Last week, Decca and Deutsche Grammophon announced a compendium of 15,000 minutes of Mozart delivered on an unprecedented 200 CDs. This is easily the largest box set of all-time. That sure seems excessive in our streaming age, especially for an outmoded collection that’s more suitable for my 87-year-old grandmother than anyone else. And, surely, the target demographic for this box set is music fans of a different era or devout music scholars, but its magnitude—and the fact that it’s going to exist at all—also speaks to Mozart’s enduring brilliance.
For most of us, 225 years after his death, the composer’s name has elevated into the vague firmament of classical music. We revere names like Mozart and Bach and Beethoven from afar, all in the same breath. A shared genius made indistinguishable over time. But each is great in his own regard, of course. And if you’re looking for someone relevant to our era, take a closer look at Mozart. He began touring at six. He wrote his first symphony at eight, his first opera at 11. Fans flocked from all over Europe to experience his inimitable musical talent. And more than 600 pieces later, he died at just 35, buried without wealth or stature in a common grave. The man lived hard and fast, blowing minds with his innovative musicality until he burned out, just like many of our most beloved 20th and 21st century musicians. Paving their way, some 200 years prior, was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the world’s very first rock star.
In college, I decided to return to piano playing after many years. My professor gave me a short Mozart tune to get me back into the swing of things, and after a week of practice, I’d pretty much nailed it. Wow! A decade without playing and I’ve still got it, I thought. And a Mozart piece no less! I proudly displayed my renewed skills at my next lesson and learned that I had perfected what was Mozart’s very first composition, one he wrote when he was four. My pride is still recovering.
It’s a common tragedy with prodigies. Spend a lifetime cultivating a skill and then see it matched and bested by a child, one whose profound talent comes effortlessly and belies naiveté. In Amadeus, the Oscar-winning film from 1984, Mozart’s precocious skills are pitted against the jealousy of Antonio Salieri, a man who’s devoted his entire life to music and composition. For those of you that have seen Amadeus, it’s worth noting that, as is often the case, Hollywood embellished the truth. Mozart, reportedly, was not the giggling numskull depicted in the film, and this particular feud between Salieri and Mozart was probably fabricated. Still, there’s plenty of truth alongside its liberties, namely its portrayal of the composer’s rock star-esque lifestyle.
The man lived hard and fast, blowing minds with his innovative musicality until he burned out.
What are the qualities that we attribute to our rock star archetype? Prodigious. Provocative. Uncompromising in both artistry and behavior. Mozart was all of these things. As a child, his father, a minor composer and music teacher, taught him composition and toured him around Europe, which resulted in a number of important connections within the “scene.” All the while he was composing, assimilating styles and molding them into something that was new and his own. And he may not have been the bozo depicted in Amadeus, but he was still controversial. He was flamboyant, and he loved elegant clothing, billiards, and dancing—the 18th century equivalent to the debauchery that has become de rigueur for today’s rock stars.
He also loved scatalogical humor (aka the dude looooooved a good poop joke) in an age of particularly highbrow decorum. In a letter to his cousin (the original German version was in rhymed verse), he wrote:
“Well, I wish you good night
But first shit in your bed and make it burst.
Sleep soundly, my love
Into your mouth you’ll shove.”
And in regard to the music itself, Mozart was intransigent. He quarreled with aristocrats over the sanctity of his art. He left a court appointment in Salzburg because he wasn’t allowed to compose the music he wanted. He was ridiculed for writing too many notes, ornate passages that necessitated virtuosity—a forerunner to rock star bravado, perhaps, the ‘guitar solo’ mentality—but he kept all of his notes just the same. He turned down offers in Paris, too, despite being in debt and riddled with a slew of maladies that required medical attention. His ailments plagued him throughout his life, and some have wondered how he was even able to get out of bed—there’s an entire book devoted solely to his medical history.
But get out of bed he did, and he did so much more than that. Mozart’s tunes remain recognizable even today. Many of his passages have become engrained in our collective psyche, passed along folk-style from generation to generation, even if we never intentionally look for them. This one, for example. And this one. Some of our first memorable “riffs.”
And what’s more, like many of our cherished rock stars, the circumstances of Mozart’s death are muddy and mythologized. There really were rumors that Salieri poisoned him, but they’ve been largely debunked. Likely his death was some amalgam of his maladies; researchers have posited no less than 118 possible causes of death. Similar to the members of our 27 Club, this is a case in which we ascribe preternatural life to genius, one that cannot be broken by anything so innocuous as fever or influenza.
If Mozart were alive today, he’d have millions of Twitter followers, and a personal team of paparazzi.
Like Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison, Mozart was the young, invincible music hero of yesteryear. A forebear of rock ‘n’ roll’s eccentricity and a pioneer of his own time. So monstrous was his talent that even Beethoven, 15 years his minor, spent much of his life in the man’s shadow—LVB traveled to Vienna in 1787 just to meet the man (it’s unclear whether that actually happened). And so natural was his brilliance that he, like no one had ever done, was able to seamlessly weave chromatic harmony into diatonic pieces, increasing the music’s emotional depth and giving future generations permission to use a larger harmonic vocabulary. Mozart’s innovations helped advance the baroque age into the classical period, defining the era as one typified by clarity and balance and beauty, three qualities we still attribute to good music. In 1785, Haydn, another figure from that vague firmament, told his father: “I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute, he has taste and what is more the greatest skill in composition.”
But even with all that skill, Mozart, like a genuine rock star, never “sold out” to became wealthy. If he were alive in the internet era, it’s easy to imagine that he’d have millions of Twitter followers, a personal team of paparazzi waiting to snapshot his genius, and all the wealth that accompanies those things. So, maybe 200 CDs seems gratuitous, but in this case it’s warranted. When you gift the box set to your grandma, take a seat and listen with her. The music may sound different, but don’t be fooled. This man was a rock star. The very first. And if you listen with an open ear, it’ll blow your mind.
Image: Public Domain