Why Is Mozart Great?

From the book, Mozart and Great Music:

4. Mozart and Great Music thumb

Why Is Mozart Great?

“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination
nor both together go to the making of genius.
Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”
Mozart

Chapter Playlist 1: Mozart and Great Music (3 videos, 17 min)

“In art there is Leonardo da Vinci,
in literature there is Shakespeare,
in music there is Mozart.”
Itzhak Perlman

Why is Mozart great?

Louis Armstrong was once asked, “What is jazz?”

He answered, “Man, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.” Perhaps he would have said something similar about Mozart. But I think we can attempt a partial answer.

Violinist Itzhak Perlman puts Mozart in the company of Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci. And with good reason. Let’s look at Shakespeare and da Vinci.

Shakespeare seems to have surveyed the entire human experience, emotional and intellectual, in his drama and poetry. Later writers see Shakespeare as the banquet of writing in the English language, and they are left taking mere crumbs from his table. In other words, Shakespeare makes later writers feel like there is little left to write about.

One academic, Harold Bloom in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, goes so far as to claim that, in Western culture, Shakespeare has created humans as we know them today.

Da Vinci is the polymath who makes other polymaths appear normal. He transcends as a painter, sculptor, architect, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. He climbed several artistic peaks.

Mozart climbed a musical peak during the Classical era (1730-1820). Unlike many artists today, he was not much interested in charting out his own territory. Like Shakespeare before him, he took what already existed and refined it into greatness. And those who follow feel like there is little left for them.

That’s why beginning in the Romantic era (1780-1910) we begin seeing composers shift into approaching art as self-expression, trying to chart out new territory that has not been conquered.

The end-result in the twentieth century includes works like John Cage’s classical work 4:33 in which four members of a quartet come on stage and sit, playing nothing, for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Or extremely dissonant atonal music that requires educated listeners for full appreciation.

All three—Mozart, Shakespeare, and Da Vinci—
are singular in their respective arts.
To others they appear more than human.

As American biographer Robert Gutman says of Mozart,

“Like all geniuses of his rank,
he stands as a law to himself:
incommensurable, incalculable, sublime.”

But Why Mozart?

Some may wonder why I’ve chosen Mozart rather than Bach, Haydn, or Beethoven.

First some background and dates.

There were four great musical periods in Western classical music before modern and contemporary music. I’ve included a few of the great composers of each period:

  1. Baroque era, 1600-1760
    Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643)
    Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
    George Frederic Handel (1685-1759)
    Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
  2. Classical era, 1730-1820
    Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
    Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827, also part of the early Romantic era)
    Franz Schubert (1797-1828, also part of the early Romantic era)
  3. Romantic era, 1780-1910
    Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
    Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
    Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)
    Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
    Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
    Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
    Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
    Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
  4. Impressionist era, 1875-1925
    Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
    Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
    Frederick Delius (1862-1934)
    Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)

Among all of these great composers who composed Great Art, Mozart stands unique.

How?

Perhaps the only way to get at the answer in words is to see how various musicians, composers, conductors, biographers, and philosophers have attempted to explain Mozart. No other composer generates the kinds of responses that Mozart did.

Two words keep coming up when people speak of Mozart. The first word is some form of the word perfect.

“There is nothing perfect in this world
except Mozart’s music.” 
Thomas Love Peacock,
English novelist and poet

“Mozart tapped the source from which all music flows,
expressing himself with a spontaneity and
refinement and breathtaking rightness.
What we expect to find in Mozart is perfection
in whatever medium he chose to work.”
Aaron Copland,
American composer and conductor

“Mozart’s music is on the one hand so accessible,
so beautiful and so apparently simple that it can be grasped.
But at the same time and enjoyed on its first hearing,
it is so deep, so profound, so perfect
that one can spend a lifetime in it and continue
to be fascinated with it, even if it’s the
hundredth time you’ve performed it.”
James Conlon,
American conductor

“He is up to the present the most
perfect manifestation of musical talent…
His sense of form is almost superhuman.
Like a masterpiece of sculpture or art, his art,
viewed from any side, is a perfect picture.”
Ferruccio Busoni,
Italian composer

“When it comes to Mozart, you’re speaking of
the most extraordinary perfection that exists.
There isn’t anything that is more perfect in music.
And then on top of it the music is so complete;
there is never a piece of music by Mozart,
it doesn’t make any difference if he is 4, 5, 6, or 26,
it’s perfect, totally perfect.”
Pinchas Zukerman,
Israeli violinist and conductor

“It is hard to think of another composer
who so perfectly marries form and passion.”
Leonard Bernstein,
American composer and conductor

“As an artist, as a musician,
Mozart was not a man of this world.
To a certain part of the 19th century his work seemed
to possess so pure, so formally rounded,
so ‘godlike’ a perfection that Richard Wagner,
the most violent spokesman of
 the Romantic Period, could call him
‘music’s genius of light and love.’”
Alfred Einstein,
German-American biographer

The second word that keeps coming up when people speak of Mozart is some form of the word beauty. Not just that the music he writes is beautiful, but also that the music itself somehow embodies the ideal of beauty, the thing itself.

“Mozart’s music is so beautiful
as to entice angels down to earth.”
Franz Alexander von Kleist,
German poet

“Mozart is the greatest composer of all.
Beethoven created his music, but
the music of Mozart is of such purity
and beauty that one feels he merely
 found it—that it has always existed
as part of the inner beauty of the
universe waiting to be revealed.”
Albert Einstein,
German-born physicist and violinist

“Mozart does not give the listener time
to catch his breath, for no sooner is
one inclined to reflect upon a beautiful
inspiration then another appears,
even more splendid, which drives away
the first, and this continues on and on,
so that in the end one is unable to
 retain any of these beauties in the memory.”
Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf,
Austrian composer and violinist

“He is the most generous composer who ever lived.
He showered upon us melody after melody,
character upon character, beauty, upon beauty.”
Robert Harris,
English music critic

“What was evident was that Mozart
was simply transcribing music
completely finished in his head.
And finished as most music is never finished.
Displace one note and there would be diminishment.
Displace one phrase and structure would fall.
I was staring through the cage of those
meticulous ink strokes at Absolute Beauty.”
Peter Shaffer,
English playwright (Amadeus)

“In Mozart’s music,
all intensity are crystallized in the clearest,
the most beautifully balanced and proportioned,
and altogether flawless musical forms.
For one moment in the history of music
all opposites were reconciled; all tensions resolved;
that luminous moment was Mozart.”
Phil Goulding,
American classical music journalist

“Mozart’s mature instrumental music
represents our civilization’s sign for the beautiful.
We cannot think of him without thinking of beauty;
we cannot refer to beauty without recalling his music.
I believe this is so, not necessarily because his works
are more beautiful than those of other composers,
though this may well be true, but because he created—
or, at least, brought into the forefront of
aesthetic consciousness—a special kind of beauty,
one that thenceforth came to exemplify
the idea of superlative beauty itself.”
Maynard Solomon,
American musicologist and biographer

“If we cannot write with the beauty of Mozart,
let us at least try to write with his purity.”
Johannes Brahms,
German composer

But there’s more…

When speaking of Mozart, more than any other composer, people are likely to invoke heaven, the divine, God, miracles, or some other reference to, or experience of, the ultimate.

“Mozart has reached the
boundary gate of music and leaped over it,
leaving behind the old masters and moderns,
and posterity itself.”
Alexander Hyatt King,
English Mozart scholar

“The Mozartian legacy, in brief, is as good
an excuse for mankind’s existence as
we shall ever encounter and is perhaps, after all,
a still small hope for our ultimate survival.”
H. C. Robbins Landon,
American musicologist

“Mozart’s music is the mysterious language
of a distant spiritual kingdom,
whose marvelous accents echo
in our inner being and arouse
a higher, intensive life.”
E.T.A. Hoffmann,
German author, composer, music critic

“The most tremendous genius
raised Mozart above all masters,
in all centuries and in all arts.”
Richard Wagner,
German composer

“Mozart is an utterly unique phenomenon,
indisputably and forever on the
credit side of life’s ledger, so sovereign
and omnipresent that he reconciles
us somewhat to the debit side.
Indeed, Mozart seems to be reconciliation
itself, a kind of redeeming miracle.”
Wolfgang Hildesheimer,
German biographer

“Mozart resolved his emotions on a level
that transformed them into moods
uncontaminated by mortal anguish,
enabling him to express the angelic anguish
that is so peculiarly his own.”
Yehudi Menuhin,
American-born violinist and conductor

“In Bach, Beethoven and Wagner
we admire principally the depth
and energy of the human mind;
in Mozart, the divine instinct.”
Edvard Grieg,
Norwegian composer

“Mozart exists, and will exist, eternally;
divine Mozart—less a name, more a soul
descending to us from the heavens.”
Charles Gounod,
French composer

“Mozart’s joy is made of serenity,
and a phrase of his music is like a
calm thought; his simplicity is merely purity.
It is a crystalline thing in which
all the emotions play a role, but as if
already celestially transposed.”
André Gide,
Nobel Prize-winning French author

“Mozart makes you believe in God
because it cannot be by chance that
such a phenomenon arrives into this world
and leaves such an unbounded number
of unparalleled masterpieces.”
Georg Solti,
Hungarian conductor

“It is thanks to Mozart that I have
devoted my life to music…
Mozart is the highest, the culminating point
that beauty has attained in the sphere of music.
Mozart is the musical Christ.”
Piotr Tchaikovsky
Russian composer

“This is the music that they are going to
play for me when I enter heaven,
or wherever Mozart may be.”
Marcel Maurice,
French clarinetist on Mozart’s Quintet for Clarinet in A

“The angels, left to themselves, play Mozart,
and the dear Lord likes especially
to listen to them then.”
Karl Barth,
Swiss philosopher

“Others may reach heaven with their works.
But Mozart, he comes from there.”
Joseph Krips,
Austrian conductor and violinist

“Once, when filling out an application for a summer job,
on that line next to ‘other’ under the heading of Religion,
I wrote Mozart.
The personnel officer was not amused,
but then, I hadn’t intended it as a joke.
For there was a time when I was convinced that Mozart
was at least as divinely inspired as Moses,
Christ, the Buddha, Lao-tzu, or Mohammed,
and I suppose I still am. For in no other works
of the human imagination can the divine spirit
be heard more distinctly than in the
miraculous music this often vulgar, unpleasant,
and difficult man produced during
his pathetically brief thirty-five years.
Were this book to do him justice,
the section devoted to Mozart’s music
would take up more than half the total pages.”
Jim Svejda,
American music critic, in the 3rd edition of
The Record Shelf Guide to the Classical Repertoire

Are these writers over the top in their praise? Perhaps.

But there is something about Mozart’s music, given enough time and exposure, that elicits such intense reactions.

In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, there is a scene where an innocent man convicted of his wife’s murder goes into the warden’s office and locks everyone out.

Why?

To play a Mozart duettino (a song with two singers) for himself, and eventually, to play it for the entire prison population.

Watch what happens:

Video 1: “Duettino – Sull’aria” from Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), from The Shawshank Redemption

Mozart, when conveyed through inspired performances, is capable of a kind of transport, a sublime movement, into a heavenly experience that transcends physical, emotional, and mental limitations.

Where others are loved for the mental and emotional craft of their music, with occasional passages and moments that arrive in heaven, Mozart appears to naturally dwell there.

Here’s one of the best examples of how a great composer takes listeners on a journey into a heavenly world of emotional and noble passions. In Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor, the transition at the end of the 3rd movement into the 4th movement marks one of the finest transitions ever composed into one of the most heavenly final movements ever.

Video 2: Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in D minor, 4th Movement Allegro

Mozart does not take one on a journey to heaven as much as he is already resident there at the start, unlike so many of his fellow musical composers.

And thus Mozart is unique among musical artists. He is the Shakespeare, the Michelangelo, the Da Vinci of music.

Perhaps there is no way to explain Mozart. Perhaps all we can do is accept the inevitable, as expressed by one Japanese classical pianist and conductor:

“Mozart is inexplicable.”
Mitsuko Uchida

But we are going to give it a try.

One thing to keep in mind is that musicians and conductors can look at a musical score and hear the music as they read the notes. Just as you can read a novel and hear people talk or see what they are doing.

Musical notation is a real language
with as much variety and communication
as the words, sentences, and
subtle meanings written on this page.

Let’s watch Salieri’s reaction to Mozart’s manuscripts in the movie Amadeus as he reads the scores and hears the music:

Video 3: Salieri’s reaction to Mozart’s manuscripts, from Amadeus

What is Salieri hearing? What moves him so profoundly? He knows that what he is hearing is the Divine Voice, and sadly, that he will never get as close to it.

In the next chapter, we focus on one musical example, going more deeply into key aspects of one work. In this way, you will begin to hear things you have not heard before, and you will capture a better picture of what a composer is capable of doing with such an abstract thing as music.

The chapters on Hearing Mozart may be more challenging for some readers. But your efforts will be rewarded. With a little bit of close listening, we can begin training your ear to hear in new ways.

***

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