The Back Story
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) makes it into nearly every music lover’s Top Five list of all-time great composers. He began to turn out music when he was only five or six, and he practically invented the piano concerto during the so-called Classical Era, producing 27 of them before his tragic early death. Mozart wrote those concertos mainly for his own use as a performer. When he moved permanently to Vienna from his native Salzburg, Austria, in 1781, it was to exploit Vienna’s status as Keyboard City, a lucrative arena for skilled composer-performers like himself. For Vienna and other European capitals, he also wrote operas in every available genre, many of which have never left the repertoire. You ought to know his three great Italian operas, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosí fan tutte (They All Do It), and also two wonderful German operas, The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute. Like the Italian operas, they are also essentially comic works. Then there are his piano sonatas, his symphonies, chamber music, church music, and more. Mozart was incredibly prolific, part of an era when making music was still like baking bread—you did it every morning. Nobody wanted a stale loaf. In spite of having to turn new pieces out on a regular basis (or perhaps because of it), he also managed to transform the musical language of his day. Below we’ll explore one way he did that.
The eighteenth century was an age built more for prose than poetry. We sometimes call the latter part of it the Enlightenment precisely because intellectual force took precedence over sensual appeal. Sapere Aude! (“dare to know!”) said Kant, and he meant more than just understanding something; true grownups had to have the courage to use their knowledge. People of substance were expected to argue, civilly but freely. Yet more than argument mattered: it was important to introduce evidence and put forth propositions with wit and grace. The art of rhetoric, of choosing and ordering one’s words so as to enhance their impact, was widely admired, practiced by aristocrats and commoners alike. It’s not surprising that composers transferred the notion of rhetoric from words to music, making it part of their game too.
That game had actually gotten underway in the Renaissance. One of the big concerns of the Florentine Camerata, a group of sixteenth-century Italian intellectuals who got together to discuss (among other things) Greek drama and ended up inventing opera, was the whole nature of musical rhetoric—how to translate figures of speech, ways of developing your argument, into phrases that could be sung or played. By 1739, things had advanced sufficiently that German composer Johann Mattheson felt confident in outlining a comprehensive method for composing music based entirely on rhetorical theory, and he did so in his treatise The Perfect Chapelmaster.
But today we’re talking about Mozart. By the time he arrived, more than rhetoric was reshaping the way composers put together music. One especially big factor was the new attitude toward human psychology. Whereas Baroque composers like Mattheson were apt to spin out a piece by focusing on one easily identifiable human feeling (rage, melancholy, joy), composers after 1750 or so really got into changing up their delivery as they went along. They saw the whole single-feeling model as simplistic and old-fashioned. No actual human being behaved much like the hero in a Baroque opera, dwelling on exactly one emotion for five minutes within a carefully constructed da capo aria. Real people tended to cycle through a lot of different, if related feelings in a typical five-minute period. Shouldn’t music be more like that?
Mozart took this new sense of human psychology, married it with the old Baroque art of musical rhetoric, and used his flair for drama to infuse instrumental music with new life. (Of course he used it in opera too.) He was somehow able to make instrumental sounds resemble human discourse, as psychologically three-dimensional as anything in a novel by Voltaire. Allow me to offer a few hints as to how he did it.
Have you ever noticed that many of Mozart’s opening musical gestures are made up of opposing dualisms? Yin and yang. Night and day. Fergie and will.i.am. Consider the first few bars of the “Jupiter” Symphony: first we hear three emphatic octave C’s from the whole band. (Those are called coups d’archet, in case you want to impress your friends.) Then, strings only, a soft, singing phrase that smoothly ascends, then falls off. Before we can blink we hear the three thrums again, as loudly as before but now five steps higher in pitch. And they are followed by a repeat of the soft, singing phrase, now also five steps higher. Listen to the whole sequence here:
Bang, off we go into a pompous little march that Mozart uses to develop the initial gestures into a full-fledged first theme, ending with fanfares and a forceful set of closing chords (i.e., cadences). Listen to the march and closing cadence here:
What has Mozart accomplished by beginning this journey with those opposed phrases? First, he is (obviously) telling us to be quiet and listen up. But his quicksilver, oppositional call also signals that this will be a drama, that a narrative of some sorts is in store. By yanking us from one motive to another, alternately badgering and seducing us, he not only commandeers the psychic arena but also promises us that more of the same is coming. We had better pay attention, or we’ll miss something.
When I hear the opening bars of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K457, I feel the same electric call to attention. Here Mozart begins with a C-minor arpeggio storming upward in octaves, barely able to contain its rage. Instantly that motive is countered by a delicate, trilly figure shaped like the responding phrase in the “Jupiter” Symphony. That is countered by another stormy arpeggio, this time five steps removed, and followed again by the more delicate figure. Listen:
This time the piece continues not by developing either motive but by plunging into a soup of murky, slowly descending lines (right hand) driven by an insistent rhythmic accompaniment (left hand) but going nowhere. In a few moments the fog dissipates, the arpeggios momentarily resurface, and the music suddenly plunges into a whole new theme. This new, E-flat major tune occupies the “relief” slot in the typical narrative formula for Classical-era first movements, but there’s not much relief in it. It’s as jumpy and driven-sounding as everything that came before. Mozart pushes onward; after all, we’re only about thirty seconds into the movement. Listen to the murky transition and new theme here:
And so it goes.
What I’m getting at here is the enormous diversity of motives, themes, rhythms, textures, ideas, that Mozart is able to cram into one of his instrumental movements. He seemed to thrive on the drama that such contrasting bits provide, and to locate something that rings true in the Shakespearean breadth of the musical “characters” and “situations” created from those bits.
Mozart’s generation did have lots of bits to draw upon. Various dances, folk music, national and exotic styles, “learned” techniques like fugue, notions of the serious and comic, borrowings from vocal genres: all these became “topics”—the raw materials of musical rhetoric—that a composer could invoke, sometimes for an entire movement, sometimes for a moment or two. Listen, for example, to the way Mozart sticks in a couple of tiny fanfares right after stating that new E-flat-major theme in the Piano Sonata K457.
The fanfares interrupt the action, providing much-needed breathing space, but as they repeat they also gradually become a link that leads to a continuation of the E-flat thematic material. Do they offer any emotional or expressive enhancement? Perhaps. They do seem to sound an alarm, which fits the overall character of this stormy movement. But their real value lies in their adaptability as a structural element: they function to stop the music in its tracks, if only for a moment, before letting it hurtle onwards. They don’t (emotionally) summon us to act so much as they (structurally) impede our progress. By energetically interposing themselves, they provide mile markers for the narrative. You Are Here; now we’ll go on.
Let’s see. Openings—check. Mile markers, midway articulations—check. Closings next. I am sometimes struck by Mozart’s consummate skill at avoiding closures (i.e., cadences). Why would anyone want to avoid a cadence? Well, let’s look at it from the other end. Why allow a good thing to end? I believe we derive added pleasure from hearing Mozart skillfully dance away, like the Artful Dodger, from nearly every situation that threatens to stop the music. A good place to hear this happening is the first movement of the Piano Concerto in E-flat, K271. There’s a snappy fanfare/arpeggio opening theme area, a more lyrical second theme, and a closing theme area that brings back the fanfares and arpeggios. (And this is just the “first exposition,” the introductory portion, of the movement.) Pay particular attention to the closing area. That’s where Mozart really goes to town in terms of drawing things out.
He employs several tactics. One is to jam something (new, old, it doesn’t matter) right up against what you thought was the “final” chord, and let it go on, maintaining the momentum. Or he will keep one or two lines pumping away even though the other voices have cadenced. Easier to spot are the dramatic interruptions that bring new energy into the mix. (Sounds like what those little fanfares in K457 did, right?) Just when the party is winding down and you’ve got the last guests headed out the door, someone lets out a shriek from the kitchen. You freeze. Then you turn back to see what the damage is. Compare this with what happens a little more than a minute into the first movement. An energetic but otherwise unexceptional closing theme has just repeated itself and cadenced for the second time. The End. Except it’s not, because on the second beat (usually a weak beat) of that “final” measure, the entire orchestra crashes back in, very loudly, on a tension-filled chord that is not the tonic, and holds it through the measure before resolving to another not-the-tonic chord. Now we’re in for four bars of lyrical, intimately scored music that stalls for time, bowing and curtseying and waving goodbye, generally behaving in a lovely manner, and then the energetic closing material starts in all over again, and repeats, and cadences for the second time and now we’re certainly done, right? (Listen to the closing area’s “story” so far:
Wrong. Because not a full beat after that second cadence, the violins re-enter, sprightly as ever, with an apparent afterthought (“you know, we really ought to do this more often”) that is itself repeated so as to form a whole phrase, and then that whole phrase is repeated, and by this time we are aware that this was never going to be a final cadence, it’s really a transition and now we’re going to hear the whole section again, everything we’ve heard from the very beginning, except now the piano will join us and add more stuff this time around. (And here’s the rest of the story:
The funny part is, we will thoroughly enjoy it. We don’t want it to end, we would feel fine if it went on forever. It’s Mozart. And his command of musical rhetoric, his sense of musical psychology, keeps us engaged, makes us feel even more human than we did before all those interruptions and dualisms and surprises and enjambments and the like.
We’ll come back to Mozart in other conversations. And when we do, I’ll talk about how to find your way through the longer narratives in his music.
Recommended Recordings (not ranked in any order)
Symphony No. 41 in C Major, “Jupiter,” K551. (1) Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras. Linn CKD 308, HDCD/SACD, 2008. (2) English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner. Philips 426 315-2, CD, 1992.
Sonata for Piano in C Minor, K457. (1) Mitsuko Uchida, pianist. Philips 468 356-2, 5-CD set 1984/2001. (2) Kristian Bezuidenhout, fortepianist. Harmonia Mundi HMU 907498, CD, 2011.
Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major for Piano, K217. (1) Malcolm Bilson, fortepianist. English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner. Archiv Prod. 447 291-2, CD, 1984/1990. (2) Leif Ove Andsnes, pianist. Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. EMI Classics 724355780324, CD, 2004.