Last Burst of Creative Genius

In the rarefied world of musicology, it is quite a sensation for the greatest living Bach scholar, now well into his seventies, to turn his hand to Mozart. Yet Christoph Wolff, who has taught at Harvard since 1976 and for the last decade also run the Bach Archive in Leipzig, is no stranger to Mozart. The author of a monograph on the Requiem, he has long argued that Mozart’s discovery of the polyphony of Bach and Handel “led to a wholly new kind of form, style, and sound image, with nothing backward-looking about it”. The impact of the north German masters, combined with the patronage of the enlightened Emperor Joseph II, made possible the spectacular efflorescence of Mozart’s last four years — an unprecedented burst of creativity that was unexpectedly and cruelly cut short by his early death in 1791.

What, then, was the “imperial style” that Mozart developed after 1787, when he became a court composer? In justification, Wolff posits a vaulting ambition to outdo his contemporaries, such as Haydn, and that took flight in the complexity and scale of the last three symphonies, as well as the late chamber music, culminating in the quasi-symphonic string quintets, and the new relationship between words and music implied by “grand opera”, a phrase he first used for The Magic Flute.

In Mozart’s vocal and sacred music, above all, his achievement transcended not only his own time but helped to shape posterity. Wolff cites Wagner’s recognition of The Magic Flute as the cornerstone of German opera, in which “a whole genus of the most surprising novelty seemed born”, but shows how Wagner “missed the point” — that Mozart saw this as “vera opera”, music drama in which the (vernacular) text was no longer a mere libretto but an organic part of the work. 

Such unity of literary and musical language is no less evident in the late works composed in the “higher pathetic style of church music” which, as Constanze later wrote, “had always appealed to his genius”. Wolff argues that Mozart’s late vision of “an all-encompassing idea of pure sacred music” had less to do with intimations of morality than with his engagement in May 1791 by Vienna’s city fathers as an unpaid assistant to the ailing Kapellmeister at St Stephen’s Cathedral, with the prospect of eventually taking over the post in addition to his imperial duties. Nothing in Mozart’s oeuvre speaks to our secular age as poignantly as the transcendental piety of the motet “Ave Verum Corpus” and the Requiem — all the more so since, after its posthumous publication in 1800, the Requiem had no discernible influence on the later generations of Beethoven and Schubert. It was left as a monumental torso, an eternal enigma, unfinished yet unsurpassed.

This superb portrait of Mozart’s frenetic final phase concludes with a groundbreaking analysis of his posthumous fragments. What makes these works in progress so exasperating is that the composer typically “thought through an entire movement in advance”, without necessarily writing down more than a sketch. Wolff makes an educated guess at what was lost in the dozens of works “composed, just not yet written” when Mozart died, but nobody can do justice to these tantalising “fleeting sounds”. “Not meant to be the end,” Wolff writes, “it was a new beginning.”

Wolff’s title, deliberately suggestive of great expectations, is thus a warning against reading the life of Mozart backwards. His death at the age of 35 — the average life expectancy of an 18th-century European — may have been untimely, but it was in no sense the inevitable consequence of declining physical or mental powers. On the contrary: Wolff shows that the composer was enjoying the lifestyle of an aristocrat, living beyond his means in anticipation of a degree of fame and fortune comparable to that of Handel, whose example inspired him. Alas, it was not Wolfgang Amadé (the form of Mozart’s name that he normally used in later life and which is preferred by Wolff) but his widow Constanze who, like Handel, would die rich half a century later.

Mozart gilded every musical genre, and none more so than opera. The history of this most opulent of art forms by Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker give “Mozart’s line of beauty” a prominent place in their narrative — as of course they should. But is beauty the right category to describe a work such as Don Giovanni? Abbate and Parker quote in full his imperial patron’s notorious judgment on Die Entführung aus dem Serail: “Too beautiful for our ears and far too many notes, dear Mozart.” Joseph II may have been tone-deaf, but he was right on both counts. Mozart’s operas are “too beautiful” in the sense that they defy the best efforts of the critic; and they do have “too many notes” in the sense that, as Abate and Parker observe, their hitherto unimaginable instrumental and vocal complexity enabled Mozart to people his operas with much more credible and “psychologically interesting” characters.

It is impossible to cover such a vast field in a single volume without omissions — there is no mention of one of the greatest late romantic operas, Hans Pfitzner’s Palestrina, and such major works as Strauss’s Elektra, Busoni’s Doktor Faust or Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron are given short shrift — but this lucid and lively work has many strengths. Abbate and Parker are especially sensitive to the plasticity of musical terminology and the myriad ways in which voice and orchestra may interact in different traditions. In English, the term “melodramatic” has connotations of artificiality which are the opposite of mélodrame, its French (and German) equivalent, while the Singspiel (“singing play”) of the 18th century ultimately mutates into the Sprechgesang (“speech-song”) of 20th-century expressionism, and in the hands of Mozart opera buffa (comic opera) becomes just as “serious” as opera seria.

Is opera over? Abbate and Parker are inclined to answer with a “yes but”. They see opera as a “staging post” — admittedly one that lasted four centuries, from Monteverdi to Britten — in the grander narrative of musical drama. It is true that few, if any, operas written in the last half century have established themselves beyond a small elite: compare the popularity of Verdi and Puccini to that of their recent countrymen Ligeti and Beria, or the accessibility of Strauss and Berg to that of Henze and Adès. But there is no reason why new opera should not be popular. Sacred music has been revived by such popular contemporary composers as Olivier Messaien, Henryk Gòrecki, Arvo Pärt, James MacMillan and Roxanna Panufnik. Whether this book will prove to be a coda for the story of opera, or the overture to its next phase, depends on the ability of the younger generation to find a new public.

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