Winter apparently wants to have the last word. While I am writing this, it is snowing outside. We usually have no snow in November, December and January, but then, at the end of January and the beginning of February, it’s winter wonderland all over the country. However I am not overly impressed, the snow will be gone within a few days, the birds have been singing for weeks.
My mind is focused on music introducing spring, and few composers are better suited than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Under either the pressure of his father or later the audience in Vienna he mass-produced light, joyful pieces of chamber music or piano concertos meant to please and entertain.
The “Milanese Quartets”
Mozart’s Quartet No. 7 in E flat major, KV 160 (KV 159a) is an excellent example. Short, crisp, buoyant, elegant – the essence of Mozart’s precocious genius and of his emotional sensitivity. He wrote it at the age of 17 in Milan while he was working on his opera “Lucio Silla”. The piece is part of the so-called “Milanese Quartets” (KV 155-160), written in the keys of D, G, C, F, B flat, E flat following the circle of fifths*. It saw its premiere in early 1773 also in Milan.
At the time Mozart’s ambitious father Leopold hoped that his son would be appointed Kapellmeister of the ensemble of Archduke Ferdinand, a prestigious post at the Habsburg court. But the Archduke’s mother, Empress Maria Theresia, strongly opposed this initiative and counselled her son not to embarrass himself with the Mozarts! Leopold Mozart’s ambitions were all too obvious and had made him enemies both at home in Salzburg and at the Imperial Court in Vienna. And Leopold’s multiple initiatives to secure Wolfgang a job not necessarily benefited his son in terms of personal development.
Mozart remains an enigma
Mozart remains an enigma – I am not the first to find that out. The biographies I have read so far by Martin Geck and Eva Gesine Baur, both German writers, point out that the glittering surface of the child prodigy and the genius composer hid a dark face: Judging from his correspondence – which I am about to read – and records of contemporaries, he was a devious, intriguing, narcissistic and vulgar person, adulating the members of Vienna’s high society when he was in need of cash and slandering them when he had got what he wanted. He certainly was a rebel, but the reasons behind Mozart’s rebellion are difficult to grasp: A revolt against his dominant father? A compensation for lack of true parental love?
Elusive as much as a human as a composer – that’s the portrait Geck and Baur paint of Mozart, and I have just order three more books on the composer to see if the authors of these rally to that judgment. Geck and Baur believe that Mozart’s music reflects his character traits in the sense that his compositions break with multiple conventions in the field of music, not obvious to today’s audiences, but more or less scandalous for his contemporaries’ aesthetical sense. In his operas Mozart touched subjects that no one else would dare to take up: the abuse of power, the hypocrisy of the rich, free-masonry… He was keenly aware of the imperial censor and very often proved smart enough to get around him.
I waver between deep admiration and revulsion when it comes to Mozart because I find it impossible to separate the man from his music. His music – there can be no doubt – is among the finest written ever and so for the time being I will let the matter rest and enjoy the recording of Spring Quartet No. 7 in E flat major by – how could it be different – the Amadeus Quartet.
© Charles Thibo