"Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius." Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Chances are, the announcement “Mom, Dad, I want to be a composer” would not be music to the ears of most modern parents. They might stare at their beloved son or daughter with haunted eyes, envisioning them living in abject poverty all their lives, if they ever achieve financial self-sufficiency at all. Sanguine parents might console themselves by thinking of their child getting a job writing the next catchy corporate jingle that sticks, such as Alka-Seltzer’s “plop-plop, fizz-fizz, oh what a relief it is”. Optimistic parents whose faith in their child is boundless, might envision that child’s Best Song contender being performed at the glitzy annual tedium of the Academy Awards ceremony. Their child’s First Symphony being performed by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of a famous conductor would be a long, long shot for just about everybody.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, born in Salzburg Austria 256 years ago today, is not remembered because he was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Chief Executive Officer of a multi-national corporation. Nor was he Doctor W. A. Mozart, or W. A. Mozart, Esq. He was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the Composer. Given the rare degree of his musical genius--perhaps the finest musical mind there has ever been--for Mozart to have done anything else with his life would have been a tragic waste. Leopold Mozart, a composer and violinist, realized his toddler son was a prodigy and a phenomenon early on, and had no compunction about carting his cute little boy all over Europe to perform for the amazement of royalty and nobility by the time Wolfgang was five. He made such a wide-spread impression on the aristocracy, that the boy Ludwig van Beethoven’s drunkard father would come home from the tavern and force Ludwig to practice at the family piano far into the night hoping to “make a second Mozart of him.”
Inevitably, Mozart grew older, less cute, and his marketability as a child prodigy decreased. It was probably a mercy for Wolfgang who was often exhausted and ill during those years of hectic travel. Staying at home in Salzburg playing piano duets with his older sister Nannerl gave him time to better learn his lessons as a musician and composer. He wrote his first symphony at age eight, and his first opera, Bastien und Bastienne, at age twelve. In 1770, at age fourteen, Mozart entered the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg, his first and last patron. Neither Mozart nor the Archbishop found the association pleasant. Mozart moved to Vienna in 1780 and married Constanze Weber in August 1782, shortly after the successful premier of his opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio. The marriage was a mutually affectionate one, although of the couple’s six children, only two sons survived to adulthood.
Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name; he has taste, and, furthermore, the most profound knowledge of composition.
Franz Josef Haydn, to Leopold Mozart.
Franz Josef Haydn and Mozart were friends and admired one another profoundly, even given the difference between of their ages and personalities. Haydn,then in his fifties, had “made something from nothing” through his own lifetime of hard work. In the employ of his patron, Prince Esterházy, he was not a free agent, but in return, he had security and freedom from money worries. Mozart, then in his twenties, a musical genius practically from his cradle, was delighted to be living on his own in Vienna, free to compose what he wanted, rather than what the Archbishop required. Very likely, he was also glad to be living independently of his father, the often disapproving and authoritarian Leopold.
Even in eighteenth century Vienna, as close to a golden age for composers as there has ever been, a composer trying to make a living without a wealthy patron to fall back on was a concept so new as to be radical. Mozart was a musical genius, but definitely not a financial one, and Constanze had no natural ability in that area, either. In 1979, I visited Mozart’s Viennese home, found it a charming, but cramped and ordinary apartment. Although Mozart was constantly composing and conducting his own works in and around Vienna, and frequently traveled around Europe, the Mozart family lived modestly at best, even though the 1780’s were the most prolific and successful period of Mozart’s life. He wrote symphonies and concerti, chamber music, masses and other sacred music, and operas, proving that he could write instrumental and vocal music with equal ease.
Designing an opera by Mozart is like doing something for God—it’s a labor of love.
In terms of musical samples, I will concentrate on Mozart’s operas, which are close to my heart, anyway. In the late 1770s, Emperor Franz Josef was dismayed that the Italians dominated operatic composition. Just because they invented the art form, why should they have all the fun? The public needed some German operas, too. And so, Mozart began composing Zaide in 1779, but evidently, never finished it in favor of working on the more lucrative The Abduction from the Seraglio—another story with the then-popular exotic setting of a Turkish harem. The unfinished Zaide is virtually unknown, except the soprano aria, Ruhe Sanft. Zaide the love interest, is the favorite of a Turkish Sultan, but he is not necessarily her favorite. She falls in love with a handsome young slave she finds sleeping in the Sultan’s garden, but rather than wake him, she simply leaves her portrait beside him where he can find it. Performed bySoprano Miah Persson.
Given the merits of Ruhe Sanft, I wish Mozart had gone back and finished Zaide; Instead, he kept ploughing forward; his best known works were yet to come.
The Italian poet, Lorenzo da Ponte, wrote the libretti for three of Mozart’s best known operas; The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Così fan Tutte (1790). If he were alive today, Mozart would probably be much in sympathy with the 99%. He was after all, a commoner himself, a working man and never wealthy in his own right. For the 18th century, his political views were amazingly forward-thinking, although he was not overtly political in his lifetime. The common man and the servant is at least as likely to be his operatic hero as a member of the nobility. Figaro, the clever, resourceful eponymous hero of The Marriage of Figaro (based on a Beaumarchais play of the same name), and Susannah, his equally clever bride-to be, are the servants of Count and Countess Almaviva. They are clearly portrayed as having better minds and better morals than their master, Count Almaviva, a neglectful husband with a roving eye. Figaro the Count’s valet, is not at all interested in sharing his bride with his master on their wedding night, thank you very much. Figaro, Susannah and the Countess plot together to trap the Count in a compromising situation. For Count Almaviva's part, he is finally man enough to beg his wife's pardon by the final curtain. The opera was a tremendous success at its Viennese premiere. With the French Revolution only three years in the future and political unrest already rumbling, it’s amazing Emperor Franz Josef made no protest, especially given the eventual fate of his sister, Marie Antoinette, and King Louis XVI.
Count Almaviva’s are not the only roving eyes in the opera. In his aria Non So Più, from Act I, the teenaged page Cherubino is in an overamped state of hormonal confusion, and confesses to Susannah, that it makes him fall in love with every woman. Performed by Mezzo-Soprano Joyce di Donato.
At the close of Act I, the Count has caught Cherubino in one compromising situation too many, and he’s packed off to join the army. Figaro teases the dismayed Cherubino about how much he’ll like army life in his aria Non Più Andrai. Performed by Bass-Baritone Bryn Terfel.
By Act III, in the palace gardens that evening, The newly married Susannah sings Deh Vieni Non Tardar urging her “lover” the Count to come to her without delay, knowing that Figaro is listening, and wants to pay him back for believing she was unfaithful to him. But the aria is lovely. Performed by Soprano Barbara Bonney.
Don Giovanni premiered in Vienna in 1787. It opens with Leporello, Don Giovanni’s manservant keeping watch outside the Commendatore’s palace while Don Giovanni tries to seduce Donna Anna inside. Leporello is another working man, complaining musically about his difficult life in Notte è Giorno Facitar. The hours are terrible, he never gets a decent night’s sleep or enough to eat, the pay is paltry, etc etc. It’s so unfair he’s not a gentleman of leisure. Performed by Bass Feruccio Furlanetto, then with Bryn Terfel and Soprano Renee Fleming, when the Don's seduction doesn't go quite as he'd planned.
Near the close of Act I, Don Giovanni himself sings Finch' han dal Vino and the mood is what a wicked good time he’s going to have at his party. With emphasis on the wicked. Performed by Ildebrando D'Arcangelo.
In Act II, Donna Anna, the would-be victim of Don Giovanni reminds her betrothed Don Ottavio she is in mourning for her father who died in a duel protecting her honor from Don Giovanni (See Notte e Giorno above). If he’ll just be patient, she might cheer up, eventually. Non Mi Dir, performed by the great Soprano, Leontyne Price.
I confess, that Così Fan Tutte is my least favorite of Mozart’s operas. Crusty, cynical old bachelor, Don Alfonso believes all women are faithless, and makes a bet with two young men friends, Ferrando and Guglielmo, he can prove their beloved Fiordiligi and Dorabella, a pair of sisters, are also faithless. He does manage to prove this by the end of the opera, but through trickery and conniving with the sisters’ maid Despina--yet another clever, mildly disgruntled servant. At the end of Così, what’s left are, four formerly happy young people can’t ever truly trust one another, again. Wouldn’t it have been better for everybody if the old misogynist had minded his own business?
But Così has some beautiful arias in it—it’s Mozart, after all. Since the sopranos, mezzos and baritones have had a chance, it’s time to let a tenor shine in Un Aura Amorosa. Young Ferrando is pleased that at least after Don Alfonso's first test, his darling Fiordiligi has proved constant. Performed by Leopold Simoneau.
Give Mozart a fairy tale and he creates without effort an immortal masterpiece.
Camille Saint Saens.
Switching gears Mozart’s last opera, The Magic Flute, is once again in German with a libretto written by Emmanuel Schickaneder. It premiered in 1791, just months before Mozart's death. Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, has been abducted by Sarastro a wicked sorcerer. The Queen gives the hero, Prince Tamino, her daughter’s miniature portrait and begs him to rescue her. Tamino joins forces with Papageno, the bird catcher/seller and together they go in search of Pamina. Papageno finds her first, and since her guard, Monostatos, has never seen anybody quite as strange looking as Papageno, Monostatos obligingly runs away in terror. In the duet Bei Männern, Pamina and Papageno sing of the joys of finding love. Pamina—Lucia Popp/ Papageno—Wolfgang Brendel.
By Act II of The Magic Flute, the audience can be forgiven for some confusion. At first, the Queen of the Night seems to be the wronged mother whose child has been abducted by the evil Sarastro. In Act II, one might wonder if they’ve completely reversed roles as the Queen of the Night comes to speak with Pamina with nothing like a tender mother and child reunion. In Der Hölle Rache, she brusquely orders Pamina to murder Sarastro or she’s no daughter of hers. Performed by Soprano Sumi Jo.
After the Queen disappears—presumably in a cloud of malevolence—the wise, benevolent Sarastro comforts Pamina in the Aria in Diesen Heil’gen Hallen. Performed by Bass Martti Talvela.
A world that has produced a Mozart is a world worth saving. What a picture of a better world you have given us, Mozart!
It may be that when the angels go about their task praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille they play Mozart.