ESSENTIALS of Classical Music

The Classical Era

1750 - 1825 A.D.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

If Haydn’s current status does not accord him the full honor he is due, it is because his career overlapped with that of an even more celebrated genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). It would be an oversimplification to say only that Haydn greatly influenced Mozart, because the influence was two-way: Haydn worked before, during and after Mozart’s brief lifetime, and so was eventually influenced in turn by his younger colleague. Yet however deserved Mozart’s present exalted status may be, don’t let it distract you from also exploring the work of Haydn, which has an earthier, robust tone to it that many listeners find more accessible.

Mozart today is hailed as possibly the greatest musical genius of all time—one controversial theory has suggested that merely listening to his music can make you more intelligent—although he has achieved that lofty status only relatively recently. His music never disappeared from the concert hall, to be sure, but as recently as the 1930s, the legendary conductor Sir Thomas Beecham had to campaign vigorously to win acceptance for Mozart’s operas, which today are ranked at the top of the repertoire.

There are, broadly speaking, two types of compositional genius. One type is celebrated for breaking the rules, creating new genres, producing works unlike anything that ever appeared before. Such revolutionary composers include figures like Beethoven, Berlioz or Schoenberg. Others are renowned for achieving perfection within previously established forms and the conventional musical vocabulary of their time. Bach was such a figure, as was Mozart. If his concertos, symphonies, sonatas, string quartets and operas differ from those of his contemporaries, it is primarily in being better rather than radically different.

Listen to Mozart: Symphony No. 40, first movement

You must remember that at any given moment throughout the past, there were hundreds if not thousands of composers working; modern music history deals primarily with those composers who have been judged the best and most interesting to listeners far removed in time from them. Yet we should not forget that the composers we consider the best were not necessarily regarded so by their contemporaries. Among the figures working during the second half of the 18th century were Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801), Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-99) and Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), all of whom achieved major success in their day and none of whom are frequently represented in concerts today.

What was it about Mozart’s music that makes it seem so overwhelmingly great to us? Many books have been written trying to explain it, and likely many more will be written. Explanations vary; much of it has to do with intangibles and unquantifiable factors such as balance, taste and musicianship. The acclaimed film adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus gives a hint in the scene in which Mozart disarmingly rewrites a march by Salieri, taking what had been a competently composed, four-square, predictable march and transforming it with just a slight modulation here, an extended phrase there, into a precursor of the aria “Non più andrai” from Mozart’s own opera The Marriage of Figaro. The event was fictional; the truth it hints at is genuine.

Cadenza with Mozart's signature

This writer once had a music theory instructor who was fond of taking a passage of Mozart’s music and recomposing it as a less imaginative contemporary of his might have—say, Dittersdorf. Doing the opposite would be much more difficult, if not impossible. Then again, if it were possible to penetrate the secrets of Mozart’s music, others by now would have been able to compose music in his style as well as he did, and so far no one but Mozart has managed to do that. As often happens in music, words fail us; if they could accurately capture the essence of music, the music would be superfluous. This is but another reminder to us that there is no substitute for listening to the music itself, for opening ourselves up to the experience and letting it tell us things that only music can tell. The proof of the musical pudding is in the hearing.

In November 1792 a promising 22-year-old composer from Bonn traveled to Vienna, arriving there just a few weeks short of a year after Mozart’s untimely death. A friend of the young man had written to him, “With the help of assiduous labor, you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.” The young composer found the experience of studying with Haydn to be a disappointment and discontinued the studies after about one year. He then went on to transform the world of music and the way people think about it, forever. His name was Ludwig van Beethoven.

Listen to Beethoven: Symphony No. 5, first movement

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