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Bravo! Mozart

Because of his greatness, Mozart cannot help but be edifying.

Jan 30, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 19 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"POSTERITY WILL NOT SEE such a talent for a century to come." So said Josef Haydn, shortly after Mozart's death at age 35 in 1791. Haydn might safely have said posterity would not see such a talent for two centuries to come--and counting.

But talent is one thing. Talent that becomes greatness is another. Mozart's greatness is far more widely, and intelligently, appreciated today than it was 100 years ago, or even 50. And no one can complain that Mozart's 250th birthday is going unnoticed, or that his legacy isn't being treated with appropriate respect. But when the New York Times weighed in a few days ago with a silly, pseudo-ironic debunking of anticipated excesses in this year of celebrating Mozart, I was reminded of how much trouble we have with human greatness.

And always have had. The English critic W.J. Turner wrote Mozart: The Man and His Works in 1938. Much of it has been overtaken by subsequent scholarship, but it remains full of insights: "The truth is that we mediocre men cannot even imagine what it is to be a great man like Mozart and Shakespeare and thus to be free from the domination of the contemporary prejudices, beliefs, morals, artistic rules, scruples (call them what you will) with which even the most enlightened of us are--often unconsciously--obsessed."

Real greatness causes discomfort. You'd think it would make people feel better--you look up at someone's achievement and think, gee, the human condition isn't as hopeless as I suspected. But greatness is nervous-making. And it can be, in a way, depressing. Charles Gounod said, "Before Mozart, all my ambition turns to despair."

But we have far more reason to be grateful than to despair. Allan Bloom believed that listening to Mozart was as close to the "experience of the beautiful" as he ever encountered in his life. And when things feel stale, you can listen to Mozart, and see what moved Robert Schumann to ask: "Does it not seem as if Mozart's works become fresher and fresher the oftener we hear them?"

Not just fresher, but more interesting. Mozart's music transcends all the obvious categories. By this I don't mean that he wrote amazing works in every genre--operas, symphonies, piano and other concerti, chamber music, sonatas, and so on--but that he transcends the usual moods. Mozart is light and grave, pretty and profound, masculine and feminine, comic and tragic--often all in the same work.

This seems particularly clear in the great operas written in collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte. The Marriage of Figaro is a comic opera, but like many of Shakespeare's comedies, it's a short step from tragedy. Don Giovanni pretends to be a moralizing tragedy, Così fan Tutte a demoralizing comedy--but both are like Shakespeare's "problem plays," neither clearly comic nor tragic. Turner observes: "What puzzles the average person is just this strange blend of the tragic and the comic. Most people like to have these elements carefully separated into different works of art so that they may feel safe. They are prepared to look upon life as either a comedy or a tragedy, since in such a presentation life is made a little less real and provides a form of escape, a convention or refuge. One may thus laugh or weep to the full, knowing in one's heart that life is not quite like this; it is neither so comic nor tragic."

Mozart provides no such comfort or escape. He does inspire, as Aaron Copland said, "a certain awe and wonder." We're short on awe and wonder these days, long on cheap cynicism and solemn sanctimony. Mozart has little use for either. Bloom notes Mozart's "capacity to be both deep and rational, a combination often said to be impossible." And he adds, "As Rossini recognized, no composer was witty as Mozart."

For Bloom, Mozart's music was "an antidote to all the seductions of nihilism present in our world." Does Bloom here run the risk of trying to make Mozart's music edifying? Of course he knew that great music does not necessarily make its listeners better human beings. And he was aware that the leading nihilists of our age, the Nazi regime in Germany, tried to make a big production of the 150th anniversary of Mozart's death. But it didn't quite work. Mozart resists political appropriation.

"Mozart took so very much for granted which lesser minds argue about," said W.J. Turner. "He was too understanding and too profound (though active) a fatalist to be a partisan. He never turned his works of art into judgments. He merely--like the Creator of nature--gave them individual life, and in his works his music, like the rain and the sunshine, falls alike on the just and the unjust."

And yet, because of his greatness, Mozart cannot help but be edifying.

- William Kristol