Harnoncourt on Mozart

On my desk this week is the Mozart Requiem, a piece I’m coming back to for the first time since 2002. I can scarcely think of a piece by any composer that affects me the way this one does. It is not easy music to study- it is as terrifying, as personal and as painful as music, or any other part of the human experience, gets.

I recently found a wonderful speech from Nikolaus Harnoncourt on the subject of Mozart, which I think gives readers a good starting point for re-thinking what Mozart is really about, and expresses more artfully than I seem to be able to the demands this music makes of us. You can (and should) read the whole thing here.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt gave this speech at the opening of the festivities in commemoration of the 250 birthday of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria (January 27, 2006).

As I consider the symphony by Mozart to be the real opening speech, I would like to welcome you beforehand…

…Mozart composed over 40 symphonies but only two are in G minor. At that time G minor was sensed as the key of death but also as the key of sadness…

We´ll now play the first two movements.

Now, after this incredible music, where every language becomes impoverished and we ought to be silent, I am now supposed to say something about Mozart and if possible about this year as well? No, no festive address is appropriate for this music. How can I find something else to say about Mozart? Nobody can but everybody is doing so now. In this year Austria is synonymous with Mozart. But this has nothing to do with him. I am afraid it is more a matter of making money and doing business. In actual fact we ought to be ashamed of ourselves. What Mozart demands of us and has demanded of us for over 200 years would be so simple: we should listen very quietly and attentively and if we could understand his wordless entreaties and pleas, then as I´ve said already, we really ought to be ashamed of ourselves rather than puffed up with pride.

We are now celebrating him and it almost sounds as if we want to celebrate ourselves. However, we have absolutely no reason to be proud of anything to do with Mozart. That was true already when he lived in Salzburg and in Vienna. He demands something of us with the unrelenting austerity of the genius and we offer him our celebrations with their economic multiplier effect and business transactions and we allow his music to dribble out in bits and pieces from all sorts of marketing channels. This should simply not be so. It is scandalous and a disgrace, how can it be tolerated? Nevertheless if such a year of reflection is to have any meaning at all, in spite of everything, we have to listen, listen, listen and then perhaps we will be able to understand a fraction of the message. Mozart does not need our award ceremonies – we need him and his agitating and churning storm wind. A year like this is in reality a chance for us.

What is the subject of the case he makes? It is art itself; it is music and we will be called to account for what we have done with it and what we still do and also for what we have failed to do… …As art is at home in the realm of fantasy, it contains something puzzling, something that cannot be explained; its invisible might is powerful and dangerous, its effect subversive. That is why those in power have repeatedly tried to exploit it. Unsuccessfully – because art is always oppositional and in supreme command and can neither be tamed nor appropriated. It is a language of what cannot be said and yet it comes nearer to many of the final truths than the language of words, of comprehension with its logic, its clarity, its dreadful yes or no.

The role we allow art is often that of making it useful to us, taming it or also so that we can boast about it. In our wonderful, subsidised musical life people should be able to find joy and relaxation after the tedium of work and shold regain strength for hectic everyday life (the Nazis called that “strength through joy”, with a similar justification as found in the articles of the Declaration of Human Rights). This is a dangerous step in the long and illegal process of making art “useful”.

Music by the great composers hardly ever made use of this trend, it was always much more: the sensitive reaction to the spiritual situation of the time. It was and is a mirror that helped listeners to recognise themselves, allowing them to look into the abyss. When Mozart´s G minor symphony was heard for the first time, people asked whether this kind of shattering experience was indeed permissible. At that time listeners felt that this symphony went to the extremes fo musical language. Hans Georg Nägeli (1773-1836), music aestheticist and cultural philosopher in Zurich, doubted – as did some of his contemporaries – whether such things were permissible and within the bounds of what could be imposed on audiences. In those days probably no one was able to go home in a calm frame of mind.

Art leads us, indeed often pushes us to arrive at a certain realisation: it is the mirror in which we have to look. In order to avoid that, people have assumed a way of approaching art merely as something aesthetic or popular. “Nice” music is heard, “nice” pictures are seen but preferably one does not allow oneself to be shattered by the experience or given a thorough shake-up.

…In this symphony one can also see a great example similar to many works of literature and the fine arts: how far can, should or must art go, or we could also ask what can and must the listener be prepared to tolerate? Mozart repeatedly came very close to this limit.

Like all great artists Mozart as a person remains a mystery, indeed he is uncanny. People believe they know everything about him – his life is extremely well documented – but when one wants to say something about him, one realises that one does not know him at all.

Our historical or biographical “knowledge”, generally speaking, is indeed no knowledge. We acquire it indirectly and think we are eye-witnesses. We take the images, for instance from television, as facts and we believe that we were there too but did not sense anything on our skin and in our hearts. The images are images but reality is only pretence. It was quite different.

We will never find out the truth about Mozart; it is the image we create ourselves that we consider to be this truth. Only his music contains the truth. It appears to be impossible to understand the person and so we arrive, as in the case of many artists, at a kind of Doppelgänger view. It is as if there were two Mozarts: the child at play, the cheerful extrovert young man, whose friends said of him that he was never in a bad mood and who from his youth wrote letters in a polished style; he was educated, witty and self-assured.
The Mozart we find in the biographies with his financial and artistic crises and problems in the family: was he rich or poor? Did he quarrel with his father or was the relationship harmonious and loving? Did Mozart fail as an artist after the unsuccessful performance of Le nozze di Figaro in
Vienna? I do not believe a word of any of this because as Oswald Spengler says, “Nature should be treated scientifically, one should write poetry about history”. And that was what people did, beyond measure. But the other Mozart is the true one, he is intangible and inconceivable and it is impossible to make any kind of assessment of him. If we wish to comprehend him, we have to realise with shame that our yardstick does not match his system. He comes from another planet. He lives only through his music: serious at every moment, oppressive even when he is joking: the Musikalischer Spass (Musical Joke) is just as dark a piece as the ghostly laughing aria in Zaide.

What a shock it must have been in the Mozart household when the father recognized the genius in the small child. One thinks one is faced with a delightful intelligent little child and discovers that it is a crocodile. A genius like Mozart does not occur suddenly, it is like a meteorite from the universe. He was not a playing child but a playing adult.

In human society there are no models for bringing up a genius. It goes without saying that such a demonic being dominates his surroundings. He cannot be “brought up”, he is a beloved and at the same time feared member of the household. From his very first musical statements Mozart´s path as an artist is absolutely unwavering and is characterised by a breathtaking certainty, exactly the opposite of his exterior life circumstances.

Even as a child he composed works whose emotional substance goes far beyond what he could have experienced and lived through. From the young man he always was and always remained we can discover the last most intense secrets about love and death, about tragedy, guilt and happiness.

He compels us to look into emotional depths and then afterward up to heaven; perhaps he was a quill in the hand of God.




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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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