What more could Mozart possibly have accomplished?

By: Wilfrid Mellers

H AVING SPENT A YEAR CELEBRATING THE EVENT, WE CAN HARDLY AVOID KNOWING THAT MOZART DIED 200 YEARS AGO THIS PAST DECEMBER 5. (January 1992) WE came near to sinking beneath the spate of words putatively in his honor; but it is possible that, in retrospect, there may be lessons to learn. In particular it may be rewarding to reflect on the difference between what his death meant in 1791 and what it meant to us in 1991, for the two meanings, though obviously related, are not identical.

Nobody denies that Mozart was the most phenomenal infant prodigy in the history of music; his musical life began early, as it was also to end. Whereas Haydn seemed to know intuitively that he had time at his disposal, and composed at a fairly mature age most of the works for which we now revere him, Mozart seemed to know that he had little time to spare. He was technically proficient by the time he entered his teens; by the age of twenty-five he had written some of the masterpieces of European music; in another ten years, having now created and perfected a new kind of tragicomic opera and a new, quasi-dramatic instrumental form in his mature piano concertos, he was dead.

From Mozart’s childhood pieces we would know that he was an unprecedented musical phenomenon but not that he was going to be one of the three supreme composers in European history. Indeed, a case can be made that the music Mendelssohn wrote before and during his teens is of greater intrinsic value than the music Mozart composed at the same age . But Mendelssohn, who didn’t survive much longer than Mozart, relatively speaking declined, whereas Mozart fleshed out boyish miracles of technique (and, to a degree, of feeling) with artistic experience that in height and depth can only be described as Shakespearean. The parallel is apt not only in scales of value but also because Mozart was pre-eminently a dramatic and often explicitly theatrical composer. He and Handel were the supreme humanists of music and his ambitious father had reared him in the Handelian traditions of heroic opera, the prime artistic convention of an age dedicated to the glory of man in the highest. A child of twelve producing operas about the triumphs and tribulations of kings and conquerors—men pretending to be gods, and usually discovering that they aren’t—seems and in a sense is grotesque. Having grown up, at the age of twenty-five Mozart created in Jdomeneo a heroic opera that effaces the conventional model precisely because it is aware of the tragic implications inherent in any human pretension to divinity. By that time, however, Mozart had realized that the old Italianate opera seria was not for him. Heroic opera had dealt in closed musical forms with absolute ethical values, which claim that we know how people ought to behave even if they don’t do so. But in a rapidly changing, increasingly democratized society such an approach, aiming with equivocal success at unity, was no longer pertinent. Nor was it adequate to substitute for the aristocratic- autocratic opera seria an opera haifa, opéra comique, or Singspiel dealing, in vernacular Italian, French, or German, with the low life of common men and women. As a child, Mozart had explored these increasingly popular genres; grown up, he knew that the only musical-theatrical convention appropriate to the new, volatile world must be at once aristocratic and democratic, tragic and comic. If opera seria by its naturc sought for unity, mature Mozartian opera was dualistic in its essence.

The very stories of Mozart’s mature operas concern tensions between worlds old and new, and there are no unambiguous good and bad guys. The Marriage of Figaro is about the fight between a moribund aristocracy and the democratic world of common people. Figaro and Susanna, the young representatives of the new society, are lively and lovely but humanly fallible; the autocratic Count is a pathological case rather than a monster, and his aristocratic Countess, far from being a villainess, is a tragic victim. We can identify with all the protagonists, since the, opera’s moral standards are, like Mozart’s society, in process of formulation. Similarly, there is a three-way relationship among the aristocratic but decadent Don Giovanni, the women (whether aristocrats, middle-class upwardly mobile types, or peasant-servants) who are his prey, and Leporello, the underdog who is also Giovanni’s alter ego, insofar as he, rather than the Don, is the future. At the end the ambiguous hero is yanked down to hell, his crime having been his literal destruct-ion of the old world, when he slaughtered the Commendatore in the opera’s first scene. The descent to hell is so intensely dramatic that it is rightly regarded as a harbinger of Romanticism; but it is also comic, and is followed by a full-scale buffo finale affirming society’s return to its primrose path, now that the threat presented by uncontrolled libido seems, momentarily, to have passed. Civilization must be preserved, and cannot be unless at least lip service is paid to the statu quo. Nonetheless, some form of change seems to be both necessary and inevitable.

All this is inherent in the technique of Mozart’s music. He was the only composer of his age whose distinction came equally from operas and from instrumental works in sonata form— the new, dualistic compositional principle apposite to conflict, growth, and change. His mature operas fuse the “closed” forms of opera seria, such as the aria da capo, with the “open,” evolutionary sonata. People grow while they sing Mozart’s arias, and may not be the same at an aria’s end as they were at the beginning. They are still more trans-formed as they interact with one another, democratically expressing different responses to the same situation, in the ensemble numbers that are the climax to each act. Social transformation implies a metamorphosis of individual identities, and vice versa. The vital music of the sonata era deals with the relationship between public and private life, in which respect Mozart is the most profound, as well as the liveliest, humanist in music.

B UT THERE IS ANOTHER DIMENSION TO ART WHICH MOZART — unlike Bach and, in his different way, Beethoven—did not for most of his life explore. This is the dimension usually called religious, concerned not so very much with relationships between people as with the relationship between man and God . Although Mozart was as a very young man employed by the Catholic Church and had naturally produced ecclesiastical music, this was—and was meant to be and was accepted as—rococo social music, secular in spirit, and in technique operatic in the old sense . But during the 1780s, the great years of his operatic creation,   Mozart became fascinated by what one can only call religious experience, though it had little to do with his traditional Church and much to do with the fashionable religion of enlightenment as promoted by Freemasonry.

 Fundamentally, eighteenth-century Masons were opposed to what they considered the “superstition” of revealed religion, and were in turn distrusted by the Catholic Church. The original English Lodge claimed in 1723 that “we ..... are resolved against all Politicks,” and defined its aim as the conciliation of “true friendship among persons who must otherwise have remained at a perpetual distance.” In France the Masonic program paralleled the universal liberalism of the Encyclopaedists; in Germany it moralistically became “an exercise of Brotherly Love [whereby] we are taught to regard the whole human species as one family, the high and the low, the rich and the poor.” Clearly, there were two interlaced strands to such concerns, one psychological and even mystical, the other political. Gradually the Masons bifurcated: one camp, the Rosicrucians, stressed the psychological aspeers of the creed, while the other, the self-styled Illuminati, became politically subversive—at least in the frightened eyes of the ecclesiastical establishment. By the end of the century a hysterical establishment could even maintain that the new Illuminati were directly responsible for the French Revolution. The charge was paranoid: even Franz Heinrich Ziegenhagen, who in 1792 boldly advocated a classless society, believed that it could be peacefullv attained through education. In any case, not even the enlightened took any notice of him; the rich did not surrender their loot, let alone their inherited wealth, to the common weal. The very starry-eyed Ziegenhagen committed suicide in 1806.

Gluck and Haydn were both Masons, and it is obvious that the Mozart who, quoting the Latin tag, “deemed nothing human alien” to him would have relished the political aspects of Masonry. It is also unsurprising that Masonic creeds appealed to him at the deeper, Rosicrucian levels, as they did, still more, to the Beethoven of the Missa Solemnis. Shifts of emphasis in Mozart’s music, after he formally became a Mason in 1784, are unmistakable, if discreet; it cannot have been fortuitous that in these years he made an exhaustive study of the counter-point of Bach, the greatest of all religious composers. Fugue, especially as practiced by Bach, is the most fundamental principle of unity in European music, as opposed to the duality of the sonata, the compositional principle that was the essence of Mozart’s work. The somewhat frenzied intensity of Mozart’s conscious exercises in Bachian fugue— such as the C-minor Adagio and Fugue for string quartet or two pianos— suggests that the idiom didn’t come to him naturally. What matters, however, is the effect his studies had on the general tenor of his creation. In particular, the final trinity of symphonies, written over a remarkably short time span, embraces polyphony and counterpoint at once more complex and more lucid than was common in Mozart’s earlier works. Together the three symphonies amount to a magnificent Masonic credo. No. 39 is in the Masonic-ritual key of E-flat major, symbolizing the three knocks on the door to enlightenment; no. 40 is in Mozart’s “tragic” G minor, delineating a purgatorial progress; no. 41, in “white” C major, represents the triumph of light, climaxing in a synthesis of opposites—of homophony with polyphony, of the dualistic principle of sonata with the monistic principle of fugue. The string quintets, perhaps the greatest of Mozart’s chamber works, likewise reinterpret the social aspects of Masonry in psychological terms; the G minor, in particular, is an initiation, agon, and rebirth such as Masonic ritual re-enacted, in emulation of the Eleusinian mysteries. Significantly, the tragic pain of this quintet dissolves in a major apotheosis that reminds us of Papageno.

And of course it is Mozart’s Singspiel, The Magic Flute, that in directly invoking the Orpheus story reveals how Masonic initiates hoped to reintroduce transcendence into humanitarian ethics. Written in Mozart’s last year, for a vaudeville theater run by Emanuel Schikaneder (himself a Mason), it embraces a diversity of manners from grand opera to street song and an eighteenth-century equivalent of the TV jingle. It seems confused, as do we, because it deals with a world in transition, as is ours. We have noted that Mozart himself was profoundly ambivalent: a Roman Catholic who dispatched his lecherous Giovanni, tragicomic symbol of modern libido, to hell; but also a Mason dedicated to enlightenment through reason, social benevolence, and a liberal education. He could not—his Shakespearean stature depends on this—passively accord with an either-or view of the human condition. Both rational thought and irrational belief had their own truths. Like Blake, his near-contemporary, Mozart knew that “without Contraries [there] is no Progression.”

S O MOZART’S MASONIC OPERA PROVES TO BE NOT SO MUCH ABOUT the conflict between darkness and light as about the new man and woman who are born of it. When the Masonic vow of silence forbids Tamino, the hero on trial, to speak to his beloved Pamina, her anguish parallels that of Eurydice when Orpheus is forbidden to look back. But Pamina does not just “fade away” of her sorrow, as does Gluck’s Eurydice; she sings what is perhaps the most sublime aria even Mozart ever wrote —in G minor, of course, in a slow siciliano rhythm, as though the pulse is dying of inanition. The arching melody drops balm; the Neapolitan progressions and German sixths of the harmony at once hurt and heal. Spiritually, if not in the superficies of technique, the air, mating operatic aria, folk song, and hymn, is the most Bach-like music Mozart ever wrote—certainly far more so than the self-conscious imitation of a Bach fugue he experimented with in that C-minor Adagio and Fugue.

Pamina, saving herself from despairing suicide by her song, becomes the agent of redemption in presumptively eternal love between a man and a woman. In this sense she, not Tamino, is the central character, and the redemption she achieves is comically echoed in the subplot of Papageno and Papagena. He, a bird-man halfway between nature and us, is also saved from suicide (probably in his case a mock suicide), by the appearance of three magic boys, who advise him to resort to his musical bells—a demotic substitute for Orpheus’ lyre. As he tinkles them, his bird-girl Papagena is restored to him “alive and well”; and although these bird- innocents cannot graduate to light along with Tamino and Pamina (the new world’s new man and woman), their smaller rebirth offers to the commonest common folk, including you and me, the possibility of at least a mini-redemption. It is Pamina, the catalyst between masculine intellect and feminine intuition, who makes this at all possible. In being herself restored to life, she, like Persephone, restores the world. Day and night, man and woman, reason and love, are mutually incarnate.

The orthodox morality of the Enlightenment adhered, of course, to the well-illuminated notion of God as Master Mechanic and First Architect and Mason . Even though the mystery latent in Masonic pilgrimage appealed to the Enlightenment cult of Hellenism and the Exotick, rational man could only blench at the irrationality (and still more the feminism!) thus revealed. Nonetheless, the truly great artists of the time were great precisely because they didn’t blench. Mozart’s last works, despite their light-shedding sociability, are profoundly death-haunted. One thinks not only of the irrational pluralism of The Magic Flute, with its descent into the dark labyrinth that the legendary Orpheus confronted, but also of the Concerto for Clarinet, a relatively new instrument much favored by Masons for its mysterious tone color—especially the concerto’s slow movement, wherein the soloist chants a sublime melody that, like Pamina’s G-minor aria, is a hybrid of an operatic aria, an innocent folk song, and a wise Sarastro-like Masonic hymn. This is music of man-woman reborn, to make, it is hoped, a newly democratic world. There are hints of this hopefulness even in the explicitly death-dedicated Requiem that Mozart embarked on in response to a commission from a mysterious dark-livened stranger. Although the man was in fact the harmless emissary of a count who wanted to pass off the piece as his own memorial tribute to a deceased wife, the incident seemed sinister to the ailing, overworked Mozart, who feared that the requiem might be for himself.

Such it proved, in the sense that Mozart died before he could finish it; and there is an added irony in the fact that he had inadequate time for the task because of pressure to complete an old-fashioned opera seria, La Clemenza di Tito designed to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia. A great paradox remains, even though Leopold was a benevolent despot with Masonic inclinations.

M OZART SURVIVED FOR ONLY HALF OF HIS BIBLICALLY ALLOTTED threescore years and ten, and living with such brief intensity, he seemed to have been more than normally death-conscious. On this subject he wrote a remarkable letter to his father.

                    I need not tell you with what anxiety I await better news from you. Since death (take my words literally) is the true goal of our lives, I have made myself so well acquainted with this true and best friend of man that the idea of it no longer has terrors for me, hut rather much that is tranquil and comforting. And I thank God that he has granted me the good fortune to obtain the opportunity of regarding death as the key to our true happiness. I never lie down in bed without considering that, young as I am, perhaps on the morrow I may be no more. Yet not one of those who know me could say that I am morose or melancholy, and for this I thank my Creator daily and wish heartily that the same happiness may be given to my fellow men.

Although Mozart remained formally a Catholic as well as a Mason, we cannot know whether he preserved a traditionally Catholic view of life after death. But we can say that such a belief is not necessarily latent in that extraordinary letter, nor in the consummate perfection of the music he wrote in his last year. This music leaves nothing to be said. Had Mozart lived longer, he would presumably have added something to a musical experience that seems already all-inclusive, but it is impossible to imagine what. In this he differs from Schubert, who died even younger, leaving us with a tragic sense of potentialities on the brink of fulfillment. We can speculate on the implications of the fact that Schubert could indeed should, have survived well after the first performance of Tristan but we cannot think of Mozart in those chronological terms. Even the slightest work of his final year seems to exist independent of time and place. In the little piece for glass harmonica, K617 in the cantata composed for Masonic rites, K619; and above all in the last of the string quintets, K614 (in the Masonic key of E-flat major), we find a new idiom: luminously diaphanous, not so much seeking the light as letting light through; seemingly of childlike simplicity, yet fraught with lacrimae rerum. Such diver-timenti diverted Mozart, no doubt, and they would divert a company of angels; but they are poles apart from the serenades and cassations of his boyhood, and are no longer music to eat or to chatter to. It almost seems as though Mozart had relinquished the task of writing music for a society that of its nature is as ephemeral as a dream. He now wrote in a celestial drawing room, where the only audience was himself and silence (and he, having fathered the music, did not need to listen): just as Bach in his last years, composing The Art of Fugue in an out-moded fashion, played to himself in an empty church.


The ATLANTIC Monthly

Vol. 269. No. 1 January 1992. (pgs. 100-104)

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