January 27, 2006


The Major Minor Mozart (Terry Teachout, Commentary)

To appreciate the difference between Mozart’s minor- and major-key works, it helps to look at what they have in common.

To my mind, no one has done a better job of concisely explaining what makes Mozart Mozart than Donald Tovey, whose essay on the G Minor Symphony, K. 550, the greatest of the minor-key works, is a convenient starting point. Tovey offers a seeming paradox that will startle many readers: “We can only belittle and vulgarize our ideas of Mozart by trying to construe him as a tragic artist.” What could he possibly mean, especially with reference to the G Minor Symphony, still widely regarded as the locus classicus of tragedy in music? The answer, Tovey replies, is that Mozart was up to something altogether different: “Mozart’s whole musical language is, and remains throughout, the language of comic opera.”

This bald-faced assertion, so surprising at first glance, turns out on closer inspection to be all but self-evident. From the rush and bustle of the outer movements of the G Minor Symphony (whose compositional language Tovey likens to Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville) to the wittily “theatrical” exchanges between soloist and orchestra in the later piano concertos, one finds in Mozart’s mature instrumental works an abundance of proof that he thought of all his music in dramatic terms—and that the kind of “drama” he had in mind was 18th-century opera buffa, abstracted at times to the point of sublimity but still essentially comic.

For the Romantic of deepest hue, such a claim must necessarily have the effect of trivializing Mozart’s minor-key music. But Mozart himself, lest we forget, was not a Romantic—indeed, Romanticism per se did not exist in his lifetime—and thus was not afflicted by the paralyzing idea that comedy is unserious. As Tovey goes on to say:

If we are to understand Mozart, we must rid our minds of the presumption that a tragic issue is intrinsically greater than any other. . . . [I]t is not only difficult to see depths of agony in the rhythms and idioms of comedy, but it is not very intelligent to attempt to see them. Comedy uses the language of real life; and people in real life often find the language of comedy the only dignified expression for their deepest feelings.

Still, there remains a vast difference between the expressive effects of the “Jupiter” and G Minor Symphonies. Though both were shaped in the mold of opera buffa, few listeners will fail to hear lightness and liberation in the one and dark introspection in the other. Can this be explained solely by a failure of historical imagination on our part? Or is the difference between the two works as real as we feel it to be?

While Stanley Sadie does not directly address this question in Mozart: The Early Years, he does deal specifically and in detail with Mozart’s youthful embrace of the minor key, and in so doing sheds invaluable light on the style that is heard for the first time in the “Little” G Minor Symphony, K. 183, composed in 1773.

In discussing this work, Sadie is quick to place it in its proper historical context. Not only had other composers of the Sturm und Drang school already turned out numerous minor-key symphonies full of “syncopated repeated notes, snapped rhythms, tremolandos, large leaps, urgently repeated phrases, and forceful orchestral unison passages,” but Mozart himself had included similarly impassioned minor-key passages in his early operas. As Sadie rightly concludes: “[W]e have to be on guard against any facile assumption that Mozart and his contemporaries brought the same emotional associations to such music as we do today.”

Yet, having issued this warning, Sadie goes on to declare the “Little” G Minor Symphony to be Mozart’s “first ‘great’ work, his earliest, it seems to 20th-century listeners, to enter the realms of serious human feeling.” And for all his understandable wariness about reading Romantic preconceptions into a piece of classical music, Sadie is surely right to use such unabashedly emotive language to describe the “Little” G Minor. However much Mozart may have drawn on earlier examples, however deeply rooted the symphony is in the classical style, it is hard to hear it without sensing that the seventeen-year-old Mozart had for the first time grasped the nettle of life.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 27, 2006 6:25 AM

Mozart @ 250 rocks!

Posted by: Jayson at January 27, 2006 11:23 PM
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