A number of years ago, a New Yorker cartoon featured an illustration of an urban lot filled with refuse: abandoned tires, empty liquor bottles, a battered sofa, and other assorted detritus. The caption: "A World Without Mozart."
Of course, claims to the ameliorative qualities of art notwithstanding, the illustration is what a world with Mozart looks like, too‹in the composer's time and in our own. Mozart may not have been the enfant terrible portrayed by Tom Hulce in the popular film Amadeus, but he did lead a somewhat messy life in a calamitous world. The French masses had not yet embraced the bloodbath of revolution, yet such eruptions were simmering in Mozart's time‹as could be gleaned from the disasters befalling the British Empire in its North American colonies. A time of upheaval was at hand.
Mozart, the most extraordinary child artist of all time, would have to overcome the "child" appellation to be acknowledged as a serious adult composer. He would have to escape the long shadow of an imposing father. He would have to find acceptance from patrons who had no ear for his radical musical constructions. He was forced into vagabond life‹Salzburg, Prague, Paris, Vienna‹rarely to find a home, leading Franz Joseph Haydn to exclaim in 1787, "It enrages me that the unparalleled Mozart is not yet engaged by some imperial or royal court! Forgive my excitement, but I love the man so dearly!"
In our own time, the view of Mozart has changed. He has gone from a composer who was considered ornamental, playful, and superficial to an artist who is profound, shocking, and tragic. Perhaps the fact that our perspectives have changed so radically concerning Mozart shows how vital he remains. You hear an orchestra opening with such power at the beginning of the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491, and wonder how a piano might be allowed to fit into all that sound. Yet Mozart makes room for a light and delicate theme upon the keyboard, with the understanding that such frail beauties must be granted their own place in the world.
From Belgrade, Montana to St. Louis
To hear Mozart in the 18th century you had to be in the presence of Mozart, or attending an orchestral or chamber ensemble that performed his works. You were a member of the elite who had access to such entertainments. Today, of course, Mozart has an audience he never could have imagined in places he did not know existed. "Miles from any town / your radio comes in strong," says Richard Hugo in his poem "Driving Montana," "unlikely / Mozart from Belgrade, rock and roll / from Butte."
You can hear him in the confines of your all-terrain vehicle equipped with a five-disc CD player and full-stereo surround sound. You can drive about St. Louis and discover the surprising synchronicity of a Mozart minuet and the rhythm of a woman carrying her plastic grocery bag toward home, or observe how the gentle neon of Smokin' Al's St. Louis Barbecue and the Courtesy Diner fit in with the soft closure brought to the second movement of the "Jupiter" Symphony by the woodwinds and the horns. And then hear the way the symphony reopens like an expansive green park in a restless city.
You reach the old Southwest Railroad terminal in what was the former north industrial district, where the commercial bustle of St. Louis once thrived. The sides of the former freight depot are spray-painted with graffiti, yet the remnants of another style of ornamentation‹the green sculpted heads of lions‹continue to hold steel cables in their mouths. An angel on a pedestal stands incongruently amidst rubble in a vacant urban lot. Mozart's music not only suggests angelic presences, it insists upon them. The "necessary angel," as the poet Wallace Stevens describes it, "Since, in my sight, you see the earth again."
Downriver is a view of floating casinos, the brilliant latticework of the Eads Bridge, the Arch soaring, and traffic moving back and forth over the neglected and abused river. A soprano sings from Requiem "… and a vow shall be paid to them in Jerusalem." And even as Mozart seeks sounds appropriate for sacred memory, you feel the pressure of time moving forward‹within the rhythm of traffic, the current of the river, the ineluctable course of the music.
Mozart realized that none of us have a chance against time, and left things, as we all ultimately leave them, incomplete‹yet, unlike the rest of us, incomplete and exquisite: the splendid detritus of a messy and magnificent life.
Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.