What more is there to say about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? “The miracle which God let be born in Salzburg” (as his father Leopold once said of him) turns 255 years old January 27th (born 1756), and since his death in 1791, he has been the subject of innumerable full-length biographies, scholarly articles, studies, and film documentaries. The legend of his murder at the hands of fellow composer and rival, Antonio Salieri, inspired an opera—Mozart and Salieri, by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov—and a play-turned-major-motion-picture, Amadeus, by Peter Shaffer. His music is said to make babies smarter, even while in the womb, and to focus concentration and improve mental performance in adults. This phenomenon, dubbed “The Mozart Effect,” has entered the realm of public discourse, and the facts of the composer’s life have even seeped into popular culture, being referenced, for example, on an episode of the 1990s situation comedy, Seinfeld (Elaine: “Did you know Mozart died while writing the Requiem?” Jerry [sarcastically]: “Yeah, everyone knows that. It was in Amadeus.”)
What I offer below in tribute to my favorite composer are a few brief reflections on the man and his music, as I have come to understand both during the course of the last twenty-seven years, when I first saw Amadeus on the big screen and was pierced to the soul by what I heard.
Mozart’s Character: Amadeus vs. The China Doll Mozart
The film Amadeus created a nearly-indelible image of Mozart in the public imagination. Director Milos Forman and actor Tom Hulce painted the composer as a spoiled, crude brat who was all too aware of his own genius and the mediocrity of those around him. There were scenes of Mozart making jokes about excrement with his fiancée, expelling gas in public, insulting fellow composers, and using four-letter words in front of the Holy Roman Emperor, all punctuated by the hyena-like giggle that Hulce invented and which echoed in the minds of moviegoers afterward.
This depiction of Mozart was a necessary part of Amadeus’ story, which revolved around Salieri’s anger at God for endowing such a depraved figure with such tremendous talent. Hulce’s portrayal challenged the “China Doll” image of Mozart that had held sway over classical music fans for decades, indeed centuries. This traditional view of Mozart is that of the adorable boy wonder, playing while blindfolded pretty little tunes on the violin and piano for kings and popes, all the time attired in proper little breeches and knee socks and a nicely-coiffed, little, powdered wig. It is that of the cosmopolitan composer who wowed Vienna, Paris, and Prague with genteel concertos, symphonies, and operas. The China Doll Mozart is the composer of the innocuous “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” well suited to calm the kids and to be played in elevators on modern synthesizers. We find the China Doll Mozart on those marzipan candies we buy as souvenirs, which bear the most famous image of the composer, smartly attired in a fine, bright red jacket, staring blankly and calmly at us, with a Mona Lisa-like contented and knowing smile. (That very portrait, by Barbara Kraft, was painted nearly three decades after Mozart’s death, by an artist who had never laid eyes on the composer. )
It is fashionable for “serious” classical music fans to bash Amadeus for its historical inaccuracies and for Hulce’s admittedly exaggerated portrayal of Mozart (by the way, why do we bash modern films for toying with history but not, say, Shakespeare’s plays?). Though I believe Amadeus, in its brilliant and beautiful telling of a Shakespearean tale of genius, jealousy, and tragedy, to be one of the greatest films ever made, one does not have to like the film in order to admit that at the very least it injected some humanity into the lifeless China Doll image. The truth is that the real Mozart could be boastful, childish, and crude at times. Mozart’s letters to his father and sister are filled with bathroom humor; in one missive to father, Wolfgang recounts his entertaining an orchestra leader with dirty rhymes. It recently came to light that Mozart wrote a brief little choral piece titled “Leck mich im Arsch” (I will NOT translate that into English), meant to be performed for the amusement of his friends. Some modern researchers have even suggested that Mozart’s propensity to curse at inappropriate times had its roots in Tourette’s Syndrome.
Mozart’s undisguised vanity is evidenced by his merciless teasing of fellow musicians about their inferior abilities. His “Musical Joke,” a divertimento for two horns and string quartet, mimics the unimaginative style of contemporary composers and the incompetence of 18th century performers. Mozart annotated the score of a Rondo for Horn with derisive comments about the abilities of the horn player, Joseph Leutgeb, for whom the piece was written (Mozart’s dedication of the piece to Leutgeb read: “Wolfgang Amadé Mozart takes pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox, and simpleton, at Vienna, March 27, 1783.”)
Mozart, Freemasonry, and Politics
It is well-known that Mozart was a Freemason, and this fact has led some scholars to conclude that he was therefore a full-blooded child of the Enlightenment, nominal in his Catholicism, and even subversive in his “hidden” use of Masonic symbols and ideas in his great opera, The Magic Flute.
This is mostly hogwash. Though the Roman Catholic Church in Mozart’s time condemned Freemasonry and threatened its adherents with excommunication, Mozart’s participation in the Brotherhood was simply a form of what we would call social networking or social climbing, akin to joining a college fraternity or the local Elks Lodge today. Mozart certainly did not view his membership as an act of rebellion against Rome. When one recalls that the Church was personified in Salzburg by the tyrannical reign of Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo, it is easy to understand why the Mozarts sometimes chafed under Church authority. But they were clearly faithful Catholics; Wolfgang, the composer of dozens of religious works, including many settings of the Mass, once wrote that “no Protestant will ever understand what the Agnus Dei means to me.” And Mozart père et fils certainly did not embrace the extremism of the French Revolution, rejoicing in one exchange of letters that Robespierre justly “died like a dog.”
Many scholars have pointed to The Magic Flute, one of Mozart’s last works, as the composer’s attempt to promote his Masonic views subtly through veiled symbolism and hidden meanings. Well, the Masonic symbolism of the opera is hardly veiled at all, and it seems more plausible that this was a case of Mozart, along with his librettist and fellow Mason, Emanuel Schikaneder, simply writing what they knew. The arcane rituals of Masonry fit well into the fantastical story of giant serpents, bird-men, and enchanted musical instruments, and it should be remembered that the two men were interested more in making money from ticket sales (the opera being shown at the popular Theater auf der Wieden, not the royal court) than in promoting any radical political/social/religious message. It is also impossible to imagine Mozart ever making his art subservient to some sort of propagandistic message.
Scholars sometimes also look to Mozart’s other operas, Don Giovanni and Figaro’s Wedding in particular, for evidence of Mozart’s supposed revolutionary politics. It is said that Mozart mocked the aristocracy through his portrayal of the wicked Don who seduces women only to desert them and through the championing of the servant Figaro in his plotting against the cruel Count Almaviva. But anything more than a superficial reading of these operas shows that Mozart did not paint his characters in black and white. The music for Don Giovanni is often dashing, Mozart clearly admiring the prowess of the rogue, though he also condemns him for his immorality in the final two scenes of the drama. The men of the lower classes in Don Giovanni, Leporello and Masetto, are no proletariat heroes. Rather, they are, respectively, cowardly and pig-headed, and hardly any competition for the Don. The upper-class women, Donna Anna and Donna Elvira, though not without flaws, are generally noble characters in Mozart’s view.
In Figaro, too, we have an imperfect group of servants, who can sometimes be selfish and cruel in their treatment of others. The Count, though an antagonist whose desire to force himself upon his servant Susanna provides the central tension of the drama, is no one-dimensional evildoer. Indeed, it is the Count’s redemption at the end of the opera that gives resolution to the story and is one of Mozart’s most sublime moments. Figaro, the opera was, of course, based on Beaumarchais’ play, which had trouble getting past the censors due its criticism of the aristocracy. It should be remembered, however, that Louis XVI eventually did allow the play to be performed and that it became a hit among the upper classes in France. It is also the case that Mozart (in conjunction with his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte) replaced a scene in Beaumarchais’ play in which Figaro rails against the aristocracy with a rant by Figaro about the duplicity of women. Some may say that this was simply Mozart playing it safe, trying not to rankle Emperor Joseph II and the Austrian nobility. But it seems more likely that Mozart found a blanket condemnation of the wealthy an empty indictment, for he knew that wealth itself did not alter the nature of men. It was the battle of the sexes that Mozart found much more interesting and more primal than the battle of the classes. Women were in their essence different from men, in all times and places; indeed, the idea that women “all do the same” provided the title of one of Mozart’s great operas (Così fan Tutte).
In the end, Mozart was interested in something infinitely more complex, interesting, and enduring than politics: human nature. The former was ephemeral, the latter eternal. Mozart understood that it was human nature acted out on the stage of life that bred class divisions and social tensions, and he was interested in questions of class only inasmuch as they revealed truths about the soul. For Mozart, art reigned supreme above politics. In his understanding of the fixedness of human nature, Mozart was a supreme conservative, and in writing about this subject in his operas, Mozart knew that he was writing music for all time and all places, and for all men.
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