8 May 2024

‘He is capable of saying very much, but never says too much.’

Alfred Brendel

Reflections on Mozart

How can we characterize Mozart’s music? — To refer to ‘a composer’s character’ was once ideally taken to mean two things: the composer’s personal character, and that of their music. It was assumed that these qualities had to mirror each other, seeing as the person and the artist were already viewed as an equation. The music written by great composers, however, goes far beyond their own personal traits. Herein lies a mysterious contradiction: while human beings clearly have their limitations, the expressive power and mastery of a great musician are almost unlimited. As Busoni said, Mozart presents the solution along with the riddle. Another of Busoni’s Mozart aphorisms offers us this insight: ‘He is capable of saying very much, but never says too much.’ And: ‘His resources are extraordinarily abundant, but he never exhausts himself.’ This level of perfection is rare, especially among the greatest composers, because it is usually the ones following in their footsteps, the minor masters, who smooth out and perfect what may sound bold or rugged in the music of their great forebears.

As Busoni so elegantly puts it: ‘Unmistakably, Mozart takes singing as his starting point, and from this issues the uninterrupted melodiousness which shimmers through his compositions like the lovely forms of a woman through the folds of a thin dress.’ Mozart was a cantabile composer. It is not without reason that he enjoys the reputation, alongside Schubert, of being the most gifted and inventive of melodists. Today, we can only wonder in disbelief at those of Mozart’s contemporaries who deemed his operas not cantabile enough. The operatic qualities of his piano concertos and the characterful nature of his themes have hardly gone unnoticed. The pianist András Schiff has rightly called Mozart’s concertos a combination of opera, symphony, chamber music and piano music. It is as though a singer is standing there and singing — but to call this music operatic also implies all the characters brought to life on
the stage, their displays of temperament, their hearts and souls. Like the singers on stage, the pianist operates within a fixed musical framework. Mozart certainly writes of rubato in his letters — but tethered to a steady beat. Moreover, there are tempo modifications, but these should remain ‘conductable’. I know that in Mozart’s time there were no conductors in the modern sense. The tempos must have been stricter because the musicians had to play together, and it seems there was rarely more than one run-through, if any. A performance in Haydn and Mozart’s era was probably very different from what we expect today: a rather casual affair, offering a rough sketch of the work without any of the polish of a well-rehearsed concert.

Cantabile calls for continuity. As we read in Leopold Mozart’s Violinschule (V 14): ‘A singer who stopped during every short phrase, took a breath, and specially stressed first this note, then that note, would unfailingly move everyone to laughter. The human voice glides quite easily from one note to another […] And who is not aware that singing is at all times the aim of every instrumentalist; because in every musical work one must approximate nature as closely as possible?’

As early as 1800, it became fashionable to compare Mozart with Raphael, a favourite of the 19th century, as well as with Shakespeare. These notions were dreamed up by the German Romantics Ludwig Tieck and Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder. The Shakespeare comparison makes immediate sense to me in the context of the Da Ponte operas. Stendhal was an admirer of Mozart and Shakespeare, and Cimarosa too, as his gravestone records for posterity. The likening of Mozart to Raphael, however, shows me how much the perception of this highly revered Renaissance painter, as well as that of the composer, has changed over time.

Wackenroder writes the following about Raphael: ‘It is true to a sound childlike nature to contemplate the most abject and sombre aspects of human life in a jocular and light-hearted manner, often facing the most terrible seriousness in life with an inner smile.’ A similar understanding of Mozart prevailed for a long time. It is easy to introduce concepts, ideas and dogmas into the world. These spread with lightning speed, like infectious diseases. It is less easy to find the serum that will wipe them off the face of the earth again. Writing about Haydn, Goethe and Zelter claimed that naivety and irony are the hallmarks of genius. This could also apply to Mozart.

Certain musicians are convinced that a historicizing approach brings one closest to a work. They call this ‘learning to listen anew’ — as if our previous experience as listeners were a distraction, standing as an obstacle in front of the work. I am not willing to be so radical. Even if it were possible to return a work entirely to its ‘original state’ in performance, this would not resolve the question of interpretation.

The most important criterion remains this: a piece should impress, move and stir us. We cannot and should not simply block out what has been of value to us so far. There are certain things I cannot accept, such as long notes sustained without vibrato — an offence against cantabile style — or vibrato-less pianissimo playing, which has become almost routine today, because players apparently think the sound produced is mysterious and eerie. To my ears, a lack of vibrato sounds colourless, cold and dead.

Rhythmically, orchestral and ensemble playing should serve more as a model for us than a solo performance style that has lost its firm footing. Leopold Mozart even says: ‘Time makes melody, therefore time is the soul of music. It not only animates the same, but retains all the component parts thereof in their proper order.’

Mozart was not a flower child. His rhythm is neither weak nor vague. Even the smallest tone has backbone. Even when Mozart dreams, his rhythm stays awake. Mozart’s music is made neither of porcelain, nor of marble, nor of sugar. The cute Mozart, the perfumed Mozart, the ecstatic Mozart, the sentimentally bloated Mozart should be avoided just as much as the incessantly poetic Mozart (here one wishes to open the windows). Let poetry be the spice, not the main course. A Mozart who consolidates in equal measure sensitivity and fresh air, vivacity and control, precision and freedom, delight and awe may be a utopian ideal. As interpreters, let us try to come close to it.