Young Mozart

On November 27, National Public Radio broadcast an interview with international mega-star violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the splendid ensemble pianist Lambert Orkis, who are releasing their four-CD set of Mozart sonatas for piano and violin. My wife and I had had the pleasure of meeting and hearing the pianist this past summer, so neither his eloquence nor his superb playing were in any way surprising, and Mutter was the same. What a pleasure to hear a melody introduced with no vibrato at all—Mutter is a modern violinist, remember—and then enlivened, on the repeat, with tasteful vibrato, a richer tone, and a deepened spirit. Ensemble was tight, witty, and utterly natural. Particularly interesting to me, though, was a remark of Mutter’s.

She observed that a mature musical and stylistic command is present even in Mozart’s youthful piano/violin sonatas; even though he had no real life experience by such an early point in life, there is an emotional human maturity even in the early music. As to why, she can only attribute it to the fact that he had a “God-given genius.” I would never disagree, but I suspect—offering a silent prayer that I am neither delusional nor hubristic about this—that there may be an identifiable mechanism here about which we can make a few observations. I cannot comment on the immensity of Mozart’s genius, but the way musical genius in the eighteenth century translates into emotional maturity in art is worth examining.

As is well known, music in the second half of the eighteenth century had a largely codified grammar, which informed compositional approaches to form, succession and admixture of ideas, combinatoriality and so on, drawing on rhetorical and even epistolary protocols. (Our understanding of this musical grammar is continually being refined, but that it existed much as we understand it is not a matter of debate.) As Leonard Ratner (and others after him) demonstrated, though, European music also had a widely understood and shared vocabulary of topical and stylistic gestures, a few examples being hunt, military, and pastoral styles, funeral march, storm, and so forth. These gestures lie on the musical surface—what you hear right now, not how the ideas succeed one another or relate to each other—and so there was a generally fixed idea of what any given piece was “talking about”: hunting symphonies usually featured horncall gestures and galloping 6/8 meter, pastoral pieces had bagpipe-like drones flute-like parallel thirds in the upper register, occasional archaic harmony, and so on. Common Practice musical language was thus a symbolic language, and spoke of various kinds of human experience in a way that was broadly comprehended, as is easily demonstrated by numerous works of different composers, times, and nationalities that use the same basic gestures.

What I suspect is that Mozart as musical prodigy was able to apprehend the vocabulary and syntax of the music of his time, with the taste and command and “rightness” that we always notice and wonder at in musical prodigies, and therefore to “speak” it, therefore to discourse symbolically on human experience, more eloquently than others. Musical geniuses always excite wonder, but prodigious readers, writers, and talkers seem to be far more common: everyone has a brilliant grandchild, no? He reads constantly, she’s always writing her own stories, and so on. Imagine what a voracious young reader of novels can pick up about human nature, without having necessarily earned the knowledge him or herself with bitter experience. Imagine, moreover, the same principle, but working through the fewer “words” and more fixed syntactical patterns of eighteenth-century western music—myriad right choices, as dictated by one’s instinct, taste, and knack, but very clear wrong ones. Since music symbolically referenced mature human experience, so the precocious Mozart could express himself on a mature emotional level via the mastery of the symbolic language itself, without having yet suffered and bled in his own life.

This takes nothing away from Mozart. He was the supremely gifted child of an extremely bright and accomplished father, and his musical opportunities (including travel) might have been unparalleled in his own time. Born into an epoch with a largely codified musical language, he was able to parse it like any other language and communicate on an emotional level that would otherwise have not been open to a child. It does not seem as likely that a child born into another time and place would have had the same opportunity, no matter how talented, because musical languages themselves are often so much more varied and diffuse than in the latter part of the eighteenth century.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to Young Mozart

  1. Andrew says:

    very interesting take on what made Mozart possible. Any recommendations on a good primer for those interested in the common practice music symbolism you mentioned?

  2. Elsie says:

    Really good ideas about Mozart and his genius here. I think you get right to the core of it in the final paragraph:”he was able to parse it like any other language” – the mature emotional output of the young Mozart seems to have emerged only through his intellectual gifts – which poses interesting questions as to how we respond to allegedly emotional gestures in music generally.

  3. Jonathan Bellman says:

    The starting point is Leonard Ratner, *Classic Music: Expression, Form, and Style* (New York: Schirmer Books, 1980), especially the first thirty pages on topics. I studied with Ratner at Stanford, when I got my doctorate, and that book is fundamental to the way I understand musical language. His students Wye Jamison Allanbrook and Kofi Agawu have continued this semiotic/linguistic tradition in the classical style. Branching into the nineteenth century (when the vocabulary changed and developed but was still functioning in a largely similar way), I’ve done a few things, and if you can get your hands on Janice Dickensheets’s (now my colleague) dissertation, she has a huge chapter that’s a lexicon of C19 styles. This field is–at long last–really expanding; I think most of us in this field think that when one studies music as a language it’s good to know what the “words” mean.

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