A Beautiful Mind

Classic Arts Features   A Beautiful Mind
The Dallas Symphony marks the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth with a festival starting February 23. Mark Melson, the orchestra's vice president of artistic operations, talks about the composer's legacy.

So who was this Mozart fellow, anyway? Why is his name still in lights 250 years after his birth and 215 years after his death? Was he just a celebrity of his time, or does he really have something to say to us today?

Good questions. And since we have just a few hundred words to answer them, instead of a thesis or full-blown critical biography, we'll have to skate on the surface a bit by breaking this Mozart appreciation down to a format beloved of modern managers: bullet points. But if you bite these bullets‹rather than dodging them‹you won't be shooting blanks when someone else asks you these questions.

—A wide sampling of experts agree that Mozart was special. There is no shortage of endorsements from those who should know. Musicologist Lionel Salter called him "the most universally loved and revered by musicians." Stanley Sadie, who for years edited THE authoritative source in the English language for information pertaining to classical music, The New Grove Dictionary, called Mozart "the most naturally gifted of all composers." Even German composer Richard Wagner, who had such a high opinion of himself that there weren't many compliments left for other composers, called him "music's genius of light and love."

—He was the greatest musical child prodigy of all time. Mozart had more God-given natural ability at an earlier age than anyone we can find in history. Sadie reports that "at three he was picking out euphonious chords on the harpsichord; at four he was playing short pieces; at five he was composing." He began a three-year European tour at age seven, dazzling nobility from Munich to London to Paris with his facility at the keyboard and his improvising. He composed his first symphony at age eight. There are many more stories of his childhood musical prowess‹consult any reliable biography and be amazed.

—He wrote more music of high quality in a shorter time span than almost any other composer. At his death at age 35 Mozart had more than 600 compositions to his credit, ranging from operas, symphonies, and concertos to chamber music of all types to elegant background music (usually called "serenades" or "divertimenti") to solemn church music to scatological songs. The man composed with little apparent effort; music just flowed from his mind through his pen. The three symphonies in the Dallas Symphony's Mozart Festival this winter‹numbers 39, 40, and 41‹were written together over a period of just six weeks in the summer of 1788, when the composer was busy with other projects, as well.

—He was one of the most gifted melodists ever. No matter what the genre, Mozart's music is full of good tunes‹the kind you can hum or whistle, that stick in your mind long after the concert ends. It sounds easy, but few other composers of any age reveal this gift so prolifically as Mozart.

—He summed up his age brilliantly, perfectly embodying the composing ethos of the late 18th century. In what is known as music's Classical era, from 1750 to about 1800, music was expected to divert and entertain rather than challenge and inspire; it was to be elegant and superficially beautiful, clear in form and texture, and not too deep or demanding. In Europe's rigid social structure, composers were of the servant class, and their purpose was to serve, not challenge or offend. Mozart's music‹in almost every case‹is superbly crafted, following the composing rules of the day, and, much of the time, elegant and polished.

—But Mozart was capable of being the exception as well as the rule. His music is peppered with abnormalities‹strokes of genius that surprise and delight but must have perplexed the audiences of his day. Examples from our DSO concerts include the dark and intense, almost tragic, minor-key minuet and finale from his 40th symphony. Minuets were supposed to be elegant, rhythmic episodes bridging the introspection of the slow movements and the bubbly high spirits of the final movements. Not so here‹the moods of both the minuet and final movement are brooding and almost fatalistic in the context of that era. Another example is the exhilaratingly contrapuntal coda (ending) to the fourth movement of Symphony No. 41. Mozart flexes his compositional muscles by combining all four themes of the last movement with dazzling virtuosity. If this symphony had been performed in Mozart's time (we don't think it was), it would have left much of its audience in jaw-dropping bewilderment.

—Despite his superhuman musical gifts, Mozart was endearingly fallible as a person. Peter Shaffer's prize-winning play (and later film) Amadeus was not particularly accurate historically, but, in its exaggerated way, it did show Mozart's humanity. He was vain, intolerant, and insulting to those who didn't share his level of genius (which included almost everyone); an unapologetic skirt-chaser; and pitifully incapable of dealing with such realities as holding a steady job and supporting a family. His humanity is movingly revealed in the extensive number of letters that have survived from his late childhood until his death: you can see the rebellious teenage son, the flirtatious fiancé, the caustic critic of fellow musicians, and, late in his brief life, the obsequious beggar, desperate for loans from friends to keep his creditors at bay.

Finally, some specific hints for enjoying the works included in the Dallas Symphony's Mozart Festival‹keep these handy as you're listening:

February 23-25: Listen for the poignancy of the slow movement of the Sinfonia Concertante as the solo violin and viola wind their melodic lines around each other in the most affecting way. Enjoy the high spirits of Symphony No. 39, especially its Minuet-and-Trio third movement. The opening minuet is high-rent-district elegant, while the trio that follows (with the two clarinets leading the way) sounds almost country-bumpkin rustic.

March 9-12: Is there any 18th-century music more heartbreakingly tender than the slow movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23? The composer's tears are just below the music's polished surface. The veiled anguish of that slow movement appears again without the veil throughout most of Symphony No. 40, which follows.

March 16-19: Dark moods rise again in Piano Concerto No. 24, one of only two piano concertos Mozart wrote in a minor key. But Symphony No. 41, which ends the concert, is pure triumph.

For Mozart Festival information and tickets please visit www.DallasSymphony.com or call the Patron Services Center at 214-692-0203.

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