Some guys have it and some guys don’t. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, now over 250 years old, obviously had it. By age eight he was already writing symphonies you can still hear on the radio. And there is no sign that the Mozart fad will blow over very soon.
A couple of years later he was writing operas, which culminated, for me, in The Magic Flute toward the end of his short life. To my mind the saddest fact in musical history is that he died at 35. Nobody can imagine what his inexhaustible imagination would have produced if he’d been granted another five years. If he’d lived to threescore and ten, there would have been no need for Beethoven, whom I also adore.
Actually, if the two men’s lives had overlapped more, each might have inspired the other to new heights in a sort of divine rivalry. I can just imagine Mozart’s reaction to the Eroica symphony: “Not bad, kid! Not bad at all! But watch this!” And then he would have written an even better symphony under the influence of his younger rival, who, not to be outdone, would have come back with his own miracle, and so on, until all our lives were so full of astonishing sounds that the enraptured world would never go to war again.
You can argue that Mozart’s music alone should have had this effect, and I can’t quarrel with that. Franz Josef Haydn’s long life enveloped his, and these two geniuses did, in fact, inspire each other. The sweetest anecdote I know of is that when the excellent composer Cherubini heard that Haydn had died, he wrote a symphony in his honor; but the report was false, and old Haydn was so moved that he journeyed to thank Cherubini in person. The two men embraced. Now and then life does play wonderful jokes on us.
My own formal musical education ended, to my eternal regret, when I drove my piano teacher insane at the age when Mozart was probably improvising cute little fugues. My own first opera remains unfinished; it seems in retrospect a rather conventional sort of opera, with a lot of Italians stabbing each other, and that’s about as far as it got when I ran out of ideas. I am still convinced of my untapped potential, however, and I shouldn’t have let myself get discouraged when I discovered that my plot had been anticipated by Verdi.
Verdi is another composer who is hard to top. Though he has unfortunately contributed to the impression that Italians are always stabbing each other, he wrote melodies as simple, lovely, and unforgettable as primary colors. He shared this rare gift with Mozart and few others. Even those who do it once may never do it again. Mozart seemed to toss them off at will, as in the all-too-brief wedding march in The Marriage of Figaro, which, like the composer’s life, should have gone on forever.
Wagner’s legacy is more complex and ambiguous. He was undoubtedly a musical genius, but he did much to strengthen the stereotype of Germans as people who just never know when to shut up. (The philosopher Hegel must also bear some of the blame for this.)
Neither Verdi nor Wagner, then, can be said to have contributed much to the cause of world peace. But if we ever achieve it, Mozart will certainly deserve some of the credit. Beethoven did his bit, too, with the Choral Symphony, but nobody wrote for voices the way Mozart did. I never knew how beautiful a tenor voice—or any other human sound—could be until I heard Fritz Wunderlich sing Mozart; it takes a superb soprano to sing the Queen of the Night’s arias at all, but a surprising number have done so, and Mozart’s religious music is enough to shake any atheist’s self-confidence: If there is no God, how can there be harmonies like these? (“Survival of the fittest” doesn’t seem to explain them.)
None of Mozart’s contemporaries heard more than a fraction of his work. Thanks to modern recording, you and I can hear nearly all of it without leaving home. More than two centuries after his early death, he is still bringing out the best in the human race.
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Copyright © 2010 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was originally published by Griffin Internet Syndicate on January 26, 2006 and appears here by permission.