his priapic joke in the Champagne Aria, his song Kiss My Ass, or his bawdy letters to his cousin. It's not a side that would have confused, say, Catullus or Rimbaud, but it befuddles those who seek a clean idol. We need a pure font because we see time as expendable. We need to get and use as much of time and Mozart as we can. Yet it is time which is sacred, not the man Mozart. Yet he doesn't have to be because he has preserved the best of us in time, and we don't nee to horde it, nor do we even need to share it. We nee to be it. We need to feel his melodies in our step and his shapes in our thoughts. We need to feel his terror and chipper love, his lonely afternoons and sumptuous galas. Mozart is not the font, but the unity of the Muses, and beyond performance and beyond listening there is living, where the perfected goes on forever, though only for a time through us.

Mozart's music is the mysterious language of a distant spiritual kingdom, whose marvelous accents echo in our inner being and arouse a higher, intensive life. –E. T. A. Hoffmann

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