The Secret of Mozart’s Everlasting Appeal: Why He Still Matters

Byvu lita

Jul 24, 2023

One of my favorite passages in all of Mozart sounds nothing like him. In the opening bars of his String Quartet No. 19 in C Major, quiet notes from the violins and violas ooze over the halting pulse of the cello. At times, sounds coalesce into weird dissonances as parts seem to grope, perhaps instinctually, toward harmony. Then a tense pause—and a jaunty melody bursts forth as if released by a spring.

I’ve been hearing this moment with fresh admiration since reading Mozart in Motion, by the British poet Patrick Mackie—an illuminating book that aims to ground the music of a composer too often idolized as a mere instrument of the divine in the context of his time. In his book, Mackie connects the beginning of what is often called Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet to Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay “What Is Enlightenment?” in which the philosopher argues that the exercise of free will requires courage. The Dissonance Quartet is the last in a set that Mozart described as the result of a “long and laborious endeavor.” In the juxtaposition of tortured abstraction and the supreme melodic confidence that follows, Mackie suggests, the music “is both exhilarated and slightly aghast to discover that the world will not tell it what to do.” In that moment, Mozart lets us “hear something like artistic courage itself.”

To many listeners, Mozart’s music sounds so natural and self-evident that it’s hard to imagine it costing the composer much effort, let alone courage. “So pure” is Mozart’s music, in the scientific assessment of Albert Einstein, “that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.” Mackie’s book, subtitled His Work and His World in Pieces, is a welcome reminder that the universe reflected in Mozart’s operas, symphonies, concertos, and chamber works was very much shaped by political and social currents—some of which reflect the anxieties and hopes of our own time as well.

The book is not a chronological survey of Mozart’s career, and it presupposes a certain amount of knowledge. (Jan Swafford’s excellent Mozart: The Reign of Love, from 2020, is the new standard biography.) What Mackie offers is a collection of essays, each one focused on a particular work illuminated through a different historical or psychological lens. He is, however, a poet, not a musicologist, and this engaging book relies as much on his intuition as on his reading. He finds that a piano sonata written in Paris strains against the intellectual narcissism of the French salon while simultaneously trying to please it. In a violin concerto, Mackie hears Mozart working out his complex feelings toward his father, who was a famed violin pedagogue as well as the micromanaging agent of his significantly more talented son. Jokes are the key to Mozart’s solo works for the French horn, Mackie writes; a divertimento for string trio speaks to the 18th-century obsession with gambling.

The connections he draws are always thought-provoking even when they rely on conjecture. His chapter on Idomeneo, a Trojan War story set in the generally stilted form of opera seria, an 18th-century operatic form that focused on noble and mythological subjects, becomes a reflection on the feeling of homelessness that can set in among cosmopolitan nomads such as Mozart himself. (The opera’s heroine is a captive of war; the musicians who premiered it in Munich were recent transplants from another regional court.) Did Mozart perceive, as Mackie writes, the “warped, violent process of generational change” buffeting both his characters and the performers? His letters don’t say, but once Mackie suggests it, a listener can hear loss and reinvention rubbing against each other to electric effect.

Some of Mackie’s most generous insights are tucked among more effortful attempts at contextualization. I am not sure the Sinfonia Concertante marks Mozart’s emancipation from his father. What does feel convincing is Mackie’s explanation of how an artist’s materials—in this case, the instrumentation—determine not just the form but also the substance of a given work.

“A musical instrument is not just a little slab of matter cut and trained so that it turns the movements with which it is wielded into waves of sound,” he writes. “It is the embodiment of a set of feelings about the world that are so richly specified in each case as to amount to something like a set of proposals about what a body can be, about how it can move and how or why it might seek expression, and hence about what a person is and about the world in which people find themselves making music.”

As a poet, Mackie has an insider’s understanding of form. Many books touch on Mozart’s exuberant love of jokes in ways that contrast the silliness of the man with the sublime nature of his music. Mackie, who has published limericks, finds a deeper connection. Mozart’s music has a structural affinity with humor, he argues, because of how motifs are developed in surprising but ultimately revelatory ways: “A phrase will turn up in a different guise as a piece develops, and, as with the gags in a good stand-up routine, its second appearance will rearrange the suppositions that it had previously set up, revealing wider, perhaps more surreptitious logic that has in fact been in place from the beginning.”

In such moments, Mackie’s prose is as lucid as his insights. But his writing can also be fussy. A maddening number of adverbs and adjectives clutter the text, snarling a reader’s flow like a forest of traffic signs at an otherwise-straightforward intersection. Some of these qualifiers are ingeniously deployed: Calling opera seria a “hectically malleable” tradition nicely renders the idea of a fast-fashion genre. But it’s hard to picture a composer “lurchingly mystified” as to how to innovate it. When Mackie points out the Rococo era’s compulsive zest for ornamentation, in which “no teaspoon could escape without some quota of tinseled detailing,” he might also be describing his own prose.

The word that recurs most vividly in Mackie’s book is pleasure. Musicologists might shrink from embracing the term, yet it is central not only to the enduring appeal of Mozart’s music but also to his creative drive. In Mozart’s time, there was no cult of the autonomous artist. His letters show how he savvily wrote with an eye toward the market, hoping to delight listeners at every level of society. And pleasure, Mackie shows, was political in an age when some of the boldest advocates for free speech and personal choice were libertines. Thus, even Don Giovanni, the rake at the center of Mozart’s darkest opera, became as Mackie writes, “a force swinging between two worlds, rooting itself in aristocratic license and privilege as much as it reached forwards into coming hopes for pluralistic personal choice.”

Mozart’s music continues to inspire love because it holds space for sensual delight and evinces a knowing, generous view of humanity. It “can relay pleasure while analyzing it,” as Mackie puts it. For ardent Mozarteans and classical-curious streamers, this book will do the same.

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