The Progress of a Rake

Classic Arts Features   The Progress of a Rake
 
Dainty musician, foul-mouthed child-man, something in-between — who was the real Mozart? John Ardoin paints a thoughtful portrait.


It was in the archbishopric of Salzburg, Austria, that the most perfect, the best equipped, and the most natural musician the world has ever known was born. As a composer, he was supreme in every musical form. He produced the greatest operas; he helped to shape the symphony, concerto, and string quartet into the way we know them today; his sacred music is deeply spiritual and his lightest pieces wonderfully secular.

He could read any piece of music at sight perfectly, and he could hear a complex score once and write it down note-for-note afterwards. As if this weren't enough, Wolfgang Amad_ Mozart was the foremost pianist and organist of his day, and, had he wished, he might have been the age's leading violinist as well. In short, musically speaking there was literally nothing he couldn't do better than anyone else.

But what of the man Mozart? His life and particularly his early death have often been romanticized almost beyond recognition. The truth of the matter is that Mozart had far less of a genius for living than he had for music. His outsized gifts virtually assured that he would grow up in an over-protected, hothouse atmosphere, and he did. He was too reliant on his father, who protected his child too much while exploiting his awesome gifts, and the boy never really learned to cope with the realities of day-to-day living.

How strong was the contrast between the pretty, adored child who crawled into Empress Maria Theresa's lap and asked the young Marie Antoinette to marry him when he grew up and the plain, struggling musician he eventually turned out to be. The adult Mozart was short, his face pock-marked, his head overly big for his body, his eyes protruding, his nose large, and his hands stubby and fat. But, you say, surely his unique gifts as performer and composer overrode all other considerations.

But they didn't. The closest he came to securing a court position in an age when royal patronage was everything, was to be given (the same year Don Giovanni had its premiere) the minor post of chamber composer to Austria's Joseph II. The pay was equally minor. "It is," Mozart lamented, "too much for what I do and too little for what I could do."

He was, in the words of critic Harold Schonberg, "a complicated man with a complicated personality and an unprecedented knack for making enemies."

Clearly, it could not have been enviable to have been Mozart during his lifetime, to be able to see beyond your age, to know your worth and to see men you knew were inferior become wealthy and receive great honors while you spent your days scrambling for money to support your wife and children. Even his death brought a sigh of relief in some quarters. Antonio Salieri, one of the most popular and successful composers of the time, and a man once accused of poisoning Mozart, said, "A genius has departed. Let us rejoice, for soon no one would have given us a piece of bread for our own music."

It was upon this hostility of Salieri's that Peter Shaffer built his play Amadeus. At one point in the drama he has Salieri slowly raise his head and tell the audience that "tonight at an inn somewhere in this city stands a giggling child who can put on paper, without actually setting down his billiards cue, casual notes, which turn my most considered ones into lifeless scratches."

What emerges in the course of the play is not a flattering picture, and often it seems in opposition to the angelic clarity and warm spontaneity of his art. Many, in fact, have resented the portrait of Mozart left by Amadeus as a spoiled, petulant, foul-mouthed child-man. But no matter how one might delude oneself, Shaffer was very close to the truth. Mozart was a classic case of a beautiful duckling that turned into an ugly swan.

Salieri's words imply that a true value was finally beginning to be placed on Mozart's music, and indeed a vogue for his work set in following his death. It did not last for too long, however; the age of Romanticism was just around the corner, an age that misunderstood him in a different way. At the crest of the Romantic era, he became the "Raphael of music" and was considered only a dainty, elegant composer.

That epoch missed all the humanity and strength of his music amid the great operatic and symphonic machinery of the Romantic era: the music dramas of Wagner, the tone poems of Berlioz and Liszt. Next to these outsize creations, a false picture developed of Mozart as a salon composer whose works were tinted in pastel hues.

More than any other individual, the sterling British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham led the Mozart revival in that halcyon period between the two World Wars and took him out of a powdered wig and satin knee breeches, redressing him in riding habit and boots. As the world heard and became intimate with the wide variety of his output, far beyond a handful of certified masterpieces, it eventually realized that Mozart was supreme in every musical form.

"He was," Beecham has written, "the central point of European music. Before him, the various forms of composition, as they were, were growing with some pain because of the lack of synthesis between various elements, which made up the scores. In his brief life everything was accomplished. The after-effects in the hands of other persons were certainly of admitted and increased resonance. But by then the bridge was completed between the old world of music and the modern world of music. The man who built the bridge was Mozart."


The late John Ardoin was the music critic for the Dallas Morning News for more than 30 years. This is an excerpt of an article which first appeared in the program of San Francisco Opera; it is used here with the permission of San Francisco Opera.


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