Easter week, 1770. A father and his 14 year old son attend services at St. Peter’s Basilica. The Sistine Chapel choir performs Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere”, a choral work that was fiercely guarded by Vatican authorities. In those days before music publication and copyright laws, transcription of such a work was strictly forbidden. But the 14 year old boy was so enchanted with the magnificent choral music that when he returned his lodgings with his father hours later he wrote down, in the middle of the night, the entire Allegri piece note for note, having committed it to memory. He had heard it only once.
The father in that story was Leopold Mozart. The adolescent boy was his son Wolfgang Amadeus. The story is just one of numerous anecdotes about Mozart’s prodigious musical mind. But to call Mozart simply a “child prodigy” seems rather inadequate, as he was much more than that. Certainly, Mozart’s uncanny ability to memorize music, often after a single hearing, is legendary. He was known to point to his head when asked where he wrote his music. At the age of two he identified a a pig’s squeal as a G sharp. He composed 30 symphonies by the age of 18. Fantastically prolific, Mozart’s rate of production was mind-boggling, and his work ethic was solid. He had a remarkable capacity to compose under pressure and meet deadlines. And he was a marvelous improvisor who could, indeed, compose “on the spot”.
But it takes more than preternatural ability and perfect pitch, which Mozart clearly had, to earn the lofty designation of “God’s stenographer”. Many of Mozart’s memorization feats could be done by, say, Dustin Hoffman’s autistic savant character in the movie Rain Man. Most individuals who display superhuman faculty do not rise to the top or even distinguish themselves over time. Why is that? Because “genius” as we apply it to artistic figures, requires more than aptitude and prowess. It calls for imagination. Versatility. Depth of feeling. Humanity. Love. The ability to translate the human condition into art, and convert mere mastery of skill into something metaphysical. Something sublime. Something poignant, joyful, evocative. The most famous genius who ever lived, Albert Einstein, said so himself: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world.” While Mozart surely “knew” everything about music, it was not his knowledge alone that brought him such revered status.
This Music Monday post is inspired by WQXR radio’s Month of Mozart, which is now in its final week. And what a glorious, wondrous month of music it’s been. It has reminded us listeners of the astonishing breadth of Mozart’s musical compositions. Symphonies, operas, oratorios, concertos, chamber music, wind ensembles, masses, ballets, every instrument, every vocal range. Mozart did it all. With the holidays approaching, a Mozart compilation would make a fine gift for someone you love. As the late great conductor George Szell said, “Lengthy immersion in the works of other composers can tire. The music of Mozart does not tire, and this is one of its miracles.”
Many people believe they know the “real” Mozart from having seen the 1984 film Amadeus. While certainly a marvelously entertaining and much beloved film, directed by Milos Forman, it should be understood that Amadeus is a dramatization which took tremendous liberties. It is not accurate history. Based on the stage play by Peter Shaffer, the movie is responsible for propagating the “Salieri may have killed Mozart and secretly commissioned the Requiem” theory, which has no basis in fact. Nor did any seething rivalry even exist between the two men that we know of. This is just myth-making. However the film did get some things right. The portrayal of Mozart as a potty-mouthed manchild given to tasteless scatological humor and other infantile behavior is based on some truth, but still quite exaggerated. An acquaintance of Mozart apparently wrote in a letter that the composer had a “piercing, giggly laugh”, which was likely the reason for Tom Hulce doing the annoying laugh thing multiple times throughout the film.
While it’s amusing to learn of the foibles and unflattering habits of great figures (we love to discover that they were human, after all), people’s admiration for Mozart should hardly be diminished knowing that he had a penchant for fart jokes. Besides, the man himself can be fleshed out through the less scandalous, not so offensive aspects of his life. I for one enjoy knowing the “ordinary” things about people. Born in Salzburg to an itinerant musical family, Mozart was a little fella, small in stature, fair-skinned with large grey-blue eyes and a head of silky light brown hair. He loved to play billiards and kept birds as pets. He never attended a day of school, was Catholic, and notoriously bad with money, as the Mozarts (Wolfgang and his wife) were frequently in debt. They moved at least 11 times during their years in Vienna. He was charming and generally well-liked in spite of his immature tendencies, and his sister Maria Anna, with whom he was very close, was a talented musician in her own right. Mozart’s marriage to Constanze Weber, while disapproved of by his domineering father, was in fact a good one, filled with mutual affection, respect, and compatibility. Friends of the couple said they never saw two people better suited to each other than the Mozarts. So kudos to Wolfgang for choosing well in marriage. The couple had six children, only two of whom survived infancy. And Mozart died not from some treacherous poisoning plot but most likely rheumatic fever or typhus. He was only 35 years old.
Mozart monument in Vienna, photographed in 1898:
I will leave you all with one of the loveliest operatic duets you’ll ever hear. This is Cecilia Bartoli and Renee Fleming singing “Sull’aria” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a piece of music many people were introduced to through the movie The Shawshank Redemption.