This scene from the great film Amadeus might be the best simple explanation of Mozart’s astonishing genius I’ve seen yet. In the film, there is an opening for a lucrative job for which Mozart would be ideally suited, but Mozart is a master of both spending calamitous amounts of money and burning his bridges with people he needs to impress (and usually not even realizing he’s burning those bridges). His wife, Constanze, decides to appeal directly to Emperor Joseph’s Court Composer, Antonio Salieri, for help. She doesn’t know that Salieri already loathes Mozart, despite being in utter awe of his talent. In fact, Salieri loathes Mozart because of the degree of Mozart’s talent: he sees Mozart as a profane, disgusting creature of a man, and yet it’s this profane, disgusting creature of a man that God has apparently chosen as the vehicle for a transcendent level of talent.
For this job, composers are required to submit examples of their work, and Mozart feels that his talent is so obvious that he shouldn’t have to jump through this particular hoop. So Constanze goes behind his back, and this unfolds:
I should point out that as wonderful a movie as Amadeus is, as brilliantly made and acted and shot and musically performed by Neville Marriner and his Academy of St Martin in the Fields crew, and as amazingly complex it is in its depiction of the relationship between two artists who are on different planets as far as their skill is concerned, Amadeus should not be watched as any kind of historical document. Salieri was not a mediocrity who schemed to steal Mozart’s own work as his own and who engineered Mozart’s self-destructive personality until the man went to an early grave. Nor did Salieri himself live a life of a frustrated loner who eventually went insane after decades of watching his own work be neglected. Antonio Salieri was a deeply respected musician who taught Beethoven, and by all evidence he and Mozart were friendly rivals, and that’s it.
But for this one scene, the film gets Mozart entirely right: he really was the staggering genius from whom music poured over the course of 35 short years, music that astonishes to this day with its degree of classical perfection. It’s tempting to think of Mozart’s youthful demise and think, “If only he’d lived on!” How tantalizing that is, to imagine what a Mozart who lived to see the rise of Beethoven and the end of Classicism and the dawn of Romanticism might have produced. Had Mozart lived to the same age as Haydn, 77 years, he would have lived to 1833: long enough to hear all of Beethoven’s symphonies, all of Schubert’s work, all of Weber’s, and perhaps he would even have heard the youthful works of a deeply odd composer from Paris, one H. Berlioz.
Historical counterfactuals are only interesting as thought experiments, though, and we have to ultimately console ourselves with what actually exists–and in Mozart’s case, there is nothing tragic at all about his final silencing in 1791. There are many composers whose early deaths truly did rob us of a voice that might otherwise have gone on to produce work of towering greatness, so amazing is the work of their unfulfilled youth (and you can tune in next Tuesday in this space for a citation of one such composer), but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is not one of them. I’m thankful that Mozart was here at all. Mozart’s music is one of the exhibits I would advance for the defense if humanity was ever put on trial and ordered to defend the value of its existence.
Here is one of my very favorite of Mozart’s works, the Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola, and chamber orchestra, K. 364. A “sinfonia concertante” is somewhere in between a symphony and a concerto, being a work featuring a soloist (or, in this case, two soloists) with orchestra, but the emphasis is more on collective music-making than in virtuoso display. As a specific form, the sinfonia concertante is mostly limited to the Classical era; Romantic composers would write “double” or “triple” concertos, depending on what their soloist needs were. The idea of reducing the focus on virtuosity and more on musical partnership between soloist and orchestra would live on, though, in works like Berlioz’s second symphony Harold in Italy, and eventually in a number of tone poems that featured soloists as “commenters” on the orchestral proceedings.
I love this work dearly…as I do Mozart. Long may he be heard and remembered!