The Major Minor Mozart
Two-hundred-fifty years after his birth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is in a class apart, perhaps not the most popular of all classical composers—that prize more likely goes to Beethoven or Bach—but without doubt the most admired. Even at the height of postmodernism with its Nietzschean “transvaluation of all values,” no critic ever seriously tried to question his singular stature, or even to revalue significantly any of his major works. He remained, and remains, untouchable.
No less remarkably, composers and performers join with critics in this consensus.1 One might easily put together an anthology of heartfelt tributes to Mozart’s music, were it not that the result would be so repetitious. Suffice it to quote Aaron Copland, writing in 1956 on the occasion of the Mozart bicentenary:
[W]e can pore over him, dissect him, marvel or carp at him. But in the end there remains something that will not be seized. That is why, each time a Mozart work begins . . . we composers listen with a certain awe and wonder, not unmixed with despair. The wonder we share with everyone; the despair comes from the realization that only this one man at this one moment in musical history could have created works that seem so effortless and so close to perfection.
Some part of Copland’s wonder, of course, must have stemmed from the fact that its object was a child prodigy without formal education who wrote his first symphony at the age of nine and his last one a mere 23 years later, not long before his early death. All prodigies are by definition interesting, but in Mozart’s case the interest is heightened by the fact that he not only died young but left behind an oeuvre so extensive and all-encompassing that it might as well have been the work of a fully mature composer who died at sixty, or even eighty.
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.