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spring 2006 / the ordinary eye :: email this story to a friend

A World With Mozart
By Eddie Silva

All of the concerts in our Mozart Festival should tie into the present. Happy Birthday to someone who is a vital force in how we view life. — David Robertson

A number of years ago, a New Yorker cartoon featured an illustration of an urban lot filled with refuse: abandoned tires, empty liquor bottles, a battered sofa, and other assorted detritus. The caption: A World Without Mozart.

Of course, claims to the ameliorative qualities of art notwithstanding, the illustration is what a world with Mozart looks like too — in Mozart's time and in our own. Mozart may not have been the Tom Hulce enfant terrible portrayed in the popular film Amadeus of a few years back, but he did lead a somewhat messy life in a calamitous world. The French masses had not yet embraced the bloodbath of revolution, yet such eruptions were simmering in Mozart's time — as could be gleaned from the disasters befalling the British Empire in its North American colonies. A time of upheaval was at hand.

Mozart, the most extraordinary child artist of all time (easily eclipsing the Michael Jackson of the Jackson Five days), would have to overcome the "child" appellation to be considered a serious adult composer. He would have to escape the long shadow of an imposing father. He would have to find acceptance from patrons who had no ear for his radical musical constructions. He was forced into vagabond life — Salzburg, Prague, Paris, Vienna — rarely to find a home.

It enrages me that the unparalleled Mozart is not yet engaged by some imperial or royal court! Forgive my excitement, but I love the man so dearly! — Franz Joseph Haydn, in a letter, 1787

In our own time, the view of Mozart has changed. He has gone from a composer who was considered ornamental, playful and superficial to an artist who is profound, shocking and tragic. Perhaps the fact that our perspectives have changed so radically concerning Mozart shows how vital he remains. You hear the orchestra opening with such power at the beginning of the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491, and wonder how a piano might be allowed to fit into all that sound. Yet Mozart makes room for a light and delicate theme upon the keyboard, with the understanding that such frail beauties must be granted their own place in the world.

For, in the end, the source of creation is available to all of us, and those who are blessed with genius are only messengers bringing good news to an otherwise dark, at times unbearable, world. — F. Murray Abraham

To hear Mozart in the 18th century you had to be in the presence of Mozart, or attending an orchestral or chamber ensemble that performed his works. You were a member of the elite who had access to such entertainments.

Now Mozart has an audience he never could have imagined in places he did not know existed.

Miles from any town/ your radio comes in strong, unlikely/ Mozart from Belgrade, rock and roll/ from Butte. — Richard Hugo, "Driving Montana"

You can hear him in the confines of your all-terrain vehicle equipped with the 5-disc CD player and full-stereo surround-sound. You can drive about the city of St. Louis and discover the surprising synchronicity of a Mozart minuet and the rhythm of a woman carrying her plastic grocery bag toward home; or how the gentle neon of Smokin' Al's St. Louis Barbecue and the Courtesy Diner fit in with the soft closure brought to the second movement of the "Jupiter" Symphony by the woodwinds and the horns. And then the way the symphony reopens like an expansive green park in a restless city.

You reach the old Southwest Railroad terminal in what was the former north industrial district, where the commercial bustle of St. Louis once thrived. The sides of the former freight depot are spray-painted with graffiti, yet the remnants of another style of ornamentation — the green sculpted heads of lions — hold steel cables in their mouths. An angel stands upon a pedestal incongruently amidst rubble in a vacant urban lot. Mozart's music not only suggests angelic presences, it insists upon them.

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Yet I am the necessary angel of earth,/ Since, in my sight, you see the earth again... — Wallace Stevens, "Angel Surrounded by Paysans"

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Downriver is a view of floating casinos, the brilliant latticework of the Eads Bridge, the Arch soaring, and traffic moving back and forth over the neglected and abused river. The soprano sings from Requiem "... and a vow shall be paid to them in Jerusalem," and even as Mozart seeks sounds appropriate for sacred memory, you feel the pressure of time moving forward — within the rhythm of traffic, the current of the river, the ineluctable course of the music.

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Mozart began his works in childhood, and a childlike quality lurked in his compositions until it dawned upon him that the Requiem which he was writing for a stranger was his own. — Will and Ariel Durant, Rousseau and Revolution

Mozart realized that none of us have a chance against time, and left things, as we all ultimately leave them, incomplete — yet, unlike the rest of us, incomplete and exquisite: the splendid detritus of a messy and magnificent life.

Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra

© 2006 The Commonspace