I am sure that the blogosphere will be ringing today with the accolades of Mozart on this 250th anniversary of his birth. My original idea was to show how he was inferior to Bach. That, however, would be not be proper.
I like Mozart. Although I would not by any means consider myself a Mozart expert, I am convinced that he was a genius. Music was more than mere composition for Mozart; it was a language. Some argue that Mozart is “the quintessential composer of joy.” I am not sure I agree with that. Often while listening to Mozart, I have the distinct feeling that the guy is pulling a fast one on me. Here is someone composing at the apex of the “classical period,” and exploiting it as if it were a simple game. I hear this in his sublime 21st piano concerto, where the simply melody of the first movement plays dissonance against resolution like a man with a child’s toy. The very famous 3rd movement of the Serenade for Winds (K. 361) begins with pulsing chords, subtly anticipating the entrance of that one single pure note lingering above the steady rhythm. The dissonance created is not resolved any time soon, but remains prolonged and drawn out for several measures, even after the held note moves onto the more developed melody. It’s nearly as bad as Wagner. Even his more exuberant pieces sound like someone simply playing with the score, adding trivial turns and general frivolity. His “musical joke” in F Major is well known. Other examples of this phenomenon include his Divertimento in D Major (K 131), German Dance No. 3 in C Major, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, even the Adagio from his Clarinet Concerto in A Major. I realize I am probably reading popular ideas I have of Mozart into the man’s music. I am not sure the classical era achieved much higher heights, and it is this cultural situation in which Mozart found himself that redeems him to a great extent. Often one senses refinement and a kind of pure musically logical perfection, with the satisfaction that the music does exactly what it should do–more or less (every once in a while, you get the impression that the borrow chord he just threw in was a bit extravagant).
The most serious music Mozart composed with which I familiar was the infamous and nearly mythical Requiem Mass (you can hear a discussion and excerpts here). This is surely not frivolity. Here Mozart is at his post powerful, profound, and beautiful (with the possible exception of his fugues). But his portrayal of death is very grim. The musical tradition concerning death did not develop or evolve from Bach (who was greatly concerned with death), but seemingly lost its bearings. There is, it would appear, no hope (and I am not talking about the kind of denial seen in, for example, Faure’s Requiem). It is far better for us to sit under the instruction of Bach or even Brahams concerning this matter of death than Mozart. Yet the music is still profound and meaningful, both beautiful and foreboding. Even the tempestuous Dies irae can teach us something of God’s wrath.
So Mozart is for me an enigma; in the end, I have mixed feelings about the little master consumed with bowel movements and opera and sex (et. al.). Mozart’s music serves well as a diversion and demonstration of musical genius, but I am skeptical of its value for piety or religious affection.