Music Lessons

Nicholas Spice

  • Mozart by Maynard Solomon
    Hutchinson, 640 pp, £25.00, May 1995, ISBN 0 09 174704 X

I notice that I often hold back from Mozart’s music. When I listen to the opening of Haydn’s Creation – the ‘Representation of Chaos’ – I do not inhibit my feelings. Yet the opening of Mozart’s Dissonance String Quartet (K.465, in C), which, as Maynard Solomon intimates, may partly have inspired Haydn’s vision of loss, leaves me comparatively unmoved. And it is the same with the String Quintet in G minor (K.516) and the Fantasy in C minor (K.475) and the B minor Adagio (K.540). In the face of these pieces I am like Coleridge gazing at the stars and the crescent moon in the western sky: ‘I see them all so excellently fairy/ I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!’

I fend off Mozart’s music because I have difficulty determining where it ends and I begin. I distrust my assumptions about it. My access to it seems too easy. When Mozart wrote it, his music was often thought to be abstruse. ‘Mozart’s music is certainly too difficult to be sung,’ wrote the Emperor Joseph II; ‘Let it be something short, easy and popular,’ urged Mozart’s father, who, on another occasion, warned his son against ‘harmonic progressions, which the majority of people cannot fathom’; when the flautist Becke heard the first act of Idomeneo, he wrote of a beauty that was ‘new and strange’. I wish I could hear the beauty of Mozart’s music as new and strange, but it often seems to be hidden from me by a veil of familiarity which I lack the musical insight to penetrate. In the world I have lived in, Mozart’s music has been taken for granted, smoothed out through constant repetition, skilfully packaged as a cultural commodity, casually churned out at ‘Mostly Mozart’ marathons in New York and London, reduced to background music for the annual passeggiata of the Euronouveaux riches at the Salzburg Festival. Performances of Mozart are now rites rather than occasions for discovery. It is incumbent on us to say we love Mozart.

The affirmative consensus on Mozart bullies me into an affection for him that I haven’t done enough to earn. Then, when I listen to his music, I am assailed by the disconcerting thought that the music itself is beckoning me into a too sudden intimacy. There is a sensuousness in Mozart’s music which I feel most directly when I try and play it on the piano. The music is extremely tactile, its touchingness embodied in touch, its feelings felt in the fingers. The passage work in the recapitulation of the first movement of the A minor Piano Sonata (K.410), for example, describes an expressive contour which the hand that plays it brings into being, as though the hand were singing, as though the exquisite dissolutions of the harmonic movement were enacted through the pressure of the fingertips. ‘Perhaps no composer used the seductive physical power of music with the intensity and the range of Mozart,’ says Charles Rosen in The Classical Style. Glenn Gould thought Mozart’s music was ‘hedonist’.

The immediacy of Mozart’s music can be spooky. That simple four-note figure repeated twice, the viola motif in the slow movement of the G minor String Quintet, reaches out at us from the music, like Keats’s hand in the fragment ‘This Living Hand’ (‘see here it is – I hold it towards you’). We experience this music – ‘now warm and capable of earnest grasping’ – like a vivid dream which is so clear in our heads that we think we can put it into words. But we bore people when we tell them our dreams, and we bore ourselves when we talk about Mozart’s music.

For the biographer of Mozart, Mozart’s music is a trap, its eloquence apparently so human, the presentness of its voice readily conjuring up the idea of personhood, of someone speaking or feeling within or behind the notes. Mozart’s music lures us into thinking we know Mozart’s music and that in knowing it we know Mozart. Maynard Solomon takes the lure without hesitating. His talk about Mozart’s music is loose and incautious and tells us a lot about why he interprets Mozart’s life in the way that he does.

Solomon’s reading of Mozart’s music is governed by a single idea: the subversion of paradise by reality and death – et in arcadia ego. In his early output, Mozart explores the possibilities of the serenade, a genre whose ‘predominant character is pastoral’. ‘Exuberant, festive brilliance’ is balanced in this music by ‘inwardness’; ‘occasional darkenings’ and ‘thoughtful pathos’ mingle with ‘expected qualities of grace and tenderness’. By his early twenties, the sky above the fête-champêtre has a tendency to cloud over, there are storms, the mandolin gets rained on. ‘Oceanic, comforting and rapturous’ states are temporarily disturbed by ‘piercing dissonances’, or overcast with ‘brooding intensity’ and the threat of ‘chaos and disruption’. In the mature works a ‘specifically Mozartian array of beauties emerges – deathtinged, melancholy, painful, containing a mixture of resignation and affirmation’. In the G minor String Quintet (K.516) ‘bliss is subverted’ by ‘yearning and lament’, the Andante of the G major Piano Concerto (K.453) is an ‘extended, strife-ridden quest ... a melancholy but valiant attempt to overcome transience’.

We go to music to seek refuge from the vagueness of language, so it can seem perverse to try and translate what music expresses into words. Moreover, when we do this, we imply that composition is about finding musical equivalents for pre-existing states of mind and feeling. Maynard Solomon sees nothing wrong in this. He writes copiously about what Mozart put into his music and what we can take out of it: how, for example, in his slow movements, Mozart ‘tries to summon up every gradation of emotion’ or ‘seeks to represent currents of nostalgia, elegy and longing’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in