The minor fall and the major lift, continued: The Requiem

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come…
-William Wordsworth, “Ode: On Intimations of Immortality”

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
-Hebrews 11:1

Paul continues, “for by its elders it obtained a good report,” but that is not the spirit of Mozart. In my previous post, I described all of the subtle ways that Mozart pokes fun at his elders, and, by extension, at the whole culture and society. There are countless examples, too many even to list. To give just one more, there is Mozart’s sublimely comic Horn Concerto #3. Like the Piano Sonata (K332), this concerto consists of a dialogue between two voices, but here they are divided into the strings and the soloist, instead of into two overlapping piano themes. Throughout the entire concerto, the soloist playing the horn attempts (and for the most part achieves) a completely stolid, pleasant, and vapid effect. The melody is unforgivably sentimental in every possible way. It is too slow. It is too muted. It is sad for no reason, and then happy “through tears.” It suggests the pastoral. It suggests the courtly. It doesn’t care that the pastoral is the opposite of the courtly. This would be unbearable, and uninteresting, were it not for the strings in the first movement. They are, especially for Mozart, uncharacteristically out of sync with the soloist. They come in at odd times, hit unexpectedly sharp notes, and frequently begin in the wrong key. The string section is virtually a heavy-laden costermonger shouting, at the top of his lungs, that he has all sorts of fascinating new ideas for sale. Unfortunately, nobody’s buying; the horn serenely interrupts and dominates once again, steering the melody blithely back to safety. The struggle between old and new is resolved more quickly than in the piano works, and very badly, with a pompous larghetto in which the exhausted strings tag along, keep in step, and generally show the soloist all sorts of deference he’s done nothing to deserve.

To describe Mozart as exclusively a comic composer, however, would be to miss by quite a lot the absolute quantity of joy in his music, a joy which has nothing (fundamentally) to do with what has come before, and cannot be reduced to a mere rebellion by a talented young composer against the old guard. Its technique is twofold. First, it takes the innocence and determination of the child, and re-asserts the purity and sweetness of childhood within representations of mature feelings. One delightful example is the Andante to the 21st Piano Concerto, which was made famous by the film Elvira Madigan. (I’ve watched Elvira Madigan purely on the strength of this section of one concerto, and I can assure you that your time would be better spent listening to Mozart on repeat, and your money would be better spent buying strawberries and cream for yourself and your lover.) Whichever genius thought to use that piece  was absolutely right about what it means, in that it certainly is an expression of tenderness and love. But what is the nature of that love? It is a love that is just learning to walk; it is a love that has not got its sea-legs just yet. Listen to those piano notes, gliding as they do above a smooth and solid background of strings. They rise, and rise, and rise, and then they stumble, rise, and rise, and rise, and then take a tumble. When the second melody comes in above the first, to reiterate and magnify it, it is likewise filled with hope, and striving, and doubt. It fails, but it resurrects. It is every bit as awkward, stubborn, and clumsy as love, and it is equally grand.

Mozart’s other formal equivalent for joy — almost the inverse of the first — is what I think of as the fall that never comes. Think about those first three notes again, from the “Elvira Madigan” piece. What would Beethoven, or Schumann, or Rachmaninov have done to complete them? We can be fairly certain that Beethoven would have angrily restated the highest note, probably through an entire chord, and then descended furiously, dragging the melody into the depths of unfathomable loneliness and regret. Schumann would have done much the same, after first turning the cheerfulness of the melody into a circus, thereby making it a soundtrack to insanity, all with the addition of just a few more sparkling notes. Rachmaninov would have plunged down faster than Beethoven, and then risen back to the middle of the scale, pressing onward with possessed, maniacal force. Nor am I thinking of these roads not taken as distortions of Mozart’s original piece. Beethoven became a great composer because he spent many years of his life on a close and brilliant study of Mozart. The gravity is in the original itself. It is where the ear of the listener, however briefly, “expects” the music to go, because that is how its initial, minor-key momentum ought, harmonically speaking, to resolve. So the fact that nothing very awful does happen, and instead all we get is the sound of a tumbling toddler, is an incredible surprise to the ear. When we translate that aural surprise into a statement of emotion, we hear relief, and laughter. Mozart communicates an exuberant determination to endure the waywardness of life.

One of the striking qualities of his music is that this exuberance, all of which is based on a series of happy melodic “mistakes,” is virtually omnipresent. Almost nothing Mozart ever composed, even in his last years, is without this unpredictable gaiety, which shocks us whether we expect it or not, and is infinitely playful. The effect can even be slightly manic and eerie, as it is in the “Allegretto” of Piano Concerto #25, which turns a walk in the park into a party that never, ever ends. It is easy to see why, regardless of how much Peter Shaffer invented, a composer like Mozart would drive a composer like Salieri insane. Mozart’s music never goes where it rightfully should. That is, it never goes there with the exception of the Requiem. Mozart’s Requiem is one of the most “ahead of its time” pieces of classical music ever written. Nothing that Brahms, or Verdi, or Britten composed along similar lines does much besides echo it. After all, these composers were part of Romantic and post-Romantic movements that let Mozart’s melodies fall to their deaths. That is exactly what Mozart himself is doing in the Requiem. Try the same thought-experiment here that I suggested earlier, with the Piano Concerto. Take the main choral melody of “Lacrimosa” or “Dies Irae” and cut it just a bit short. In “Lacrimosa,” that means that after “Oh, La-cri-” stop and imagine how else it could go. In Dies Irae, it’s just that very last note: “Di-es Ir-” is not yet a complete musical phrase. In both cases, if you substitute in a typically Mozartian major chord, the whole complexion of the melody changes and sweetens. The goal in “Lacrimosa” is to get up above the “Oh” note, with the final note. The goal in “Dies Irae” is to come close to the “Di-” note — maybe just slightly lower. The possibilities from here are vast. TIt is no longer a requiem at all, but a hallelujah chorus.

That is not what Mozart chose to do. In his Requiem, in a move that must have pleased Salieri immensely, Mozart brings all his melodic themes in for perfectly arranged  (and seemingly inevitable) landings. Everything that goes up, comes down. Every momentum eventually resolves into rest. The rhythms are dynamic, but they are regular, and there is none of the playful rhythmic hiccuping that distinguishes so much of Mozart’s other work. This, Mozart seems to be saying, is death. It is a very beautiful thing, but it is also a very insensible and cruel enemy. He gave us the Requiem so that we would not forget what else he had accomplished, even where it seems to be written in the language of fantasy, of wishes, of dreams. In them, this music proclaims, is life. It is not in the nature of lived time that we should see our experiences resolve themselves into complete and predestined phrases. The surprises and stumbling are, in fact, the music.