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The making of Mozart

spiked-TV: Let's wind up the nature/nurture debate about musical genius. Life is more complicated than that.

Dolan Cummings

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27 January was the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, perhaps the most celebrated composer of all time, and a universally recognised icon of genius.

It is still a badge of honour for anyone else to be called ‘a latterday Mozart’, ‘the black Mozart’ or ‘the Mozart of mechanical engineering’. Mozart’s music itself is infused with a remarkable energy that seems to provide a soundtrack to the Enlightenment, which was sweeping Europe during the composer’s lifetime. From the majesty of his ‘Jupiter’ symphony to the warm-spirited wit and weirdness of his opera The Magic Flute, his music has enduring appeal.

The countless anniversary tributes have included In Search of Mozart, a film by Phil Grabsky, which was shown at odd times on Channel 5 and is now available on DVD. The film sets out among other things to correct some of the myths about the composer (especially those popularised by the film, Amadeus, such as that there was something peculiarly shameful about Mozart’s ‘pauper’s’ burial in a cloth sack in 1791, which was in fact common practice in Vienna at the time). But as well as attempting a definitive biography of Mozart, from his childhood as a ‘performing monkey’ traipsing around Europe with his father Leopold, to his triumphant success in Vienna, notorious money troubles and early death, In Search of Mozart offers valuable insights into his music, with an impressive range of contributors including the conductor Charles Mackerras, the pianist Lang Lang and the singer Thomas Allen.

One contributor disputes the idea that Mozart was a ‘product’ of the Enlightenment, emphasising instead his own unique abilities. Indeed, as an icon of genius, Mozart is a persistent point of reference in debates about nature and nurture, or the relative importance of genes and culture in individual development. But it is too simplistic to counterpose the idea of Mozart as a product of the Enlightenment to the idea of the composer as a born genius. Musical ability and artistic development, like anything else, are more complicated than that.

There is a moment in Amadeus, the film adapted by Peter Shaffer from his Broadway play of the same name, that perfectly captures the frustration of the hard-working but unexceptional artist (personified, perhaps unfairly, by Antonio Salieri) when faced with apparently effortless genius. Salieri picks up the manuscript of Mozart’s serenade for 13 wind instruments and begins to play the adagio in his mind, so that we hear the music along with his retrospective thoughts: ‘On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse: bassoons and basset horns, like a rusty squeezebox. [Ba-ba, ba, ba-ba, ba, ba-ba…] Then suddenly, high above it, an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, [la-a-a-a-a…] till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight [do, do, do-do-do-do-do-o-o…] ! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing a voice of God.’

Nonetheless, Amadeus also makes it clear that Mozart worked extraordinarily hard at his music, notwithstanding his fondness for scatological humour, which is heavily featured in the film, as if God is mocking Salieri. The director and writer Jonathan Miller appears in In Search of Mozart to point out that there is nothing unusual about discussing farts, even if we don’t expect it from a genius. But when not corresponding about such things, Mozart was a slave to his music. The historian Bayan Northcott argues in the documentary that the ‘true Mozart’ broke through relatively late because the young Wolfgang first absorbed everything he could of the music of others. Having composed full-length operas and 28 symphonies by the age of 18, Mozart was a master of every technique, every cliché even, before he began to express himself in his own unique voice.

For the pianist Ronald Brautigam, Mozart’s genius was then in combining popular, chirpy tunes that people could whistle in the street with more profound and personal music that demanded more of the listener, so that he appealed both to the general audience and the connoisseur. In common with William Shakespeare, Mozart was a businessman as well as a genius, and acted as his own impresario. Clearly the social context was not irrelevant to Mozart’s success, then. In a dynamic and forward-looking Europe, there were new audiences for music and an appetite for novelty. Mozart was patronised by Joseph II – that paradoxical but quintessentially eighteenth-century type, the Enlightenment autocrat – who encouraged the composer to express himself.

Of course, not everyone is capable of becoming a Mozart if only given the right education and circumstances, but neither should we take ‘genius’ literally, as a mysterious accident that emerges just like that. While Amadeus reminded us that there is no contradiction between being an artistic genius, and being a living, breathing (and farting) human being, In Search of Mozart shows that neither genius nor humanity are faits accompli, but require careful cultivation and hard work. It is a fine thing that we still have Mozart’s music to remind us what the results sound like.

In Search of Mozart by Phil Grabsky was released on DVD on 23 January 2006 (Buy this film from Amazon (UK).)

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