the minor fall and the major lift, part one: on mozart

Note to the reader: the two performances above are both excellent realizations of Mozart’s musical ideas, even though, in both videos, the performers look totally ridiculous. I mean, just so bad. Like Monty Python parodies, or something.


“This was not the work of a dancing monkey.” -Salieri, Amadeus

Don’t let us discuss anything solemnly. I am but too conscious of the fact that we are born in an age when only the dull are treated seriously, and I live in terror of not being misunderstood.
-Oscar Wilde, “The Critic As Artist”


Some of you I know. Some of you I’m meeting for the first time. Regardless, it’s just as true as ever that here at The Kugelmass Episodes, we play your requests!

This request is a follow-up to the post on Beethoven, and comes courtesy of alert reader CM. She asked that I write more about classical music, since she’s listening to it like never before in her life. So I decided to tackle a question that has been bothering me for a long time: what is the deal with Mozart? Virtuosos and prodigies don’t necessarily end up writing beautiful, expressive music. What story is Mozart’s immense catalog of works attempting to tell?

Finding the answer required a rather long and agonizing pursuit. For three days now I’ve spent most of my free time, including hours I might have been sleeping, listening to Mozart. (I developed arguments about all of Henry James’s major novels in less time than that.) Trying to interpret him is like trying to rob a goddamn bank vault. Everything is smooth to the touch, and squares off to the decimal. Sure, there are tensions, but they’re all included in the price of the ticket. Instead of concealing the contradictions, like Beethoven, or factoring them, like Bach, Mozart simply revels in the unpredictable effects he can create by letting mismatched melodies collide. In fact, Mozart is so forthright in his compositions that it’s hard to believe anything he says.

Let me explain. First of all, not everything Mozart wrote was touched by genius. Until he leaves Salzburg for Vienna, his music varies in style and instrumentation, but isn’t especially innovative. Under constant pressure to compose prolifically and quickly, Mozart concentrated on pleasing his audiences and simplifying his own process. The tempos are mostly regular. The instrumentation is thick and heavy. Especially in the concertos, the main melodic line is so dominant that the rest of the orchestra is there simply to echo the soloist and pad out the sound. I usually start listening to him seriously, and enjoying myself fully, around Symphony #25. I didn’t form my Mozart canon with a timeline in front of me, but his breakthroughs composing in other forms all pretty much begin with the watershed years of 1782-1786. (The exceptions are the Violin Concertos, all of which were composed earlier, and none of which, in my opinion, are quite as good as his later works.) While there’s room for argument here, roughly speaking, the great leap forward occurs with Piano Concerto #18, Quartet for Strings #14, The Marriage of Figaro, etc.

If the early Mozart is not especially interesting musically, nonetheless those years determine the whole rest of his career. In Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, Shaffer appears to basically agree with his character Salieri that God speaks through Mozart, for His own inscrutable reasons. Mozart’s childlike, obscene, prankish nature serves primarily to underscore how strange it is that he should be singled out for genius. However, listening to the music, it seems more likely that Mozart’s nature was precisely what set his genius loose on the world, because a lot of the compositions are pranks. Mozart never really abandons the compositional vocabulary of his teenage years, but he makes little changes that cast everything in a strange new light. It is satire; beyond that, it is an oeuvre characterized by deep unease. Mozart’s music, which he played obligingly for all the royal families of Europe, foretold exactly what was about to befall them.

Without speculating what, exactly, led him away from safer melodies and forms, it is certain that as soon as Mozart arrives in Vienna, his homophonic compositions fracture into four parts, each of them just a little out-of-joint with the others: the melody, the counter-melody, the beat, and the orchestral color. (By “the beat,” I mean the rhythm section, usually strings.) Even more important, there is a kind of musical narrative that plays out between distinct, thematized voices. In the occasional romantic pieces, these voices are “male” and “female.” Most often, however, they are divided up into a “junior” voice, a “senior” voice, and a sort of “Greek chorus” played by the orchestra.

Now, of course, at this point we could disappear down the Oedipal rabbit-hole of Freudian theory. Thankfully, although the case is easily made, there’s no need for it. There is youthful affirmation and aged despotism, yet Mozart’s music is never only about himself and his father. Listen again to the immortal opening to “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” Typically, the serenade is thought to be, as Wolfgang Hildesheimer wrote, “an occasional piece from a light but happy pen.” Thanks to such critics, many people have been spared the trouble of listening (closely, I mean) to the serenade at all.

The first bars, aptly categorized as a Mannheim “rocket” theme, are brash and fierce. This initial theme is then challenged by a second version, an apparent duplicate of the first until the last four notes — those notes, however, contain multitudes. The first iteration of the theme is the old voice, rough and martial. The second is the young challenger, an ambitious tenor. Halfway through, this second voice stumbles and descends. The jarring, penultimate note almost climbs back to reclaim the melody, then crashes even further, tumbling down to the low note of the first. Just in case the point is lost on anyone, Mozart then inserts a long pause, dead air full of that ominous last key, tolling like a knell. When the second theme suddenly emerges, a little too manic and complete, it is a mockery. The abyss already yawns at our feet. “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” casts a subtle spell on the music of a cavalry charge, turning it into a nightmare, or a childish fantasy, and revealing the graceful figures of the Court lurking just behind its bloody curtain.

This playful refusal of military sentiment is also one of Mozart’s musical responses to the towering achievements of Haydn. Consider, for example, the allegro first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F Major, K332. The initial theme is a clunky march. It is old, and pompous, and so infirm that it has to be helped through a diminuendo that completely stops the music (just as in “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”). Mozart uses a simple fugal coda to close the march… but he uses it too soon, way too soon, when three-quarters of the actual movement still remains. A little later, he brings back the phony ending again. What was once dignified has been carried, with a straight face, to the point of absurdity. Meanwhile, a bright, yearning cascade of notes (the young voice) struggles with the march, now wresting control away, now being forced to yield. There is anarchy lurking in Mozart’s luxuriant use of ornamental sounds. The “accompaniment” and “color” soon threaten to drown out the main theme itself. This is precisely why Mozart’s music is disturbing, and why a nobleman barked that it had “too many notes.” In this movement, however, the old guard wins. The rebellious arpeggios are dragged to the earth, in the second half of the movement, by a series of overstated, crass power chords — like the ones that anchor Haydn’s major symphonies, and many of his other compositions. It is small wonder that Mozart required a keyboard whenever he composed music. It was the perfect instrument for him, because it allowed a single musician to play polyphonal music. He was free to write his musical dialogues, and to do so unaccompanied.