Unlicensed musicology… nothing that a specialist wouldn’t know… but some personal thoughts that originally appeared (slightly differently) in Springhouse magazine.
I listen to Mozart nearly every day. I’m ashamed to admit that I first explored Mozart because the subject of my graduate studies, the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, listened to Mozart daily and so I wanted to see what made Barth so happy.
Mozart was born in Salzburg, in what is now Austria, in 1756, and he died in Vienna in 1791, probably of rheumatic disease. He and his wife Constanze had several children but only two sons lived, and the two sons had no children. When my daughter’s choir toured Europe last summer, after the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, we visited his house in Prague. I almost purchased an opera CD set there but, when I calculated the exchange rate for the Czech money, the cost was $75 for two CDs, so I didn’t buy it. It would’ve been a fun souvenir, but we’ve lovely memories of the pleasant home in a city that appreciated Mozart during his time there. (His last years were spent in Vienna, where he is buried.) Following his death, his reputation continued to grow and his music found a permanent place in the standard music repertoire. My daughter asked me one time why he was named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when, she read, his middle name was actually Theophilus. So we looked it up! He was named Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang Theophilus Mozart, but Theophilus (a Greek name that appears in the Bible) and Amadeus (which is Latin) both mean “God lover,” or “God beloved.” (The German name “Gottlieb” means the same thing.) I’ve quite a few LPs and CDs of this beloved’s music.
Much of my professional work is done at home, and I like to play music while I’m working. Unfortunately I’m also very prone to feeling blue, especially in the afternoon. Music creates a pleasant work/home atmosphere, and among different kinds of music that I like, Mozart’s is dependable for inspiration and peace. His melodies and harmonies are beautiful and seem effortless, but the musical structure is complex if you listen closely. I’ve read comments from listeners who find Mozart’s music too sweet and pleasant. He doesn’t storm the heavens. The difficult human emotions are present but often subtle. I love Mozart’s wind and horn concertos about the best. Mozart wrote a clarinet concerto (one of his last compositions), two for flute, one for oboe, one for bassoon, and four for French horn. You can easily find these pieces on CD and there are some CD collections which include them all together. I also love his piano concertos, a form which he pioneered. Mozart wrote 27 of those, which fill 11 CDs in a big box set currently on my kitchen counter next to the dirty dishes. For no particular reason, I listen most often to numbers 8, 15, 19, and 23. If you saw the movie Amadeus, the sad, slow movement of #20 was used over the ending credits.
He also wrote several serenades and divertimenti. These terms refer to compositions with multiple sections, using smaller orchestras than a symphony or concerto requires. These are festive, cheerful pieces for social occasions, some honoring particular people. So I guess I’m fine in playing these CDs while I’m doing other things. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, that is, A Little Night Music, is Mozart’s most famous example; technically it’s the Serenade #13 in G Major, K. 525. I love Serenade #6 in D Major, K 239, known as the Serenata Notturna, and others. Mozart also wrote many symphonies. His symphonies are traditionally numbered 1 through 41, but that list doesn’t include several written during his childhood. Again, for no particular reason, I like 28, 30, 35, 38, 39, 40, and 41.
I listen to Mozart’s vocal works less often, but he wrote a large amount of church music. Raised Roman Catholic, he stayed rooted in that tradition. Mozart also wrote 22 operas, of which Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan Tutte , and Die Zauberflöte are still very popular and frequently performed. The only time I’ve attended the Metropolitan Opera was a couple years ago when we saw The Magic Flute. In addition, Mozart wrote many piano sonatas, string quartets, violin concertos and sonatas, dances, and other compositions. A person can barely scratch the surface of his output. You can actually purchase a reasonably priced, 170-CD set of all his works through Collector’s Choice Music, eBay, and other sources.
We refer to “classical music” but within that genre is a “classical period” of music composed in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Musical forms like the symphony, the concerto, the sonata, and the string quartet reached a significant stage during this period. The contrapuntal orchestration common in the previous, Baroque period developed into a homophonic style; in other words, instead of more than one melody playing together, a common Baroque form, chords supported melodies. Classical-period composers emphasized balance of melody, emotional expression, and formal structure in a pleasing way. Not only Mozart but Joseph Haydn, Michael Haydn, Luigi Boccherini, Carl Stamitz, C.P.E. Bach, Franz Schubert, and Beethoven are among the notable classical-period composers. I’ve a CD set of Joseph Haydn’s 106 symphonies that, eccentrically, I like to play straight through over a period of weeks.
Sometimes one hears popular adaptations of Mozart. Researching this essay, I was surprised to learn that Neil Diamond’s “Song Sung Blue” from 1972 was inspired by the slow movement of the 21st piano concerto. (The melodies are similar but I’d not associated them.) When I was younger, I listened to music on WDZ, the AM station in Decatur, IL. I’ve been racking my brain trying to remember the artist who turned Mozart’s fortieth symphony into a pop single, which WDZ played quite a bit. Finally I found it on the internet: “Mozart 40” by Waldo de los Rios in 1971. Anyone remember that, too? I also tried to think of the Mozart piece used in the old Warner Brothers cartoons, whenever Granny walked along: it was the (apparently old-fashioned-sounding) Piano Sonata #16, K 545. Currently on television, there’s an annoying Chase Bank commercial where a woman, climbing the side of a mountain, has an Eine Kleine Nachtmusik ringtone announcing her checking account balance is low.
I’ve used several “K” numbers here. Mozart’s works are numbered in estimated chronological order from his first simple pieces for harpsichord, composed when he was four years old, to his last piece, Requiem (K 626), left unfinished at his death. The 1800s musicologist Ludwig von Köchel made the first listing of Mozart’s pieces, and his catalog-list has been updated in the years since. So the K (sometimes KV) stand for Köchel and Köchel-Verzeichnis (“Köchel catalog”), respectively. Not many of Mozart’s pieces have opus numbers, a numbering system favored by publishers and used for the music of many composers, notably Beethoven. I become impatient when music critics refers to a piece only by its K number, like the “K 550 symphony” (#40), a more accurate reference but confusing to an amateur like me who doesn’t have all the “Ks” memorized.
Speaking of Beethoven, he died in 1827, which is the year Mozart would’ve been 71. It’s astounding to view the prolific output of Mozart and the effortless quality of his work, considering that when he died, he was not quite 36. What would his output have been like had he lived to an older age? The question has intrigued music lovers for many years. Why, indeed, did this particular person display such an early and natural genius? The question is a theme of the famous 1984 movie Amadeus, based on a play. I found a website that discusses the historical accuracy and dramatic license behind the play/movie: http://www.mozartproject.org/essays/brown.html. Several key aspects of the movie are fiction. The idea that Mozart composed pieces perfectly in his head, and wrote them down later, is partly based on an 1815 forgery purported to be an original Mozart letter. He did compose rapidly and, like some other composers, mentally, but he was also a hard worker who refined and rewrote.
Nevertheless, the quality of his music and his early mastery of musical forms and instruments will always fascinate. Amadeus frames it as a question of fairness: why would God bless this particular person, and not others, with astonishing talent? Karl Barth actually attributed to Mozart a special divine grace. “I am not a man with particular artistic gifts or an artistic education,” said Barth in a 1956 talk, “nor am I inclined to confuse or to identify salvation history with any part of the history of art. But the golden sounds and melodies of Mozart’s music have always spoken to me—not as gospel, but as parables of the kingdom revealed in the gospel of God’s free grace, and they continue to do so with the utmost freshness.” Elsewhere he wrote, “What is it that for the receptive, he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which ‘beautiful’ is not a fitting epithet: music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment or edification but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; music which is never a slave to its technique nor sentimental but always ‘moving,’ free and liberating because wise, strong and sovereign? …Hearing [God’s] creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its … harmonious praise of God.”
Wow! For Barth (consciously writing as a Christian theologian) Mozart caught and expressed a beauty of God and creation in a unique way. At different times in my life, I’ve felt the same way as I’ve listened to music while contemplating pretty days and natural scenery. The Catholic theologian Hans Kűng writes that Mozart’s music is “the sound of the beautiful in its infinity.” “If I allow myself to be open, then precisely in this event of music which speaks without words I can be touched by an inexpressible, unspeakable mystery.” Kűng recalls being a doctoral student where he experienced “a touch of ‘bliss’” each day listening to the clarinet concerto, one of the few records available to him at the time.
Whether you’re religious or not, Mozart certainly provides that “touch of bliss,” even if you listen to him once in a while. I’ll let the man himself have the last word, because I like this quotation. He wrote this in a letter when he was 31, and may give us a clue about the wellsprings of his creativity: “I never lie down at night without reflecting that—young as I am—I may not live to see another day. Yet no one of all my acquaintances could say that in company I am morose and disgruntled. For this blessing I daily thank my Creator and wish with all my heart that each one of my fellow-creatures could enjoy it.”
1. Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (Fortress Press, 1976), p. 410.
2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume III, the Doctrine of Creation, Part Three (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1960), pp. 297-298.
3. Hans Kűng, Mozart: Traces of Transcendence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 27-28, 34-35.
4. Quoted in Kűng, p. 24, and also in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume III, the Doctrine of Creation, Part Four (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), p. 589.