Hearing 'a voice of God' in Mozart

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Soave il vento ... Maybe the wind be gentle, the waves calm ...

To understand the genius and ineffable artistry of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, this week's 250th birthday boy, you need only hear about three minutes -- the time it takes to listen to the Trio from Cosi fan tutte, his mostly comic opera about love, fidelity, expectations (realistic and unrealistic), sex and the sexes.

The Trio is sung in the first act by the somewhat silly, but ever-so-charming ladies Dorabella and Fiordiligi and the worldly-wise Don Alfonso. He has just convinced their grooms-to-be to play a dirty trick on the women, pretending to go off to war, but returning in disguise, each to try seducing the other's supposedly fidelity-hardened fiancee.

Up to this point in the opera, Dorabella and Fiordiligi come off as one-dimensional, 18th-century Valley Girls, but when they see their intended ones sailing off, they are moved to offer a prayer for safe journey, with the cynical Don Alfonso chiming in, however insincerely, to make it a trio.

Suddenly, the women don't seem so superficial. The Trio opens up a little window into the genuine warmth of their hearts.

We probably shouldn't believe a note of Don Alfonso's contribution, since we already know his low opinion of female constancy, but there's nothing snide in the melodic line he sings. Maybe it's just Mozart's way of helping Don Alfonso keep up the pretense and a straight face, but, just maybe, it's also a way to let us see a little sentiment in his heart, too.

As the strings in the orchestra set up a serene rolling pattern for accompaniment, the vocal lines rise and fall, blending seamlessly into an aural fabric that is as elegant as it is eloquent. The effect is time-stopping, timeless. All that insight, all that musical perfection in a mere three minutes.

With music like this, the word "beautiful" becomes a pathetically inadequate description.

Such music easily explains why Mozart holds the highest place in the pantheon of classical composers, and why the 250th anniversary of his birth -- Jan. 27, 1756 -- deserves all the attention it is getting worldwide.

Are we making too much of the guy? The inevitably (in this case, possibly insanely) provocative author Norman Lebrecht thinks so. In an article last month for the Web site of La Scena Musicale, a nonprofit organization avowedly in the business of promoting classical music, Lebrecht wrote:

"Beyond a superficial beauty and structural certainty, Mozart has nothing to give to mind or spirit in the 21st century. Let him rest. Ignore the commercial onslaught ... Mozart wrote a little night music for the ancien regime. He was not so much reactionary as regressive, a composer content to keep music in a state of servility so long as it kept him well supplied with frilled cuffs and fancy quills. Little in such a mediocre life gives cause for celebration."

Lebrecht isn't the first to take leave of his senses. Glenn Gould, the stunningly original pianist, once declared: "Mozart was a bad composer who died too late rather than too early."

Astonishing variety

It's always good to consider second opinions, of course, to challenge one's core beliefs and values. But what do we ignore of all the evidence? Not just the fact that Mozart continues to be so incredibly popular, but that his music invariably repays attention by revealing fresh details and expressive possibilities.

To dismiss this music because it came out of the bewigged, minuet-propelled ambience of 18th-century society or because of its unflappable classicism, restraint, symmetry and comfortableness is as absurd as declaring Vermeer a bore because he painted such pretty, perfectly organized pictures and wasn't as groundbreaking as Rembrandt.

Within the stylistic conventions of Mozart's day, which he didn't push against the way Beethoven would, there is nonetheless an astonishing degree of variety and inventiveness. And something more -- soul.

The best moment in Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus, which is full of fictional and factual silliness (Mozart really did have a curious fixation on scatological functions and could act pretty childishly), may be when the exalted composer Antonio Salieri comes ear to ear with the truth that he won't be exalted for long.

Listening half-heartedly to Mozart's Serenade for Winds, K. 361, something in the slow movement gives him pause.

"On the page it looked nothing," Salieri says. "The beginning simple, almost comic ... Then suddenly -- high above it -- an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight. This was no composition by a performing monkey. This was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing a voice of God."

'The divine instinct'

That might be poetic license, but other musicians really did express such sentiments.

Edvard Grieg: "In Bach, Beethoven and Wagner we admire principally the depth and energy of the human mind; in Mozart, the divine instinct."

Conductor Georg Solti: "Mozart makes you believe in God -- much more than going to church -- because it cannot be by chance that such a phenomenon arrives into this world and then passes after [35 years], leaving behind such an unbounded number of unparalleled masterpieces."

You don't have to buy the Solti theory of intelligent design to accept the supremacy of Mozart, who excelled in every musical genre he attempted -- sonatas, chamber works, concertos, symphonies, choral works, operas. Even with a little healthy skepticism about proclaimed geniuses and icons of high art is fine, it would take an awful lot of effort to dismiss this one.

Consider the perfectly judged sparkle of The Marriage of Figaro Overture, or the never overplayed heartache of the Countess' aria, Dove Sono, in that opera. The surprisingly dark, troubled energy of the first movements of Symphony No. 25 and No. 40. The understated melancholy of the Adagio in Piano Concerto No. 23.

The fugal exhilaration of the Jupiter Symphony's finale. The profoundly serene, impossibly beautiful Ave verum corpus. The slow, steady tread and heart-ripping intensity of the Lacrimosa section in his unfinished Requiem.

Such utterances -- hundreds more are equally persuasive -- could never have come from a mediocrity, cannot be mistaken for musical wallpaper. If Mozart is thought of as easy listening, that's our fault, not his.

Haydn, who recognized Mozart's "divine instinct" early on, said: "The world will not see such talent again for a hundred years."

Or 250.

A sampling of Mozart

The Abduction from the Seraglio (concert form) -- / Sam Donaldson, speaker; National Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin, conductor. Jan. 26-28 at Kennedy Center (800-444-1324)

Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter), Flute Concerto No. 1, Overtures -- / Annapolis Symphony; Kimberly Valerio, flutist; Jose-Luis Novo, conductor. Jan. 27, 28 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts (410-263-0907)

String Quartet, K. 464 -- / Berlin Philharmonic Quartet, Jan. 28 at Howard Community College Smith Theater (410-480-9950)

Sonatas, trios, quartets, quintets -- / Towson University faculty and guest artists, Feb. 5 and 19, March 5 at Center for the Arts (410-704-2787)

Fantasia, K. 475, and Rondo, K. 511 -- / Alfred Brendel, pianist; Feb. 7 at Kennedy Center (202-785-9727)

Horn Concerto No. 3 -- / Philip Munds, soloist; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Gunther Herbig, conductor; Feb. 2-5 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and Music Center at Strathmore (410-783-8000)

Piano Concerto No. 21, Great Mass in C minor -- / Concert Artists of Baltimore; Edward Polochick, conductor; Feb. 18 at Gordon Center for Performing Arts, Owings Mills (410-625-3525)

Duo for Violin and Viola -- / Madeline Adkins, violinist, and Jonathan Carney, violist; Feb. 19 at Second Presbyterian Church (410-744-4034). Also, Itzhak Perlman, violinist; Pinchas Zukerman, violist; April 24 at Kennedy Center (202-785-9727)

Symphony No. 38 (Prague) -- / NSO; Leonard Slatkin, conductor. Feb. 23-25 at Kennedy Center (800-444-1324)

Violin Concerto No. 5 (Turkish) -- / Gil Shaham violinist/director; Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Feb. 26 at Music Center at Strathmore, North Bethesda (202-785-9727)

Piano Trio, K. 502 -- / Vienna Piano Trio, Feb. 26 at Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University (410-516-7164)

Coronation Mass -- / Handel Choir of Baltimore; Melinda O'Neal, conductor. March 4 at Cathedral of the Incarnation (410-366-6544)

Symphony No. 1, The Impresario, Requiem -- / Annapolis Chorale; J. Ernest Green, conductor. March 4 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts (410-263-1906)

Piano Concerto No. 9 -- / Emanuel Ax; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Yuri Temirkanov, conductor. March 16-18 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall (410-783-8000)

The Magic Flute -- / Annapolis Opera, March 17, 19 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts (410-267-8135); also, Towson University student production April 6-9 at Center for the Arts (410-704-2787)

Great Mass in C minor -- / Columbia Pro Cantare. March 26 at Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore (410-799-9321)

Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter) -- / Baltimore Chamber Orchestra; Markand Thakar, conductor; March 22 at Goucher College (410-426-0157); NSO; Leonard Slatkin, conductor; June 15-17 at Kennedy Center (800-444-1324)

Symphony No. 25 and 35 (Haffner), Piano Concerto No. 24 -- / Christian Blackshaw, pianist; BSO; Yuri Temirkanov, conductor. March 23-26 at Strathmore and Meyerhoff (410-783-8000)

Ave Verum Corpus -- / Concert Artists of Baltimore Symphonic Choir; Peabody Singers; BSO; Carlos Kalmar, conductor. March 27, 28, 30 at Meyerhoff (410-783-8000)

Piano Sonata, K. 333 -- / Lang Lang, pianist; April 13 Music Center at Strathmore (202-785-9727)

La Clemenza di Tito -- / Washington National Opera, May 6-27 at Kennedy Center (202-295-2400)

Requiem -- / Baltimore Choral Arts Society; Tom Hall, conductor. May 13 at Goucher College (410-523-7070)

Idomeneo -- / Opera Lafayette, June 2, 3 at Clarice Smith Center, University of Maryland, College Park (301-405-2787)

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