If you were in Vienna in, say, 1780, and looking for the world-famous composer Wolfgang Mozart, chances are you’d find him at the local tavern, drinking with his pals. He’d be the one at the bar composing “Don Giovanni” while awaiting his turn at the pool table.
Mozart ran with the Bohemian crowd while composing some of the greatest music the world has ever known. It seems fitting, therefore, that actor Tom Hulce, who played Mozart in the movie “Amadeus” also should have played Pinto in the movie “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” Indeed, Mozart was not merely a great composer, but a party animal as well.
When Mozart completed a score, he would turn it over to a copyist for publishing and the copyist would always be amazed; there was never the slightest evidence of corrections, no sections scratched out and written over, no ink smears, and certainly none of the signs of struggle that marked the work of Beethoven. Mozart’s scores were the very image of perfection--and the exact opposite of his life, which was a mess.
Composing came easily for Mozart. He began writing scores at age five and continued writing them until the day he died. During his 35 years, he wrote 41 symphonies, 27 piano concertos, 30-plus string quartets, almost as many quintets, 20 operas, scores of piano and violin sonatas, concertos for every instrument imaginable (violin, clarinet, horn, flute, oboe, harp, and bassoon), and a number of scores for choir (masses, requiems, and the like). None of it was less than brilliant.
How to explain Mozart? The question drove the jealous composer Salieri crazy in “Amadeus.” Goethe, who knew him, doesn’t try: “A phenomenon like Mozart is an inexplicable thing.” G. B. Shaw, who didn’t know him, wrote: “I like him. Even if I did not, I should pretend to; for a taste for his music is a mark of caste among musicians, and should be worn, like a tall hat, by the amateur who wishes to pass for a true Brahmin.” The professionals say that something luminous hovers about the music of Mozart: “For one moment in the history of music, all opposites were reconciled; all tension resolved; that luminous moment was Mozart.”
For awhile, Mozart was the toast of Europe. Tickets for the premiers of his operas were as difficult to get as tickets for the Super Bowl. Eventually his running with the Bohemian crowd caught up with him. His wife left him, his friends in high places deserted him, and in the end he was reduced to begging. He died penniless and was buried anonymously in a pauper’s grave.
Mozart was followed by Beethoven who, like the age in which he lived, was a revolutionary who shattered convention and in its place created a bigger and bolder musical universe. Mozart’s music, however, never went completely out of vogue. Over the past 50 years, Mozart’s reputation has risen to the point where today his music is rated above that of Beethoven and is second only to J. S. Bach.
If “perfection” is the word for Bach’s music, then “tasteful” is the word for Mozart’s: refined, elegant, tasteful.