In the annuals of genius, today marks a special observation, the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1756.
The traditional biography reads something like an extended fairy tale, starting with the child prodigy who charms European royalty in the flowering of the Enlightenment. Yes, there are emotional conflicts with his taskmaster father, who nevertheless deserves much of the credit for those early successes as a performer, improviser, and composer. That doesn’t stop the son who dashes off masterpiece after masterpiece in lively company or en route on stagecoaches rather than in deep solitude with a keyboard. Later tales of poverty and domestic desperation, however, mask his inability to handle money or patrons. You could say he was a tad spoiled but, oh my, unbelievably talented. Besides, it turns out he was the second-highest paid musician in the world, after Franz Joseph Haydn, who lived in conditions offering much less freedom. You could also say that in his prime, nobody wrote with more spontaneity, perfection, or elegance. So much for the standard version.
The fact is that Mozart set a standard that, on its own terms, could not be matched. much less surpassed. In the world of opera, his are among the very best, even without considering how he lifted the genre to new heights. As an opera composer alone, he would have been among the top handful. He essentially created the piano concerto. And the symphonies, alongside Haydn’s, are models of an evolution leading to a final culmination rivaled only by Haydn’s two London series.
I must confess that my deep passion for classical music began in fifth grade, age 10 or 11, with an encounter with the 29th symphony, in A major. Its infectious, joyous outburst, order, and underlying idealism struck a deep chord in my young soul, spurring a hunger for much more, which I found in his work and those of other symphonic and, later, operatic masters.
The prolific legacy Mozart left at his death at age 35 is prodigious, even before we get to the chamber music, choral compositions, or instrumental offerings.
With him, sooner or later, we come face to face with the tragedy of a life cut short, in the fullest blooming of genius – like his fellow Aquarians and composers Schubert and Mendelssohn, especially. The question then turns on the what-if of whether he could have advanced in the artistic challenge of Beethoven and a torn-apart social order to ever greater heights or whether he would have failed to adapt and, thus, withered.
Which leads us to the biggest mystery regarding Mozart. What if he had lived a longer life, say one as long as Beethoven’s? There’s the inevitable comparison, Beethoven. Not Bach, curiously – maybe it’s the matter of those symphonies. Put another way, had Beethoven died at the age of Mozart, his reputation would have been as a second-tier composer, one resting largely on 23 piano sonatas, culminating in the “Appassionata,” plus three classical-style piano concertos and three symphonies – including what would have remained the enigmatic “Eroica,” one that would likely not make much historical sense without the Fifth, Seventh, and Ninth for perspective. There wouldn’t even be his tortured venture into opera. Oh yes, we’d also have the six string quartets, Opus 18, in their homage to Haydn. Had he died at 35, Beethoven would have not been regarded in the same league as Mozart or, for that matter, Bach. I was about to add Brahms and Dvorak, but hesitate since they were so beholden to Beethoven’s challenge and model.
Within the Mozart-Beethoven dichotomy is another deeply intriguing consideration. The conventional interpretation is that Mozart would not have adapted to the artistic and social revolutions ahead, that he had simply gone as far as anyone could in what we call the Classical period and its dimensions or that he would have been baffled and outmoded by the changes to come. More and more, though, what I hear in the last four symphonies and the unfinished requiem suggests something quite different. Mozart was yearning for wider horizons and expressive possibilities. Yes, we have a surfeit of his work as it is, how can we truly desire more when there’s so much already, but what may be lacking is that singular, definitive great gesture along the lines of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or late quartets or late piano sonatas or even the Choral Symphony’s final ecstatic outburst or perhaps Bach’s Chaconne from the Second Partita for solo violin.
Alas. Remind me of that when I’m immersed in one of Mozart’s extraordinary opera arias or a slow movement from a piano concerto.
I could recast the consideration, then, into a question of whether Mozart had moved to Prague, which adored him, rather than stay in Vienna, or even on to London, which had so embraced Handel and would later welcome Haydn. Suppose Mozart had lived another decade – or three or four – in fresh, more supportive surroundings? We’re back to genius and its nurture.
In the end, we have what we have, filled with delight and such promise. Let’s see what we choose to play today in that honor.