01-06-2006 - Traces, n.6

Knowing Mozart:
An improvised testimonial

by Kristi Brown

“Who is he?” I was astonished by this question, posed to me by my son’s preschool director earlier this year. While I was writing a check for her, I noticed the date–January 27th–and an involuntary alarm went off in my head. “Oh,” I exclaimed, “Happy birthday, Mozart!” The director smiled pleasantly. “Yeah,” I continued, “Two hundred and fifty years since he was born.” Her smile wavered, as politeness gave way to confusion. She looked at me apologetically: “Who is he?”
I found myself thinking about this question for several weeks. Initially, I was perplexed that it had been asked at all. I had assumed that pretty much everyone would recognize the name of this favorite composer, particularly with all the mass marketing leading up to the latest “Mozart year”–concerts and conferences, promotional advertisements on public-transit buses and trains (sponsored by classical radio stations), interviews and specials on television and radio. Mozart was a popular icon, right? Didn’t she see Amadeus? Hadn’t she read about the mysterious “Mozart Effect”? I realized that, no, she obviously had not, and this discovery was sobering for me as a musicologist, educator, and Mozart scholar. With other musicians, I grumbled about the poor state of music education in schools, about the desultory attitude that many classical musicians have regarding outreach programs. At some point, however, I began to consider the deeper significance of the preschool director’s query. What do I–someone who has studied Mozart for the past 15 years–“know” about Mozart? What does “Mozart” mean to me?
A couple of months ago, I tuned into a radio interview with a music critic who mentioned that he had Googled “Mozart” and turned up a huge number of hits, the kind of numbers (he said) that you get with terms like Shakespeare and Jesus Christ. More recently, I heard a famous children’s book author talking about his understanding of “faith.” He listed a number of playwrights and authors as his “gods,” but included one composer: Mozart. Thinking about these two broadcasts as I continued to ponder the preschool director’s question, I suddenly realized that I had never imagined Mozart as a particularly “divine” personality. Reading his letters, I imagine something quite different–a man who is almost appallingly human. Mozart could be annoying, puerile, stingingly critical, and sometimes as pedantic as his pedant father. He did not often share the kind of “deep thoughts” you see in the letters of later composers inspired by the romantic spirit of self-expression, beginning with Beethoven. Despite all the mythologizing about his life, he did not die horribly poor (he still had servants), nor did his professional problems stem mostly from the jealousy of less-capable composers. Mozart was not a great businessman; sometimes he was his own worst enemy. On the other hand, he was kind to his friends, managed to have a fairly happy marriage (neither Haydn nor Beethoven succeeded in this), and was quick to recognize and appreciate talent in others.
Far from being divine, Mozart was, in the simplest terms, a fairly unremarkable man with an extra-remarkable talent. I say this with genuine affection and admiration. This Mozart is dear to me; it is not necessary for him to be an artistic “god” or even the sort of idealized artist-hero that the Romantics cherished. I like his description of himself: Mozart magnus, corpore parvus, Mozart the great, small of body. Mozart is my reminder of the potential greatness in even the most ordinary human being. He is that odd guy at work, the one whom you avoid after he tells you the same scatological joke for the umpteenth time; he is the man you hardly notice sitting near you at the Panda Express. During this Mozart Year, I celebrate Mozart, the guy. I love the fact that he wrote incredibly gross jokes about bowel movements, that he loved his wife (though he may have cheated on her), that he struggled with anxiety and melancholy, that he worried about getting a job, that he complained about how much he had to pay the maid.
Of course, I have also been thinking a lot about his glorious music. Listening to the later works, I completely understand Fr. Giussani’s words about the incommensurability of our human understanding and our destiny. I cannot know whether Mozart consciously intended to express a desire for the Infinite in his music, but I do know that when I listen to the G-minor Symphony, K. 550, or the D-minor Piano Concerto, I become aware of this desire in an almost painful way. I hear my own heart in the interplay of consonance and dissonance, in the tonal pull toward a “home” key, in the phrase that reaches vertiginously upward before falling, again and again. What is surprising, perhaps, is that I experience something very similar when I read about Mozart’s life. His days were filled, like mine, with both the mundane and the miraculous. In 1991, the anniversary year of Mozart’s death, I brought a facsimile of Mozart’s autograph score to a performance of his Requiem. When I saw his handwriting stop after only a few bars of the “Lacrymosa,” I began to cry–sob, actually–because he was dead, because I wished he had heard Beethoven’s Third Symphony and written a response, because we would never hear the music of an old Mozart, because I missed him. This last bit may, I admit, sound a little crazy, but it is true nonetheless. Every time I lecture to my students about Mozart, I mourn him a little.
p.s. When I sang a little of Eine kleine Nachtmusik to the preschool director, she smiled again, now in recognition, and exclaimed, “Oh, yes!” Oh yes, indeed.