Jewish World Review Jan. 27, 2006 / 27 Teves, 5766
Happy birthday, Mozart
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, composer, b. Salzburg, 27 January 1756 . . .
There is a scene in the fictional but beautiful movie Amadeus in which old Salieri, Mozart's musical rival at court, tries to describe the indescribable lilt of a lone flute that slowly carries the listener to the very gates of Heaven, if not higher.
In the end, all his envy wiped away by his sheer admiration for the work of this magical creature, and in his sheer joy at the way that single perfect sound mounts and surmounts all, our fictive Salieri can only sigh:
It's a feeling any lover of Mozart will know: a sublime shock of recognition. For that one moment, Salieri is us ordinary mortals in the presence of the immortal.
And that's just one flute solo. If Mozart could create music like that for an instrument he is said to have disliked, imagine what he could do with instruments he was fond of. We don't have to imagine. Just listen.
That flute solo may be the signature of Mozart's art, which is not a matter of quantity but quality. Even when W.A. Mozart wrote for several pianos, or whole orchestras with massed choirs, they become a single instrument in his hands, and in our soaring minds.
The effect is miraculous: We find ourselves at peace but not at rest. For in Mozart we discover there is nothing static about peace, that peace is being perfectly whole, perfectly alive, at one with the universe. Or as Karl Barth put it, "Mozart's music is an invitation to the listener to venture just a little out of the sense of his own subjectivity."
Words, words, words. The glory of Mozart is that he frees us from the defining and therefore confining tyranny of words. Mozart, said Arthur Miller, is happiness before it has gotten defined.
Mozart takes us beyond thought into some other realm. Think of just the 39th, the 40th, the Jupiter! Or the 21st piano concerto, these days known as the "Elvira Madigan." Or the clarinet concerto in A. . . . Name your own favorite.
If Mozart's only opera had been "Don Giovanni," he would have been merely great, but to have done "The Magic Flute," too, and thereby bracketed the whole world of opera in his time, is to put him, as usual, beyond time.
Too many notes, said the Emperor Joseph II. He was wrong, as emperors tend to be. Nor are there too few. But, as always with Mozart, there are just enough. Just enough to go beyond any matter of notes. "Listening to Mozart," said the conductor George Szell, "we cannot think of any possible improvement."
That's genius. But there's something more than genius going on with Mozart, something beyond our ken, and yet close enough to it to let us share in it. We are lifted up, up, up, surrounded by a perfect majesty, yet not made to feel small, but whole.
Happy 250th, W.A.!
I know I'm a little late, Maestro, but we can't all have your perfect timing.
Has there ever been a single mortal who has given so many people so much hope for so long?
But of course it is hard to think of Mozart as mortal. His music is testimony to the existence of angels. Not the kind in the grand paintings singing formally before the Lord High G-d, but backstage, after the performance, in their off-hours, when they retire to the servants' quarters, put up their feet, and truly play.
Or as Karl Barth put it when he moved beyond that valley of dry bones called systematic theology, and wrote his beautiful little book about Mozart: "Whether the angels play only Bach when they go about their task of praising G-d, I am not quite sure. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille, they play Mozart."
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