Happy Birthday to You:

Today, as you're no doubt aware, marks Mozart's 250th birthday, and the world is awash in Mozartian sound -- surely a good thing, ceterus paribus, a net plus for our universe compared to the alternate universe identical to ours in all details except it doesn't celebrate Mozart's birthday.

It has always bugged me a little that Mozart has the "boy genius" tag associated with him. He was, to be sure, a musical prodigy -- playing the piano blindfolded at age 6 for Empress Maria Theresa and all that. But that was mostly trained monkey stuff; there were other kids at the time, and since, able to perform dazzling tricks like that at the keyboard. And while it's also true that he was composing at a ridiculously early age -- sonatas at age 6, a symphony at 8, an opera at 10 -- the fact of the matter is that the stuff he wrote as a boy is all quite pedestrian. In fact, I'd argue there's nothing he wrote before the age of 20 that's at all interesting, let alone something that can be called a work of real genius. Compared, say, to Mendelssohn, who by the age of 17 had composed two genuine masterpieces: the incidental music to Midsummer Night's Dream, and the remarkable and transcendent Octet for Strings.

Mozart's not remarkable for what he did as a kid -- he's remarkable for what he did as a grownup. At his most sublime -- the last Act of Figaro, the Jupiter symphony, the set of String Quartets dedicated to Haydn, Piano Concertos 20 and 21, . . . -- there is not only nothing truly comparable, nothing that touches us more deeply, but nothing that one can imagine ever could touch us more deeply.

And here's a weird bit of Mozartiana. He's one of the few composers who ever actually wrote anything for Ben Franklin's glass harmonica -- one of the world's most peculiar instruments, consisting of a series of water-filled glasses whose rims are rubbed by the player to make sounds at different pitch (depending on how much water is in the glass. It's pretty lousy stuff, to be honest; the instrument's very difficult to keep in tune, has very limited range, and, to my ears, sounds a bit like the coyotes up here in Vermont, on a night with a full moon . . . . Mozart's pieces for the instrument -- a Fantasie, and an Adagio & Rondo -- were both composed during the last few months of his life, in 1791; a shame, really, as he (or at least we) would have been considerably better off had he spent that precious time working on, say, another opera, or another symphony ...

Oh my word (mail):
I agree that Mendelssohn's musical skills during the teen years greatly outshined those of Mozart. However, Mozart's early years occurred during a real lull in musical quality in Europe, mainly because the new "stile galant" style of Stamitz, Sammartini, and JC Bach was still being worked out. It's tough to write a piece that epitomizes a style that has not even fully developed yet. I would argue that Mozart's works even before age 18 outshined those of most of his most famous contemporaries. Some of those symphonies are quite clever.

However, it's also important that the early stile galant style is one of the easiest musical styles of the last 500 years to compose in--much easier, I think, than the Renaissance and Baroque stuff before it, for ex.

Of all the well-known prodigies out there, I think only Mendelssohn really exceeded the young Mozart. Most of those that came after were purely instrumentalist geniuses--which, while admirable, is hardly the same as doing it all like the young Mozart.
1.27.2006 8:31am
TravisW (mail):
Sorry to be pedantic, but the description of Franklin's Armonica is not entirely accurate (I was in Philadelphia last week and saw an exhibit about Franklin at the Constitutional Center). Franklin's Armonic is actually a series of glass rims - basically the top parts of wine glasses cut off and attached to a long rod that spins. The player keeps their fingers wet and simply places them against the spinning glass. I express no opinion on the quality of the sound, as I am tone deaf, but according to the exhibit, once tuned, it never needs to be retuned, and the range is dependent on the number of glass rims attached.
1.27.2006 10:05am
David Post (mail) (www):
Re "oh my word": I'd probably agree that Mozart's work before age 18 outshined most of his contemporaries. But still — had he (God forbid) died even earlier than he did — age 20, say — I don't think we'd think of him at all these days. A high standard by which to judge a life, I grant you — but one that I think Mendelssohn surely, and possibly Schubert as well, would have met.
And I appreciate TravisW's point about the tuning of the "armonica" — what I meant about its "limited range", though, was not so much its limited acoustical range but its limited emotional range. It just can't do very much, as an instrument —
1.27.2006 11:40am
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
Two points:

1. There is a whole disk of Glass Harmonica music on Naxos (8.555295), played by Thomas Bloch. Besides two pieces by Mozart, there's also a 1-minute 'melodram' (a bit of incidental music for a play) by Beethoven, plus the mad scene from Lucia di Lamermoor and a bunch of things by now forgotten or near-forgotten (Reichhardt) composers. The album has a picture of Ben Franklin playing his instrument on the front, and you can see that it's almost a keyboard instrument with all the glass bowls or discs lined up parallel to each other -- no water involved. I find the music painful to listen to for more than a minute or two, and am not surprised that most of the early virtuosos died insane. The liner notes attribute this to lead poisoning from the glass, but the sound must have had something to do with it.

2. David Post asks what we would think of Mozart if he had died at 20. Which reminded me: Today is the 200th birthday of the Spanish composer Arriaga, who died just before his 20th birthday, but left three delightful string quartets, plus a symphony, a nonet, and the overture to the opera 'Los Esclavos Felices'. I gather that the rest of the opera does not survive, so perhaps we will never know whether the title is ironic or metaphorical -- I certainly hope so, since it means "The Happy Slaves". Anyway, it's not Mozart, but it's excellent, and it all fits on two discs: there are a lot of recordings of the quartets (I like the Sine Nomine version, now out of print), and Jordi Savall has done 'original instrument' versions of the other three works).
1.27.2006 12:38pm
Joe Malchow (mail) (www):
"Boy Genius" Mozart, though, informs his later brilliance. I've posted a movement from one of Herr Mozart's Solemn Vespers right here. I think it says a lot about the importance of early Mozart.
1.27.2006 1:18pm
Paul McKaskle (mail):
I agree that Mozart's greatest music was composed well after he was 20--he was an "old man" of 30 when he composed Nozze di Figaro. But I think his long and complex opera, "Mitradate, Re di Ponto," composed when he was just 16 is a superlative work. While its libretto was in the soon to be abandoned "opera seria" form--though one to which Mozart reverted at the end of his life in "La Clemenza di Tito"--its musical invention is astonishing. It still has presence on opera stages, recently, for example, in Santa Fe and at Covent Garden in London. So while some of his early output may well be pedestrian, it included at least one remarkable operatic work.

On another point, one should also add the second act of Figaro in addition to the fourth act in the category of sublime. (Also in contention is the beginning of the third act, where Figaro discovers that his mother is Marcellina--one of the most marvellously comic scenes ever created).
1.27.2006 1:30pm
Oh my word (mail):
My guess is that Mozart would still be remembered if he had died at age 20, and his music would be played every now and then on classical radio. It's accessible and still better than some of the schlock that gets played from that time period. Arriaga (didn't know he was the same date!) gets played every once in a blue moon, also.

Oh also, Mozart's violin concertos were written when he was 19. Those alone would have made him remembered. 3-5 are among the real masterworks of the repertoire and pretty much the best violin concertos from that era. Every violinist learns at least one of them who gets to about an intermediate level. I like them better than Haydn's. I would put those pieces in the genius category, for sure.

Also, La Finta Simplice, written when he was in his mid teens, while on the whole not all that incredible of an opera, has Il re pastore, one of my all-time favorite arias and as superb an aria as Mozart ever wrote.
1.27.2006 1:42pm
Abdul (mail):

while it's also true that he was composing at a ridiculously early age -- sonatas at age 6, a symphony at 8, an opera at 10 -- the fact of the matter is that the stuff he wrote as a boy is all quite pedestrian. In fact, I'd argue there's nothing he wrote before the age of 20 that's at all interesting, let alone something that can be called a work of real genius.

If your kid was composing an opera while in the fourth grade, would you let him know that it was derivative and pedestrian, or would you immediately call everyone you know and say "My kid composed a F***ing opera!!!!!!"
1.27.2006 1:58pm
To my ears, Symphony No. 29 (A major), K. 201, composed in 1774 when he was 18, is a masterpiece. Piano Concerto No. 9, K. 271, another masterpiece, was also quite early, though I can't recall the date.
1.27.2006 2:19pm
Cindy Lander (mail):
Maybe we'll consider that those formative years of Mozart's less-than-genius output were exactly that - formative years - exercising theory at his level while the rest of us are struggling through our Czerny scales.

As for the glass armonica, I would venture to suggest that, despite those being his last few months, he was moving in a more musically experiemental direction - as with Beethoven and his last three piano sonatas - and he was not above catering to a whim every now and then.

What Mozart rose up to become from age 20 to 34, and the generous output of a mere 14 years, and the fact that we celebrate by playing Mozart all day on the radio (the only other composer who gets an all-day-on-the-radio extravaganza is Beethoven ... at least in my part of town) is the mere beginning of a testament to genius (though sadly overlooking our dear Mendelssohn, Wagner, Bach, etc).
1.27.2006 2:56pm
Jeffersonranch (mail):
Mozart's work has survived and it does little to try and look for someone who is better. His life is his life and we should celebrate his genius.
1.27.2006 4:01pm
Oh my word (mail):
I agree, Symphony 29 is a wonderful piece, one of my favorite Mozart symphonies.

David, I think you're off base on this one.
1.27.2006 5:04pm
Average Joe (mail):
Like David, I am also really annoyed by the emphasis of Mozart's child prodigy years. What I find remarkable about Mozart's music is not the age at which it was composed, but rather the quality and quantity of the best of it. David throws out the age of 20 as the time when Mozart really started to write interesting work. I basically agree. In my opinion, the first really interesting, remarkable pieces where the "little" G minor symphony No. 25, K. 183 and the Bassoon Concerto, K. 191, which where composed when Mozart was about 18 or so, not far from David's age of 20. The important thing is that these works, wonderful as they are (and if you have not heard them, then do yourself a favor and find some recordings), were just the beginning of Mozart's mature compositions; he would develop much further and use this development to compose even greater masterpieces. These masterpieces are, for me and I gather also for David, the real reason we love Mozart. Even uncanny "Mozartian" child prodigies are common compared to composers of the achievement of the mature Mozart.
1.27.2006 10:45pm
Electrolux (mail):
IMHO, David exaggerates his point to some extent. Tkae Mozart's motet "Exsultate, Jubilate" (K. 165). He wrote this when only 17 or so -- no longer a child prodigy, but certainly well before age 20. And it is the work of a master.

Of course, I also think it's true that Mozart wrote his very best works in the last years of his life. But I don't think anyone would dispute that.

Anyway, for him to go from the excellent ("Exsultate, Jubilate") to the sublime (e.g. "Ave verum Corpus" (K. 618)) does not indicate that he had become more of a musical genius. Rather, it is the result of a maturing and more reflective outlook on life.
1.28.2006 6:02am
Frank Drackmann (mail):
I wonder what Mozart would be listening to if he was alive today. Given where hes from I can picture him composing some really cool Death Speed Metal pieces.
1.28.2006 8:41am
Oh my word (mail):
Interesting question, though Mozart did not suffer musical fools lightly. He loved the opera stage, but he also would reject out of hand most libretti that were silly or didn't at least have the potential to go to the next level, even though with jokes in between. He also disliked banal music and cheesy tricks on the whole. I think this idea that he would have been a rock star is interesting but ignores a lot about his views and life.

I didn't realize Exsultate Jubilate was written in his teens--another incredible piece of uncommon maturity and grace.
1.29.2006 1:59pm