Mozart: An Overture
In preparing this essay, I have found myself sizing up Mozart as if I were thinking of writing a novel in which he might appear as a character. I was not aware at the outset that this was what I was doing. It was only after I had written half of it that I recognized what I had done.
Mozart is immediately accessible to the naive. Others obviously require preparation. It is no criticism of twelve-tone composers, to choose an obvious example, to note that they oblige us to give some thought to the formal assumptions they expect us to share. Mozart, however, can be loved freely and naturally by amateurs. It is because I am an amateur that I have been invited to discuss Mozart, and I intend to make the most of my amateur standing, bypassing the problems that intrigue and vex the learned specialists I have read in my efforts to get a handle of my own on this subject.
My best course is to convert ignorance to an advantage. What follows is a confession, supplemented by such tentative ideas as are bound to flutter out when any of us makes an open declaration of this sort. I shall begin by saying that there are corners of my existence which from the first were furnished by Mozart. It does not seem to me that any other musical tenant ever had to be moved out to make room for him. I had an older sister-much my senior-who played the piano. She did not play particularly well. She was a perfect metronome (metrognome) of a pianist, but she did familiarize me with Mozart.
There was a manufacturer in Chicago by the name of Gulbrantsen, and in his advertisements, painted on brick walls, an infant was shown pressing the pedals of a piano. The legend was: "The richest child is poor without a musical education." This was a warning taken seriously by parents in the Midwest. I was given violin lessons at an early age. Many of the music teachers were refugees from revolutionary Russia. Mine was a stout gloomy man from Odessa seeking a prodigy, a second Heifetz or Menuhin or Elman, to make his reputation. Obviously I lacked the gifts he was looking for, and he would snatch the bow and whip my bottom with it. He was so peevish and futile that I was more amused than hurt. I did, somehow, learn to fiddle adequately, and until middle age I was on the lookout for amateur musicians like myself and had the pleasure occasionally of playing Mozart sonatas arranged for duets and trios. In my student years I was an unpaid usher at the Auditorium Theater; the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the San Carlo Opera came regularly to Chicago. Samuel Insull, the utilities tycoon, gave the city an opera house (before he fled to Greece and had to be extradited). International celebrities were brought to Orchestra Hall by Hurok the impresario. There were excellent teachers of theory and music history and first-rate performers at the south end of the Loop. Although I was not trained in a conservatory, I absorbed a considerable amount of music, and while I preferred books to instruments, there were odd corners of my existence reserved for Handel, Mozart, Pergolesi, etc.
I have now explained my amateur standing and will go on to the confessions I promised. But what does one confess today, when the worst of the sins have become venial? It is the violation of orderly process of thought as prescribed by the higher rationality that throws you into sin. To be unscientific is in our time a grave mental offense.
Some of my speculations on Mozart are notably unscientific. I often puzzle over the nature of his genius. How was it that it should appear so early and develop so swiftly and be so complete? Was it because his father was an educator of corresponding genius? Nobody ever suspected genius of any sort in Leopold. Neither do the educational or genetic contributions of his mother strike his biographers as exceptional. Mozart, to borrow a figure from William Blake, was a piece of ground already spaded and seeded. It looks, in other words, as if he had brought it all with him. And then I think of other prodigies born into mathematical or musical families. The mature forms assumed by these exceptional creatures are not to be accounted for by environmental or historical theories. They resemble the flowers or the insects, they have powers that astonish and physiological refinements or resources of intelligence too curious to be explained by probability theory or the ponderous slowness of time, or by trial and error. What they suggest is the intervention of invisible purposes. "To a certain extent," writes Alfred Einstein, "it is true that Mozart was only a visitor upon this earth. Mozart as a man was nowhere truly at home: neither in Salzburg, where he was born, nor in Vienna, where he died."
At the heart of my confession, therefore, is the hunch that with beings such as Mozart we are forced to speculate about transcendence, and this makes us very uncomfortable, since ideas of transcendence are associated with crankiness or faddism-even downright instability and mental feebleness. These are the charges and the guilts you open yourself to when you confess that you find it impossible to dismiss such speculations. To some reasonable minds this might lead to the limiting of art-art in which religious or other "undesirable" tendencies survive-to ceremonial or traditional observances. On occasions like the present one: occasions of cultural piety.
Music, I assume (amateurishly), is based on a tonal code containing, inevitably, expressions of the whole history of feeling, emotion, belief-of essences inseparable from what we call our "higher life." I suggest also that this is where we tend to go when we have gone as far as we can in the new positive orthodoxies that keep us within bounds-the assumptions which our education and the business of the world have trained us to accept as normal, practical, and indispensable: the founding postulates of our scientific and technological achievements.
From all this a Mozart gives us an orderly and also an emotional exit-an endlessly rich and exalted release.
I don't want to make too much of this notion of a profound originality coming from God knows what source. I invoke it as a corrective to the earthbound psychology that rules our minds in this century. It does no harm to be reminded that this psychology is painfully limiting to the intelligence and is often little more than a convenient way to dispose of troublesome intimations of a forbidden nature. The miracles that fascinate us are the scientific and technological ones. These have changed space, time, and nature. To positivists ours is an object world ruled by ideas. A contemporary environment is made up of such embodied ideas-ideas of residence, transportation, seeing and hearing at a distance, etc. By means of such ideas (and they are highly sophisticated) the earth itself has been humanized. This is simple enough to see, and externally self-explanatory. Press a switch and you will see people, you will hear them speak. Few of us, however, can explain the techniques by which this is accomplished.
Years ago I read a curious book by Ortega y Gasset called The Revolt of the Masses. In it Ortega explains what a Mass Man is: he is not invariably a proletarian-educated professionals may also be mass men. This is not the place to explain what Ortega was talking about. Only one of his arguments concerns me here: he says that the Mass Man is unable to distinguish between a natural object or process and an artifact, a second-nature object. He takes it for granted, as part of the order of things, that when he enters an elevator and presses the button he will go up. When mechanisms fail, when, for instance, elevators do not rise or buses do not arrive, the spirit in which he protests reveals that he understands elevators or buses to be free commodities like daylight or the universal availability of breathable air.
To congratulate ourselves, however, on our educated enlightenment is simply an evasion of the real truth. We the "educated" cannot even begin to explain the technologies of which we make daily use. We speak of electronics or cybernetics-but it is all in vain. Natural processes are beyond us too, and despite our talk of lipids or carbohydrate metabolism, we understand virtually nothing about the physiology of digesting or the transmission of nerve impulses. Face-to-face with the technological miracles without which we could not live our lives, we are as backward as any savage, though education helps us to conceal this from ourselves and others. Indeed, it would utterly paralyze us to ponder intricate circuits or minicomputers, or attempt to gain a clear understanding of the translation of the discoveries of particle physics into modern arms.
These, however, are the miracles for which we have a very deep respect and which, perhaps, dominate our understanding of what a miracle is. A miracle is what brings people to Australia in ten hours. And we owe this to the scientific revolution.
What I am calling to your attention is entirely transparent. No other generation in history has lived in a world miraculously transformed by readily available artifacts. Ortega y Gasset notwithstanding, we are by and large no better at distinguishing nature from artifice than his Mass Man. Worse, we have lost Ortega's old-fashioned confidence in our power to explain what nature is. Can we say that we comprehend the metabolic internal blizzard that converts matter into energy?
Our assignment, in one sense, is simply to man the artifacts that technology provides in ever more esoteric and miraculous variations. But what of the music of Don Giovanni or Cos“ Fan Tutte considered as a miracle-as a comprehensive revelation of what Eros can be in two such different outpourings of sound?
I suppose almost everyone would feel that just as the principles behind a product of technology can be fully grasped if we determine to study the method laid down for us by intelligent beings whom basically we resemble, we will be able also to give a full account of these operas. But when we try to do that, the music brings us to a standstill. There is a dimension of music that prohibits final comprehension and parries or fends off the cognitive habits we respect and revere. We appear to feel that we are riding the crest of a wave of comprehension that has already overcome nature, and we are committed to the belief that there are no mysteries-there is only the not-yet-known. But I think I have made myself clear. We are as ignorant of fundamentals as human beings ever were. Self-respect demands that we appear to be "with it."
And perhaps what I have been saying is related to the growing importance of Mozart, for as the twentieth century concludes, his Romantic rivals seem less great than they did fifty or sixty years ago. The most accomplished of contemporary music historians, writers like the brilliant Wolfgang Hildesheimer, feel that he is the sort of man we find singularly familiar, and Peter Porter some time ago in an Encounter essay (June 1983) wrote that Mozart "seems a modern man," closer to ourselves than Bach, "a personality in sight and comprehensible to our temperament." He goes on to say that there is enough evidence (by which he means documentary evidence-correspondence, personal reminiscences, data brought to light by researchers) "to induce a great sadness when we consider Mozart's life. It will not look like a triumph, it refuses to allow us to escape an uncomfortable if anachronistic sense of guilt; no arrangement of facts or twisting of fiction, from the sugary distortions of Sacha Guitry to the demeaning simplifications of Peter Schaffer's Amadeus, will fit Mozart out in the garments of vindication or apotheosis. He is so very unlike Beethoven, a titan of a very different sort."
Now, "modern" is a curious term: it can be used to degrade as well as (or more often than) to elevate. It can mean decadent, degenerate, nihilistic, abysmal, at one end-or it can signify a capacity to overcome contemporary disorder, or to adumbrate a stage in the formation of a new superiority, or to begin to distill a new essence. It can mean that the best of contemporary minds show qualities of power, subtlety, scope, and resourcefulness, of infinite plasticity, adaptability, of the courage to cope with all that world history has dumped on the generations of this present age. "The human mind," E. M. Forster observed, "is not a dignified organ." And he called upon us to "exercise it sincerely."
In Mozart's case, "sincerity" is a marginal consideration, since he was not obliged to seek the truth in German, French, Italian, or English. His objective was not sincerity; it was bliss. But as we will all understand immediately, the view that the mind is not a dignified organ is modern. It is exactly what we expect. It is this casualness, irony, levity, that we seem in our time to take for granted. The starchiness of nineteenth-century ideals, the pompousness of twentieth-century dictators, are rejected and mocked as dangerous and false. Reading about Mozart's personal life, we recognize that he was informal, to say the least, sans faon. He struck no attitudes-the very idea of "genius" was alien to him. From his letters we see that as an observer he was singularly modern. Let me give a few examples of this. Here is his description of the Archduke Maximilian, a brother of the emperor and the new Archbishop of Cologne:
When God gives man a sacred office, He generally gives him understanding; and so it is, I trust, in the case of the Archduke. But before he became a priest, he was far more witty and intelligent and talked less, but more sensibly. You should see him now. Stupidity oozes out of his eyes. He talks and holds forth incessantly and always in falsetto-and he has started a goitre. In short, the fellow has changed completely. (1781-aetat. 35)
And here is his description of a Dominican monk from Bologna:
. . . regarded as a holy man. For my part I do not believe it, for at breakfast, he often takes a cup of chocolate and immediately afterwards a good glass of strong Spanish wine; and I have myself had the honor of lunching with this saint who at table drank a whole decanter and finished up with a full glass of strong wine, two large slices of melon, some peaches, pears, five cups of coffee, a whole plate of cloves, and two full saucers of milk and lemon. He may of course be following some sort of diet, but I do not think so, for it would be too much; moreover, he takes several little snacks during the afternoon. . . . (21 August 1770)
Copyright © 2018 by Saul Bellow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.