The Magazine

Mozart's Gift

His music has taught us how to live.

Jan 30, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 19 • By FRED BAUMANN
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IN BEYOND Good and Evil, Nietzsche rejoices that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, "the last chord of a centuries-old great European taste . . . still speaks to us" and warns that "alas, some day all this will be gone."

Nietzsche was unsure whether the future held the triumph of the despicable, bourgeois "last man" who is no longer even ashamed of himself or, as he hoped, of the newly heroic and disciplined races that the "new philosophers" would mold. Either way, he thought Mozart would become incomprehensible--though probably not to the new philosophers or Overmen themselves.

So, does Mozart still speak to us? The fact that we are celebrating his 250th birthday this month suggests so, and for some fraction of the elite culture, he surely does. Judging by concert halls, it's an old and shrinking fraction, but there are still a fair number of teenagers learning the "Turkish Rondo," so who knows?

Still, I think that what we got in Peter Shaffer's movie Amadeus roughly represents what the culture generally thinks about Mozart. He was a silly man, but a genius, who produced music that is very pleasant to listen to but somewhat lacking in punch. He liked childish things, like that masquerade The Magic Flute, but he was serious about death (who isn't?) so he started on that spooky Requiem, which does get to us, in a churchy kind of way.

Add a bit more--perhaps "who is this woman who does not kiss me?" from Mozart's child-prodigy phase, maybe his hatred for the archbishop of Salzburg, something about childish pranks, billiards, gambling, his wife Constanze's possible infidelity--and it fills out our picture.

For a while, it seemed that playing his music to infants was a good way to promote their adult careers; but except for a niche audience, most of us do not actually choose to listen to it all that much, at least when Bruce Springsteen is available. A giant of sorts, yes, up there on the list with Shakespeare, Da Vinci, and--who? Bach? Goethe?--anyway, those guys we sort of learned about freshman year.

So maybe we do not hear him so well any more, or maybe we have just passed him by. And indeed, Nietzsche's view of Mozart, though far more elegantly and insightfully expressed than my caricature of our own, isn't that far from it. Like ours, his tone is a little condescending and seems to find Mozart just a little too pretty-pretty. Nietzsche refers to Mozart as "rococo," to "his 'good company,' his tender enthusiasms, his childlike delight in curlicues and Chinese touches, his courtesy of the heart, his longing for the graceful, those in love, those dancing, those easily moved to tears, his faith in the south."

While emphasizing that Mozart represented a taste too high for the future Nietzsche feared, he also lets us know it is too soft for the future he longed for. We are not, typically, Will to Power freaks. Nor are we big on "the courtesy of the heart" or "tender enthusiasms." They lack street, and even quad, cred. If we have a taste for them, we keep quiet about it. Also, we may share with Nietzsche and his age a certain tone deafness that comes with modernity and its big masses, wars, breakthroughs, orchestras, and amps.

Take that childish entertainment, The Magic Flute. The story is fantastic and oddly put together, with an apparently incomprehensible switch in good and bad guys halfway through. There are magical transformations of hags into nubile girls, visits from a forest menagerie of music-loving wild animals, and occasional appearances by 12-year-old divine messengers. Its Singspiel style offers a stodgy and naive alternation of spoken dialogue with singing, a clumsy German version of the slick and zingy Italian opera buffa.

Yet Mozart's biographer Alfred Einstein says that "it is one of those pieces that can enchant a child at the same time that it . . . transports the wisest." How so?

True, underneath the stage tricks there is a profound allegory of the education of the soul, but Mozart also uses the clumsiness and apparent graceless naiveté of the Singspiel style with such knowing grace that one lives constantly both inside and outside the conventions. Naiveté here is false, tongue in cheek, but lovingly false. The tone takes the stiff, earnest, and childlike seriously, but provisionally. And of course what is happening at the musical, stylistic level is replicated at the level of the allegory, where naive expressions of utopian faith in Enlightenment ("Now the earth becomes a heavenly realm and mortals equal to the gods") are announced straight to the audience in glorious assertive music, but by very serious little boys. Thus, utopia becomes at once a cause to live for and an impossible and wistful, even slightly comical, hope.