Paul Johnson Mozart: A Life

ISBN 13: 9780670026371

Mozart: A Life

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9780670026371: Mozart: A Life

Eminent historian Paul Johnson dazzles with a rich, succinct portrait of Mozart and his music

As he’s done in Napoleon, Churchill, Jesus, and Darwin, acclaimed historian and author Paul Johnson here offers a concise, illuminating biography of Mozart. Johnson’s focus is on the music—Mozart’s wondrous output of composition and his uncanny gift for instrumentation.

Liszt once said that Mozart composed more bars than a trained copyist could write in a lifetime. Mozart’s gift and skill with instruments was also remarkable as he mastered all of them except the harp. For example, no sooner had the clarinet been invented and introduced than Mozart began playing and composing for it.

In addition to his many insights into Mozart’s music, Johnson also challenges the many myths that have followed Mozart, including those about the composer’s health, wealth, religion, and relationships. Always engaging, Johnson offers readers and music lovers a superb examination of Mozart and his glorious music, which is still performed every day in concert halls and opera houses around the world.

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About the Author:

Paul Johnson is an acclaimed historian and author. In addition to his many biographies, his books also include A History of the American People and Modern Times. He has contributed to Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and many others. He lives in London.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***

 

Copyright © 2013 by Paul Johnson



    Chapter Four

 

MOZART’S OPERATIC MAGIC

 

There are many extraordinary things about Mozart, but the most extraordinary thing of all is his work in opera. There was noth­ing in his background to prepare him for the stage. His father knew everything about the violin and was familiar with every aspect of church music, but opera was foreign territory to him. It is true that during their three visits to Italy, they had the opportunity to see op­era, and Mozart (not his father) successfully absorbed various forms of Italian musical idiom. But until he began to grow up, Mozart rarely went to the theater, especially the opera. He seems to have ac­quired the instinct to make music dramatic, to animate people on stage, entirely from his own personality.

Yet his impact on the form was fundamental. He found opera, so called, in rudimentary shape and transformed it into a great, many-faceted art. He is the first composer of operas who has never been out of the repertoire, but is an indispensable part of it, a central fact in the history of opera. He forms, along with Verdi and Wagner, the great tripod on which the genus of opera rests, but whereas they de­voted their lives to the business, opera is for Mozart only one part of his musical career; not necessarily the most important part, either.

Mozart composed twenty operas, by one computation, twenty-two by another. Opera was evolving fast in the eighteenth century, and definition is difficult. To begin with, it was composed in four main languages, Italian, French, German, and English. Opera seria, or tragic opera, was the first main type to emerge with its particular forms: arias, choruses, and recitative. An intermezzo developed to provide comic relief, or buffa. This expanded until it became a work in its own right, an opera buffa, or comic opera. There was a good deal of class consciousness in these musical forms. Opera Seria took tragic themes from antiquity on Latin or Greek models and was per­formed at court on solemn occasions, usually in the top court the­ater. Hence it was also called grand opera. Opera buffa could be done in a commercial theater to a bourgeois audience. But in England and northern Germany (and elsewhere), a popular or plebeian opera, or rather plays punctuated by songs and performed in the vernacular, was also blossoming and proved irresistible. The Beggar’s Opera ran in London for years and was taken to Germany, and there blended with local versions to produce a form of music drama called singspiel. By the time Mozart reached maturity, there were thus three main types of musical drama on stage: opera seria and opera buffa, both in Ital­ian, and singspiel in German.

But Mozart’s evolution as a stage composer was more compli­cated. His first effort, given May 13, 1767, when he was eleven, was Apollo et Hyacinthus. This was, strictly speaking, an intermezzo, in­serted in the interval of Rufinus Widl’s Latin play Clementia Croesi, given to an academic audience in the auditorium of Salzburg’s Bene­dictine University. It was also in Latin but sung by two sopranos, two contraltos, a tenor, and bass, and scored for strings, two oboes, and two horns. He enjoyed this enormously, and so, it seems, did the audience. So in 1768–69 he tried his hand both at an opera buffa, La finta semplice, and a singspiel. The first was ultimately derived from a Carlo Goldoni comedy, the second from a tale by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. There followed in 1770 his first opera seria, Mitridate, re di Ponto, written for four sopranos, an alto, and two tenors, and scored for strings, two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, and four horns (K. 87).

Mozart was gaining experience, and not all his efforts for the stage were operas. In 1771 he wrote a festa teatrale for the wedding of Archduke Ferdinand with a Modena princess. This was called As­canio in Alba and had a large number of singers. The orchestra was big and included a serpent, the only time Mozart used one (K. 111). His dull celebration of Colloredo’s installation was described as a ser­enata, and K. 208, Il re pastore as a dramma per musica. But there was a regular opera buffa of a sort, La finta giardinera (K. 196), written in 1774, and Lucio Silla (K. 135), an opera seria, from 1772; Semiramis, described as a duodrama, is lost and may never have been started. Thamos, König in Ägypten was “a play with music” (K. 345), but again had a large orchestra. Zaide (K. 344) is a singspiel but is incomplete. Mozart wrote fifteen numbers to be sung, and had only the final scene to write (plus the overture) when he dropped it—we don’t know why. There is no libretto, so no spoken dialogue has survived, though various modern attempts have been made to stage it.

These operas, if finished, were put on in various places—private houses, the archbishop’s palace, the ducal theater in Milan, and the Assembly Rooms in Munich. Not one has a decent libretto. Almost all contain fine music. Much of the action on stage is highly improb­able, and some of it makes little sense. The Italian operatic tradition, which pervades them, took little account of probabilities. Mozart had an instinct for realism, an urge to make music and drama corre­spond, to some extent at least, to ordinary life as he and his contem­poraries knew it, but he was too young and inexperienced as yet to break through the conventions and take charge.

The change came with Idomeneo (K. 366), which Mozart was commissioned to write in 1780 when he was twenty-four and which was presented in Munich on January 29, 1781. This was to some ex­tent the product of the Mannheim revolution in music inspired by Elector Carl Frederick, whose court oscillated between Mann­heim and Munich and whose orchestra—which Mozart’s father said was the best he had ever heard—traveled with the court. It had clarinets, to Mozart’s delight, and a whole range of expert instrumentalists. The elector, who played the flute and the cello himself, was always encouraging and aimed at the highest standards, and among the Mannheim crowd, as he called them, Mozart felt all his powers put to the test.

What matters about Idomeneo is not the libretto, which despite all Mozart’s changes and improvements remains a ragged and im­plausible affair, but the music. Opera at the beginning of the last quarter of the eighteenth century—even opera seria—was a scrappy business. There were literally scores of composers, countless librettists or would-be librettists—Mozart told his father he had read through “over a hundred” looking for something suitable—and endless opera houses or halls used as such, the length and breadth of Italy. Operas were put together from different texts and scores, arias inserted at a whim or at the request of a particular singer, scratch orchestras hired at the last minute, and cuts and additions made without reference to the composer or author. An opera performance was as much a social as a musical event, more so in most cases. Mozart became aware in Mannheim what an opera could be, and he began to write Idomeneo accordingly. As he wrote, his perfectionist daemon took over, and he lost consciousness of the dusty, threadbare, lackadaisical opera per­formances he was used to and found himself inhabiting a perfect world of brilliantly accomplished singers and instrumentalists, fine stage sets and acoustics, all well rehearsed with a thorough knowl­edge of the music and with himself in charge, possessing absolute power over the whole.

This is the only explanation for the quality of the score, which is a whole category above anything he had written previously for the stage, an adventure into new territory. It has ten characteristics we associate with mature Mozart opera. First, emotional intensity. This is so marked, almost from the first bars, that in another composer one would be tempted to declare that he must have been exposed to a haunting or overwhelming experience—love, bereavement, tragedy, a violent or searching change in his entire lifestyle—to produce such a searching effect on his output. But that is not, I think, the way he worked. Events in his life did not transform his music. What did so were events in his imagination. He had the gift of taking a dismal or routine story and a poverty-stricken libretto and allowing his imagi­nation to fill them with emotional dynamite that produced the most glorious music.

The emotional intensity of the music is high throughout but reaches periodic climaxes. This is achieved by the next three charac­teristics, three particular musical devices: the use of the woodwinds to follow and emphasize the voice in recitative, an innovation of Mo­zart’s; the use of trombones at particular points, notably when the oracle speaks; and the use of brass mutes during the march in Act Two. The fifth characteristic is the careful, rich, and discriminate scoring of flutes, oboes, bassoons, and trumpets. Sixth is the way dif­ferent sections of the orchestra talk to each other, especially tremolos in the strings responding to the muted trumpets. Perhaps Mozart’s greatest single gift as an orchestral musician was the way in which he made different instruments respond to, mingle, and contrast with one another, and here in Idomeneo it comes into full play with the added dimension of the singer or singers or chorus on stage.

Seventh is the use of key changes to advance the musical action. The harmonies move all the time, and even in the recitatives, there are constant harmonic progressions and retreats, and the tonalities cover a great deal of ground. Eighth is the way in which Mozart pro­duces a seamless garment, moving swiftly from one passage to an­other, scarcely leaving time or a natural interval for applause. Ninth is the deliberate arrangement of tonalities from the beginning to the end of an act, which produces a sense of continuity and unity. Fi­nally, he binds all together by introducing motifs that the listener/spectator gets to know and recognize and welcome. What Mozart is doing is giving the opera its own kind of sonata form and so the sense of organic growth. All these changes and improvements, taken to­gether, give the sense that writing an opera is being taken out of the hands of amateurs and put into the safe custody of a professional who knows exactly what he is doing.

None of this, of course, was a formula for success in Mozart’s life­time. There were three performances of the initial production of Idomeneo, and a concert production by amateurs in the palace of a prince in Vienna. Mozart considered a proposal to revive it “in the French style,” with a German text and various changes in the singing roles, but nothing came of it. The next production was not until 1806, a quarter century after Mozart’s death. It has never been exactly pop­ular, an opera to be revived rather than a standard in the repertory, but it has a substantial place in musical history.

By contrast, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), a singspiel produced eighteen months later in the Vi­enna Burgtheater, July 16, 1782, was not a revolution in opera making but proved a distinct success with the public. Emperor Joseph II had created the Burgtheater as a German national theater but had been disappointed by the response of German playwrights and had had to be content with adaptations from the French. He was de­lighted, thus, to have Mozart, whom he admired, working for him on a libretto by Johann Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger. This tale of goings-on in a Turkish harem was dramatic, topical (the Turks were still threatening Vienna), and lent itself to East-West culture con­trasts in musical idiom, so Mozart fell on it with enthusiasm and composed three arias on the first day of work. A letter to his father gives an insight into his musical-dramatic mind at work. The villain’s part of Osmin, he wrote, was intended for the bass, Fischer, who certainly has an excellent bass voice. . . [and] has the whole Viennese public on his side. . . . so he has been given an aria in Act I, and he is to have another in Act II. I have explained to Stephanie the words I require for the aria—indeed I had finished composing most of the music for it before Stephanie knew any­thing whatever about it. I am enclosing only the beginning and the end, which is bound to have a good effect. Osmin’s rage is rendered comical by the use of the Turkish music. In working out the aria I have (in spite of our Salzburg Midas) allowed Fisch­er’s beautiful deep notes to glow. The passage ‘Drum beim Barte des Propheten’ is indeed in the same tempo, but with quick notes; and as Osmin’s rage gradually increases, there comes (just when the aria seems to be at an end) the allegro assai, which is in a totally different metre and in a different key; this is bound to be very effective. For just as a man in such a towering rage over­steps all the bounds of order, moderation and propriety and completely forgets himself, so must the music too forget itself. But since passions, whether violent or not, must never be ex­pressed to the point of exciting disgust, and as music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear, but must please the listener, or in other words must never cease to be mu­sic, so I have not chosen a key foreign to F (in which the aria is written) but one related to it—not the nearest, D minor, but the more remote A minor.

This letter of September 26, 1781, goes on to explain how he ex­presses Belmonte’s “throbbing heart” by “the two violins playing oc­taves. . . . I wrote it expressly to suit Adamberger’s voice. You see the trembling—the faltering—you see how his throbbing breast begins to swell; this I have expressed by a crescendo. You hear the whimper­ing and the sighing—which I have indicated by the first violins with mutes and a flute playing in unison.”

This letter and others are priceless glimpses into the composition of a work of art and are quite unique in musical history. They remind us that not the least of the valuable habits Leopold Mozart instilled into his son was the regular writing of detailed letters about his ac­tivities.

The opera was well rehearsed and got its first performance on July 16, 1782, to general applause. An attempt to hiss it down by the claque paid to support opera in Italian only was a failure. The emperor at­tended and gave his approval but added, “It is too beautiful for hu­man ears, my dear Mozart, and has an unconscionable number of notes.” “Too many notes” was a charge often brought against Mozart in his day—and after—though never by true musicians. What it usu­ally means is that the music, especially the orchestration, is complex, difficult, and rich; in the sense that a huge amount of thought has gone into its harmonies and each instrument has a role to play each in unison. Mozart’s knowledge was so deep and his instinct for qual­ity so powerful that he could compose in this way almost without a positive intellectual effort. A combination of sounds that it would take a lesser man hours to produce (and then might not work) was for him a matter of minutes: The labor lay in getting the notes on the page. This was particularly...

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