Mozart and the Ineffable

When I was an orchestral tuba player in my youth, my least favorite composer was Mozart. There were three strikes against him. First, he never wrote for tuba—an instrument which, to be fair, had not been invented until forty-four years after his death. Second, his music seemed generally too happy and lacking in emotional depth; while I was all Sturm und Drang. And, third, he seemed genuinely uninterested in being revolutionary—in exploding musical conventions and ruthlessly pushing boundaries—something I took to be synonymous with good art.

I remember many impatient Sunday afternoons sitting on the lawns at Tanglewood during my summers in high school, waiting for the Boston Symphony to finish some light and fluffy Mozart symphony before finally getting to the good stuff—a tone poem by Richard Strauss, or a symphony by Dvořák, Brahms, or Mahler. Sunday matinees typically started with Mozart, I assumed, in order to allow the Boston aristocracy to enjoy their lunch on the lawns (often seated upon Persian carpets, with silver service and a butler) without having to miss the “real” program.

But as I got older, something seemed wrong about my youthful assessment of Mozart. Occasionally I found myself wanting to listen to his music rather than that of others—and not merely as background, but as something substantial in the foreground. There was something almost magical about the moods he could evoke. Mozart was gradually becoming interesting. The challenge was then to explain this.

The Mystery of Simplicity

I derived some insight from Roger Scruton’s work on Mozart, which highlights the quality of transparent simplicity: from “a plain arpeggiated chord”—so simple anyone could have written it—Mozart could derive a melody of the rarest and most exquisite beauty: “as though he had peered into a chord as into a clear pool and suddenly pulled a gleaming mermaid from its depths.” The opening of the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in A Minor, K. 310 offers a case in point.

This seemed to capture something real. Yet Scruton would have been the first to acknowledge that he too struggled to articulate all that was going on in Mozart’s art. Simplicity was part of it, no doubt. But there remained a profound “mystery,” which Scruton (by his own admission) “never got closer to understanding” than in offering some “random thoughts.”

Of all the accounts I have read, Jan Swafford’s latest book Mozart: The Reign of Love comes closest to capturing this mystery. Swafford—himself a prolific composer and award-winning author of biographies of Ives, Beethoven, and Brahms—tries to present Mozart as the composer would have understood himself. The usual tendency (conscious or not) has been to listen to Mozart with “ears trained by Beethoven,” seeking in him some hint of the Romantic that was yet to come, of the tortured artist whose music is fundamentally about the inner struggles of the soul. But Mozart, as Swafford refreshingly observes, was simply not like this. Instead, he was “fundamentally a happy man.” And his music, so far from looking inward at the psyche, tended to focus on what was outside and universal in human experience—the world, its order, its beauty, and the various types of characters one encounters in life.

Swafford’s book unfolds chronologically from the birth of Mozart’s father, Leopold, in 1719 to Mozart’s funeral on December 6, 1791. The book is delightfully readable and painstakingly researched. It consists of three somewhat different genres artfully woven together. The first is biography, in which Swafford relies mainly on the epistolary records related to Mozart and his family. Mozart’s own letters are quoted frequently, and readers unfamiliar with these should brace themselves. Often erotic and unapologetically scatological (in the literal sense of the word), the letters are described by Swafford as “effervescent, hilarious, [and] sometimes so obscene that they could clear your sinuses.”

A second genre is cultural history, which supplies useful context for understanding Mozart’s life, the vicissitudes of his career, and the milieus in which he composed. Here Swafford situates Mozart in relation to the Enlightenment, the Baroque, the Romantic, the various countries and cultures of Western Europe through which he passed, and the stratified classes of society with whom he interacted.

The third genre is musical analysis, which Swafford takes up skillfully, avoiding overly technical terminology and striving as best he can to capture in language the magic and mystery of Mozart’s art. “I’ve never found another composer who beggars language as Mozart does,” writes Swafford. “In his expression he was often involved in shades and subtleties. . . . Besides that, a good deal of his music is involved in, sometimes revelatory of, the matter of beauty,” a subject we are “not taught about in school,” because while beauty is “real and significant,” it is “perceived as vague and subjective,” or “mushy and bourgeois.”

For me, Swafford’s careful attention to beauty makes the book. It turns an otherwise fine book about Mozart’s life and times into something quite extraordinary, a humble and sincere wrestling with the ineffable. Swafford soberly acknowledges that language can never fully capture the experiences of beauty, but he strives nevertheless to point to where and how beauty appears.

In Mozart’s music we find portraits of a social world with all its subtle feelings: playfulness, love, reverence, loss, hope, excitement, happiness—and the emphasis was on happiness

The Scaffolding for Genius

I comment on Swafford’s handling of beauty below, but first, what does it mean to experience Mozart without “ears trained by Beethoven”? It means, first of all, understanding Mozart’s attitude towards tradition. From the romantics forward, composers have tended to associate tradition with constraint, something to be overcome. But Mozart took a healthier and philosophically more defensible view: that tradition was the scaffolding for genius.

This comes out in his relationship to his father, Leopold, who was also a fine composer. Relatively late in his short life, Mozart still happily accepted his father’s emendations to his scores. Sometimes it is hard to discern where Mozart’s hand stops and Leopold’s takes over. While Mozart would eventually outgrow and overtake his father’s skill, the process was gradual, not sudden or revolutionary.

So too with musical forms and idioms. Mozart gladly worked within the conventions of his day, imitating composers he admired, borrowing their syntax and punctuation, all the while stamping his own genius on his work. As he matured, he would inevitably stretch traditions, but only when he had to. Pushing envelopes was never his goal.

This is clear from Swafford’s comments on the opera Idomeneo which Mozart composed in 1780: “The final work rises from the archaic tradition of opera seria, but Mozart took it in contemporary and personal directions. Here as well as anywhere is shown his mature gift for going through convention and coming out into a territory he owned.” This going through convention marks Mozart as something of a conservative in the best sense of the word: he benefited immensely from what the past had to offer. Tradition did not define him, but without it he would have been nowhere.

Tradition was the scaffolding for genius in the sense that it supplied settled forms and structures within which Mozart could attend to beauty, cleverness, and creativity. This is what the Romantics in their solipsistic egoism tended to miss. For the romantics, creativity consisted to a large extent in transgressing limits, as if convention were a foreign imposition. Whereas Mozartian creativity delighted in limits. As with poetic forms—iambic pentameter or terza rima—limits facilitate creativity and magnify genius.

Hearing without “ears trained by Beethoven” also means learning what Mozart’s music was about—and not about: It was not about him. “In his art Mozart showed a habitual detachment from the circumstances of his life. . . . In those days the point of art was not to express yourself but to express everybody and to express art itself.” One hears this detachment plainly, for example, in the opening measures of Symphony 29 K. 201, which so beautifully expresses the sense of orderliness and calm optimism of Enlightenment Europe.

An Experience of Joy

Modern listeners (myself included) sometimes scroll through Mozart’s music searching for something that is not there. Inevitably we come up empty-handed. But this does not mean nothing is there, only that we’re looking for the wrong thing. What is there are portraits of a social world with all its subtle feelings: playfulness, love, reverence, loss, hope, excitement, happiness—and the emphasis was on happiness.

I was right in my youth to hear happiness in Mozart’s music, but wrong to dismiss it for that, and quite wrong to assume that happiness is all of a piece—just one simple emotion. On the contrary the happiness in Mozart admits of infinite shades of gray: his emotional palette was vast.

Consider the rondo finale (the third movement) of his Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra, K. 364. The second movement of that piece is sorrowful, a unique expression of “plaintive beauty,” says Swafford, the “most evocative of Mozart’s early maturity.” Then, out of nowhere, happiness dawns. “From the soloists there is a recurring little refrain in triplets that might be described as a moment of dancing, transcendent elation.”

“Where did the joyousness of this work come from?” asks Swafford. “Joie de vivre is all over the sinfonia, along with the sadness. Thus his music, thus his life. The sparkle of the sinfonia is another occasion of a life-avowing quality unique to Mozart. Part of its magic is its inexpressibleness outside itself, its sense of skirting time and place and language into a territory of sheer sound and delight.”

Now for a word about beauty. I have never found a theory of beauty that satisfactorily accounts for its many forms. The classical view is that beauty obtains in the relation between the whole and its parts, in “right proportion” and the like, so that the parts combine into an integrated, harmonious whole. There is obviously something to this. But beauty can also be found in erotic desire, the longing for someone who is not I, but an other, whom I wish to be with, to participate in. Thus the beauty of the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony 5.

Alternatively, beauty can appear as childlike innocence and purity, as in the Agnus Dei from Faure’s Requiem, which (unlike every Agnus Dei that I know) focuses not on the cross but on the innocent lamb enjoying the countryside—albeit with occasional moments of foreboding communicated from composer to listener. Beauty takes many more forms in addition to these, so that one struggles exceedingly to say what it is. Yet we know it when we see it—or hear it.

Early in life (when he was only sixteen) Mozart had become a consummate master of beauty. Here is Swafford commenting on the middle movement his Divertimento in F-Major, K. 138: “It is like a yearning dream,” he observes. “In music of this concentration, the whole must flow as inevitably as water; not one note can be out of place, or the spell is broken.” Notice Swafford’s appeal to the classical theory of beauty here. But there is more: “At sixteen, Mozart was creating art capable of making life sweeter, more poignant, more intense.” Swafford is certainly right. Think about how much music like this adds to our lives, lifting us up from the workaday world of utility and anxiety into another, simpler, almost heavenly world of pure delight.

Swafford’s descriptions of beauty in Mozart’s art are frequent and uniformly insightful. In the end, I believe beauty to be ineffable, as does Swafford himself; which means that the mystery and magic in Mozart’s art will never be adequately captured in words. But this is no tragedy. Rather it is why music is music and words are words. What remains is to listen, to experience the art itself and allow it to make our lives “sweeter, more poignant, and more intense.”