On hearing the word genius, no other name springs to mind quicker than that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. To me, his music reaches a level of perfection unmatched by any other composer. Whereas other great composers excel in a particular aspect of music – Bach with harmonic power and contrapuntal complexity, Handel with melodic virility and textural manipulation, Beethoven with developmental techniques and expression of drama – Mozart reigns supreme in all aspects. He had the harmonic complexity, the melodic grace, the clever developmental techniques, and the emotional content. Furthermore, he was supreme in virtually every musical style of his day – concerto, symphony, sonata, opera, choral music, fugue, canon, et cetera – there was nothing that he could not do. However, Mozart’s mastery of musical qualities is just a mere aspect of his technique, for I believe there is still something else fundamental underlying these qualities.
So what is about this little man from Salzburg that is so miraculous? Upon analysis, the techniques of other great composers – Bach, Handel, and Beethoven – have the ability to greatly impress and inspire me. Mozart however simply bewilders me. With great composers such as Bach, Handel, and Beethoven, one can see how they worked out a piece of music logically and systematically. For example, the jagged melodies and unusual intervals in a Bach fugue suggest that his melodies are harmonically conceived. Bach has a harmonic basis in mind, and lays down a melody logically so that it fits the harmony. Conversely, the simple and symmetrical harmonies of Handel suggest that his harmonies are melodically conceived. A melody is composed, and harmonies are logically based on the melody. One can also see the logical structure in Beethoven’s music. A short theme is introduced, and it forms the basis for development in the remainder of the movement. Of course this is an oversimplification, but the general principle is that the music of the great composers is worked out logically and systematically. I would even go as far to say that with the right amount of time and musical understanding, one can emulate the logical techniques of these great composers. Their music is attainable.
With Mozart however, one encounters a paradox. I have already mentioned that his music excels in all aspects and qualities. I believe however that this does not do him justice. What makes Mozart’s music so special is that it has all these qualities in perfect proportion. Everything just happens to be in exactly the right place, and in such a delicate balance, needing no more or no less. It is almost as if Mozart’s melodies are harmonically conceived and at the same time his harmonies melodically conceived. This paradox reveals that Mozart’s compositional technique is beyond the systematic logic of the other composers. With Mozart everything just seems to fit. It is almost as if he transcends musical logic and sees the music at a higher level that other composers. This is not something that one can emulate by following musical logic or by learning techniques.
Upon listening, Mozart’s music has an air of inevitability or rightness. Yet, it also manages to possess an air of unpredictability. This is another paradox of Mozart. It is unpredictable due to its complexity and depth, and familiar due to its subtlety and prefect proportion. It is the perfect proportion which makes Mozart’s music flow so naturally without any strain. For example, in a Bach fugue, the fact that the melodies are logically placed to fit the harmonies or the fugal form can make them sound forced and at times artificial. The melodies don’t come naturally, but are logically placed. With Beethoven, the extremes in dynamics or orchestration can also often sound forced and artificial. One may say that Bach was willing to sacrifice melodic grace for complex harmony and counterpoint, and Beethoven for dynamic power. Mozart however sacrifices nothing, for the music just comes naturally. For example, in the Art of Fugue, Bach manages to logically work out a theme which achieves harmonic coherence when used in several different contrapuntal forms. The angularity and the forced nature of the melodies however do suggest that they are logically worked out so that they fit the harmonies in such contrapuntal forms. In effect, the themes play functional rather than independent melodic roles. However, in the finale of Mozart’s Symphony no.41 in C Major (K.551), Mozart introduces several independent melodies, and then unexpectedly combines all of them together in the coda. All this seems so effortless and natural, that the contrapuntal complexity is lost in us. Unlike Bach, Mozart has not logically forced melodies to fit the harmony or structure, but has simply created several independent melodies that fit together perfectly in what is perhaps the most brilliant show of contrapuntal combination in the history of music.
Perhaps Mozart’s subtlety is the reason why many critics pass him off as a ‘composer of catchy tunes’. The perfect proportion of Mozart’s music makes it flow so naturally that the complexities become so subtle that they are unnoticed. The truth however is that Mozart’s music is far more complex than it sounds. Mozart’s powerful harmonic sense is illustrated by his ability to modulate effortlessly and explore a large number of keys in a single movement. This is evident in the first movement of his Violin Sonata in Eb Major (K.481), in which he explores the keys of Ab Major, F Minor, Db Major, C# Minor, A Major, and G# Minor. This amazing harmonic freedom within one movement not only excels that of Bach, but the harmonic structure is so perfectly finished that the modulations appear so effortless.
Even on a smaller scale, Mozart’s music is saturated with subtle complexities. A good example is in the first movement of his Viennese Sonatina no.1 in C Major. In bars 5 to 6, a simple melody is exposed, consisting of the notes C, D, F, and E. This simple melody can be harmonised with the diatonic chords of C and G7, the tonic and dominant seventh of the key respectively. However, the simple addition of a short rising chromatic scale in the left hand harmonises the melody in more distant and chromatic chords, including Dm, D, G#dim7, and Am, with rapid chord changes. True art is to conceal art, and Mozart manages this perfectly. Once again, the complexities are so subtle that they are often unnoticed.
Mozart’s ability to create complex music in such subtle ways reveals another of his qualities: his ability to achieve what he sets out to achieve using the minimum number of notes. His music is incredibly economical. He seemed to know exactly what to put in, as well as what to leave out. Whereas Beethoven creates a dramatic effect with deviations from harmonic law, extreme dynamics, deliberate dissonances, and a large number of voices, Mozart can create an effect as dramatic without going to extremes in dynamics, dissonances, or number of voices. An example is his Symphony no.40 in G Minor (K.550), in which Mozart creates deep passion and emotion while containing the music within limits – he never breaks the rules of harmony, the dynamics never go below piano or above forte, the dissonances are all contained within tonality, and the orchestra is small. Mozart’s music manages to achieve complexity and drama without going to extremes.
The accounts of Mozart’s musical ability are unbelievable. He could write down a piece of music while thinking out another in his head. He would often think out a piece and write down the individual parts before compiling a full score. Already as a very young child he was improvising fugues and composing substantial pieces. The only composer who comes near to Mozart as a child prodigy is Mendelssohn, who composed the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a teenager. However Mendelssohn failed to develop much further, and although his music reveals an excellent sense of proportion, harmony, and passion, he lacks the complexity and subtlety which Mozart has over other composers. Amazingly prolific, Mozart composed over six hundred large-scale pieces, as well as many unknown works and fragments, in his tragically short life. Furthermore, he conquered virtually every medium with his music. And all this seemed effortless: in a letter to his wife, Mozart tells her about how he wrote an aria one afternoon out of sheer boredom! To top it all off, his music shows little correction, and he composes at amazing speed. Whereas Beethoven would spend months or years on a piece, Mozart would spend hours, days, or weeks at most. Mozart’s last three symphonies were all completed within a period of six weeks.
So what can be concluded about Mozart? From what I have provided, it is difficult not to be amazed by him. To me, his music represents the attainment of musical perfection. It transcends the music of other composers. If I were to make a list of great composers, relatively high on the scale would be the epic greats, such as Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky. Even higher would be the great masters, such as Bach, Handel, and Beethoven. But way up on a completely different scale of his own would be Mozart, the greatest composer of them all.