"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Mozart Model

Dr. Francis Schaeffer wisely looked to the culture and intellectual traditions of Western civilization for answers to the important question he repeatedly asked in his excelllent writings: How should we then live? I suspect that quite a few of us look to the arts, and particularly the popular arts, with exactly that in mind, whether consciously or otherwise. An excellent look at the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the current Weekly Standard, by Fred Baumann, examines the great composer with that in mind:

. . . [L]istening to Mozart calls to mind (and in some ways turns you into) a certain kind of person, a more complicated sort than we mostly go in for today. Not a redemptive Wagnerian hero or cynical slacker, not a high-minded virtuoso of compassion and/or righteous indignation, not a "realist" or an "idealist," but someone who both acknowledges, lives in, accepts the viewpoint of, and participates in, all human feelings--even the ugly ones, as we see in the marvelous revenge arias given to the Count, Dr. Bartolo, and Figaro--but who also, in the end, maintains as sovereign the viewpoint of rationality and order. . . .

In invoking, and to some degree creating, such a person, Mozart implicitly makes a kind of moral case, a case for how we should live. It is not "aesthetic" in the sense of replacing the moral with formal beauty; it is much closer to what we find in Shakespeare's Tempest or Measure for Measure; i.e., models of a kind of control of the passions that gives them their due. Yet it is presented aesthetically, not through argument or exhortation. . . .

In the end, the romantic hero and the homo economicus turn out to be not basically different, but two sides of the same forged coin. The Mozartean hero, whom we approach, admire, and even learn to resemble, if only slightly, puts them to shame.

It is a figure that we don't meet much otherwise. On sale for generations now have been simpler models of heroism, at their best the superficially cynical but deeply moral idealist (say, Humphrey Bogart) but, more typically, various chest-pounding moralists and romantics.

For that reason--that we tend to operate, as though instinctively, on romantic and post-romantic antitheses about passion and reason--it is, in fact, harder to hear Mozart well today than it used to be. Insofar as his music transcends our categories, we either consign him to the realm of the pretty-pretty or turn him, as some 20th-century criticism did, into a grotesque quasi-existential Angst-ling. And of course, Nietzsche was right that the language of aristocratic, pre-Romantic taste is no longer available to us.

The article makes one want to listen to some Mozart and contemplate how we should then live. It will transform your understanding of the music and of the preternaturally wise and kindhearted man who made it.

8 comments:

James Elliott said...

Curious. The interpretation here is almost directly contrary to the way Mozart lived his life - which is to say, in a libertine fashion.

S. T. Karnick said...

Mozart was by no means the silly character Schaffer's play and especially Forman's film portrayed him to be. In addition, great artists can surpass their personal limitations through the use of the imagination.

brmerrick said...

"...[S]omeone who both acknowledges, lives in, accepts the viewpoint of, and participates in, all human feelings..."

I think this statement goes along with what I appreciate about Mozart (and Haydn) the most: their almost exclusively unique ability to transcend what was otherwise a more uninteresting period of music, marked by hundreds of forgotten composers and their dreadfully simplistic classical forms.

What musicologists can't explain is how these two men, steeped in the "high" classical tradition, were able to sidestep the pitfalls of pandering to the baser human ear as so many of their contemporaries did. Just listen to the opening theme of Mozart's G Minor Symphony (No. 39). Where on earth (or above) did that come from?!?

Listening to Mozart not only improves a man for the reasons that Schaeffer mentioned, but if you understand his contemporary history, it humbles that man as well.

tbmbuzz said...

brmerrick -

One of the aspects of Mozart's genius (and to a lesser extent Haydn's) was his ability to transcend (sometimes very subtly) and break through the shackles of the very rigid restrictions placed on musical structure, form and harmony during the period he lived in. Sometimes the effect is literally unearthly. For instance, listen to the C major chord that quietly and totally unexpectedly slips in toward the end of the slow movement of his Piano Concerto #22 in E flat (I forget at the moment the key of the 2nd movement but I think it's C minor, which of course is related to E flat major). Or the theme of the first movement of his 24th piano concerto, where he uses ALL the notes of the chromatic scale; talk about daring in the context of his period! (Beethoven, of course, is known for subsequently revolutionizing musical forms, but it was Schubert even more who explored new bounds of harmonic progression). Countless examples abound of Mozart's unique genius. IMO he is the best - in every sense of the word - musician Earth has ever produced and comes closer to absolute perfection (in the idealistic meaning of the word) than any human being has before or since.

p.s. You mean his symphony #40 in G minor. :)

S. T. Karnick said...

We must not forget that it is the existence of conventions that enables artists to create astonishing effects by breaking the boundaries in strategic places. As Umberto Eco points out, art is in finding the right balance between convention and innovation.

I too am a great admirer of Haydn, and I think him a great example of Eco's dictum.

I think that brmerrick's characterization of the classical era is rather an unfortunate caricature, in that even the minor music of that time has charms that are absent from even some of the greatest music of the Romantic Era and seldom found at all in the subsequent century. Prettiness is not beauty, but at least it is not ugly.

brmerrick said...

Oops. No. 40 is right. 39 is E-flat Major, an entirely different sound. Thanks for the correction.

"I think that brmerrick's characterization of the classical era is rather an unfortunate caricature, in that even the minor music of that time has charms that are absent from even some of the greatest music of the Romantic Era and seldom found at all in the subsequent century." I guess this makes S.T. Karnick a classicist (or whatever you want to call it), but this is where the discussion gets highly subjective. I disagree that the minor works of the Classical Era hold a candle to the greatest works of the Romantic Era, or the first half of the 20th century, no matter what "charms" are found there. But then, I'm far more interested in the dramatic, emotionally grounded, big-orchestral works of the decades from 1870 to 1950. If that's not your bag, baby, I can dig it.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

For instance, listen to the C major chord that quietly and totally unexpectedly slips in toward the end of the slow movement of his Piano Concerto #22 in E flat

While my knowledge of music is rather limited, I believe what you are talking about is called a Picardy third.

I'll have to dust off my (small) Mozart collection (or find it on the LAN w/iTunes).

S. T. Karnick said...

brmerrick, I think that you have characterized our differences admirably.