He had reason for confidence, for he had already won reputation as a pianist, had acquired some paying pupils, and had produced successful operas. Just a month after leaving the Archbishop’s service he received from Count Orsini-Rosenberg, director of court theaters for Joseph II, a commission to compose a Singspiel—a spoken drama interspersed with songs. The result was presented on July 16, 1782, in the presence of the Emperor, as Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). A hostile clique condemned it, but nearly all the audience was won over by the vivacious arias that adorned an aged theme: a Christian beauty captured by pirates, sold to a Turkish harem, and rescued by her Christian lover after incredible intrigues. Joseph II commented on the music, “Too beautiful for our ears, my dear Mozart, and far too many notes”; to which the reckless composer answered, “Exactly as many, your Majesty, as are needed.”36 The operetta was repeated thirty-three times in Vienna in its first six years. Gluck praised it, though he perceived that it quite ignored his “reform” of the opera; he admired the instrumental compositions of the impetuous youth, and invited him to dinner.
Mozart took inspiration rather from Italy than from Germany; he preferred melody and simple harmony to complex and erudite polyphony. Only in his final decade did he feel strong influences from Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1782 he joined the musicians who, under the aegis of Baron Gottfried van Swieten, gave concerts, chiefly of Handel and Bach, in the National Library or in van Swieten’s home. In 1774 the Baron had brought from Berlin to Vienna The Art of the Fugue, The Well-tempered Clavichord, and other works of J. S. Bach. He deprecated Italian music as amateurish; real music, he thought, required strict attention to fugue, polyphony, and counterpoint. Mozart, though he never allowed structure, rule, or form to be an end in itself, profited from van Swieten’s counsel and concerts, and carefully studied Handel and the major Bachs. After 1787 he conducted Handel concerts in Vienna, and took some liberties in adjusting Handel’s scores to Viennese orchestras. In his later instrumental music he wedded Italian melody and German polyphony in a harmonious union.
A glance at Köchel’s catalogue of Mozart’s compositions is an impressive experience. Here are listed 626 works—the largest body of music left by any composer except Haydn, all produced in a life of thirty-six years, and including masterpieces in every form: 77 sonatas, 8 trios, 29 quartets, 5 quintets, 51 concertos, 96 divertimenti, dances or serenades, 52 symphonies, 90 arias or songs, 60 religious compositions, 22 operas. If some of those near Mozart thought him indolent, it may have been because they did not quite realize that the labor of the spirit can exhaust the flesh, and that without intervals of lethargy genius would slip into insanity. His father told him, “Procrastination is your besetting sin,”37 and in many cases Mozart waited till almost the last hour before putting to paper the music that had been taking form in his head. “I am, so to speak, steeped in music,” he said; “it is in my mind the whole day, and I love to dream, to study, to reflect on it.”38 His wife reported, “He was always strumming upon something—his hat, his watch fob, the table, the chair, as if they were the keyboard.”39 Sometimes he carried on this silent composition even while apparently listening to an opera. He kept scraps of music paper in his pockets, or, when traveling, in the side pocket of the carriage; on these he made fragmentary notes; usually he carried a leather case to receive such obiter scripta. When he was ready to compose he sat not at a keyboard but at a table; he “wrote music like letters,” said Constanze, “and never tried a movement until it was finished.” Or he would sit at the piano for hours on end, improvising, leaving his musical fancy seemingly free, but half unconsciously subjecting it to some recognizable structure—sonata form, aria, fugue … Musicians enjoyed Mozart’s improvisations because they could detect, with esoteric delight, the order hidden behind the apparently whimsical strains. Niemetschek said in old age, “If I dared to pray for one more earthly joy it would be that I might hear Mozart improvise.”40
Mozart could play almost any music at sight, because he had seen certain combinations and sequences of notes so often that he could read them as one note, and his habituated fingers played them as one musical phrase or idea, just as a practiced reader takes in a line as if it were a word, or a paragraph as if it were a line. Mozart’s trained memory was allied with this capacity to perceive aggregates, to feel the logic that compelled the part to indicate the whole. In later years he could play almost any one of his concertos by heart. At Prague he wrote the drum and trumpet parts of the second finale in Don Giovanni without having at hand the score for the other instruments; he had kept that complex music in his memory. Once he wrote down only the violin part of a sonata for piano and violin; the next day, without a rehearsal, Regina Strinasacchi played the violin part at a concert, and Mozart played the piano part purely from the memory of his conception, without having had time to set it down upon paper.41 Probably no other man in history was ever so absorbed in music.
We think of Mozart’s sonatas as rather slight and playful, hardly in a class with Beethoven’s passionate and powerful pronouncements in the same genre; this may be because they were written for pupils of limited legerdemain, or for harpsichords of minor resonance, or for a piano that had no means of continuing a note.42 The favorite of our childhood, the Sonata in A (K. 331), with its engaging “Minuetto” and its “Rondo alla Turca,” is still (1778) in harpsichord style.
Mozart did not at first care for chamber music, but in 1773 he came upon Haydn’s early quartets, envied their contrapuntal excellence, and imitated them with something short of success in the six quartets that he composed in that year. In 1781 Haydn published another series; Mozart was again stirred to rivalry, and issued (1782-85) six quartets (K. 387, 421, 428, 458, 464-65) that are now universally recognized as among the supreme examples of their kind. Performers complained that they were abominably difficult; critics especially condemned the sixth for its clashing dissonances and its turbulent mixture of major and minor keys. An Italian musician returned the score to the publisher as obviously full of gross mistakes, and one purchaser, when he found that the discords were deliberate, tore up the sheets in a rage. Yet it was after playing the fourth, fifth, and sixth of these quartets with Mozart, Dittersdorf, and others that Haydn said to Leopold Mozart, “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, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”43 When the six quartets were published (1785) Mozart dedicated them to Haydn with a letter that shines out even in a brilliant correspondence:
A father who had decided to send his sons out into the great world thought it his duty to entrust them to the protection and guidance of a man who was very celebrated at the time, and who, moreover, happened to be his best friend. In like manner I send my six sons to you, most celebrated and very dear friend. They are indeed the fruit of a long and laborious study; but the hope which many friends have given me that their toil will be in some degree rewarded, … flatters me with the thought that these children may one day prove a source of consolation to me.
During your last stay in this capital you … expressed to me your approval of these compositions. Your good opinion encourages me to offer them to you, and leads me to hope that you will not consider them unworthy of your favor. Please then receive them kindly, and be to them a father, guide, and friend. From this moment I surrender to you all my rights over them. I entreat you, however, to be indulgent to those faults which may have escaped their composer’s partial eye, and, in spite of them, to continue your generous friendship towards one who so highly appreciates it.44
Mozart had a particular fondness for his quintets. He thought his Quintet in E Flat for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon (K. 452) “the best work I have ever composed,”45 but that was before he had written his major operas. “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” was originally (1787) composed as a quintet, but it was soon taken up by small orchestras, and is now classed among Mozart’s serenades. He valued, as “rather carefully” written, the Serenade in E Flat (K. 375), with which he himself was serenaded one evening in 1781, but musicians rank above it the Serenade in C Minor (K. 388)—which is as somber as the Pathétiques of Beethoven and Tchaikowsky.
Having discovered the orchestra, Mozart turned it to a hundred experiments: overtures, nocturnes, suites, cassations (variants of the suite), dances, divertimenti. The last were usually intended to serve a passing purpose rather than to echo in the halls of history; they are not to be weighed but enjoyed. Even so, Divertimenti No. 15 (K. 287) and No. 17 (K. 334) are substantial works, more delightful than most of the symphonies.
For his symphonies Mozart, like Haydn, used a “band” of thirty-five pieces; hence they fail to convey their full worth to ears accustomed to the multiplied sonority of twentieth-century orchestras. Pundits praise No. 25 (K. 183) as “impassioned”46 and “a miracle of impetuous expression,”47 but the earliest Mozart symphony of note is the Paris (No. 31, K. 297), which Mozart adapted to the French taste for refinement and charm. The Haffner Symphony (No. 35, K. 385) was originally composed in haste to grace the festivities planned by Sigismund Haffner, former burgomaster of Salzburg, for the wedding of his daughter (1782); Mozart later added parts for flute and clarinet, and presented it at Vienna (March 3, 1783) at a concert attended by Joseph II. The Emperor “gave me great applause,” and twenty-five ducats.48 In this and No. 36, written at Linz in November, 1783, Mozart still kept to the form and stamp—always pleasant, seldom profound—that Haydn had laid upon the symphony; in both cases the slow movement comes most gratefully to aging ears. We must speak more respectfully of No. 38, which Mozart composed for Prague in 1786; here the first movement pleases the musician with its structural logic and contrapuntal skill, and the andante, adding contemplation to melody, has stirred experts to speak of its “undying perfection”49 and its “enchanted world.”50
By common consent the greatest of Mozart’s symphonies are the three that he poured forth in a torrent of inspiration in the summer of 1788—at a time of depressing poverty and mounting debts. The first is dated June 26, the second July 25, the third August 10—three births in three months. So far as we know, none of them was ever played in his lifetime; he never heard them; they remained in that mysterious realm in which black spots on a sheet were for the composer “ditties of no sound”—notes and harmonies heard only by the mind. The third, misnamed the Jupiter (No. 41 in C, K. 551), is usually accounted the best; Schumann equated it with Shakespeare and Beethoven,51 but it does not lend itself to amateur appreciation. No. 40 in G Minor (K. 550) begins with a vigor that presages the Eroica, and it proceeds to a development that has led commentators—struggling in vain to express music in words—to read into it a Lear or Macbeth of personal tragedy;52 yet to simpler ears it seems almost naively joyous. To the same ears the mostsatisfying of the symphonies is No. 39 in E Flat (K. 543). It is not burdened with woe, nor is it tortured with technique; it is melody and harmony flowing in a placid stream; it is such music as might please the gods on a rural holiday from celestial chores.
The sinfonia concertante is a cross between the symphony and the concerto; it grew out of the concerto grosso by opposing two or more instruments to the orchestra in a dialogue between melody and accompaniment. Mozart raised the form to its apex in the Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat (K. 364) for flute, violin, and viola (1779); this is as fine as any of his symphonies.
All the concertos are delightful, for in them the solo passages help the untrained ear to follow themes and strains that in the symphonies may be obscured by technical elaboration or contrapuntal play. Debate is interesting, and all the more so when, as in the form of the concerto as proposed by Karl Philipp Emanuel Bach and developed by Mozart, the contest is of one against all—solo contra tutti. Since Mozart relished such harmonious confrontations, he wrote most of his concertos for the piano, for in these he played the solo part himself, usually adding, toward the end of the first movement, a cadenza that allowed him to frolic and shine as a virtuoso.
He first touched excellence in this form with Piano Concerto No. 9 in E Flat (K. 271). The earliest of his still popular concertos is No. 20 in D Minor (K. 466), famous for its almost childlike “Romanze”; in this slow movement, we might say, the Romantic movement in music began. Whether through laziness or distractions, Mozart did not complete the score of this concerto till an hour before the time appointed for its performance (February 11, 1785); copies reached the players just before the recital, allowing no time for practice or rehearsal; yet the performance went so well, and Mozart played his part so expertly, that many repetitions were called for in the ensuing years.
Mozart offered noble music for other solo instruments. Perhaps the melodious Concerto in A for clarinet (K. 622) comes over the air more frequently than any other of his compositions. In his merry youth (1774) he had great fun with a Concerto in B Flat for the bassoon. The horn concertos were bubbles gaily blown upon the score—which sometimes bore humorous directions for the performer: “da bravo!,” “coraggio!” “bestia!,” “ohimè!”— for Mozart was familiar with more wind instruments than one. Then the Concerto for Flute and Harp (K. 299) lifts us to the stars.
In 1775 Mozart, aged nineteen, composed five violin concertos, all of them beautiful, three of them still in living repertoires. No. 3 in G (K. 216) has an adagio that sent an Einstein into ecstasy,53 No. 4 in D is one of music’s masterpieces, and No. 5 in A has an andante cantabile that rivals the miracle of a woman’s voice.
Little wonder that Mozart produced, especially in the years of his love for Aloysia Weber, some of the most delectable airs in all the literature of song. They are not full-blown Heder, such as found their ripe development in Schubert and Brahms; they are simpler and shorter, often adorning silly words; but when Mozart found a real poem, like Goethe’s “Das Veilchen,” he rose to the peak of the form (K. 476). A violet, trembling with joy at the approach of a pretty shepherdess, thinks how sweet it would be to lie upon her breast; but as she walks along, gaily singing, she crushes it unseen under her foot.54 Was this a memory of the cruel Aloysia? For her Mozart had written one of his tenderest arias—“Non so d’onde viene.” But he attached little importance to such isolated songs; he kept the secret resources of his vocal art for the arias in his operas and his compositions for the Church.
His religious music was rarely heard outside Salzburg, for the Catholic Church frowned upon the operatic qualities apparently expected by the archbishops whom Mozart served. High Mass in Salzburg was sung to an accompaniment of organ, strings, trumpets, trombones, and drums, and passages of merriment broke out in the most solemn places in Mozart’s Masses. Yet the religious spirit must surely be moved by the motets “Adoramus Te” (K. 327) and “Santa Maria Mater Dei” (K. 341b); and the most hauntingly beautiful strain in all of Mozart appears in the “Laudate Dominum” in the fourth of the “Vesperae solennes di confessore” (K. 339).55
All in all, Mozart’s music is the voice of an aristocratic age that had not heard the Bastille fall, and of a Catholic culture undisturbed in its faith, free to enjoy the charms of life without the restless search to find new content for an emptied dream. In its lighter aspects this music harmonizes with the elegance of rococo ornament, with the pictorial romances of Watteau, the calmly floating Olympus of Tiepolo, the smiles and robes and pottery of Mme. de Pompadour. It is, by and large, serene music, touched now and then by suffering and anger, but raising neither a humble prayer nor a Promethean challenge to the gods. Mozart began his work in childhood, and a childlike quality lurked in his compositions until it dawned upon him that the Requiem which he was writing for a stranger was his own.