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 ...