Home » Sermons » Special Occasions » Music Appreciation Sunday » Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

 

 

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART

1756-1791

I: —  A French atheist, proud of his atheism, who heard the seven year old concert pianist in Paris exclaimed, “I have seen a miracle.”  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wasn’t a miracle in the biblical sense of the word; nevertheless, he was a marvel.

   Today he couldn’t be exploited and exhibited as he was in his childhood.  (After all, today people who are highly unusual physically, for instance, aren’t allowed to be exploited and exhibited in circus side-shows.)  Mozart’s father, however, was less wise and therefore less kind.  The elder Mozart, himself a composer and violinist of no little ability, quickly recognized that his son was extraordinary.  Mozart’s sister, Marianne (five years older), was gifted too.  Father Mozart sent the two children on a concert tour that lasted three and a half years.  Crowds sat agape as the seven year old boy and his twelve year old sister played two-piano duets breathtakingly.  Paris, London, Amsterdam, Geneva, Lausanne, Zurich, Winterthur, Schaffhausen; at last the concert tour was over and the exhausted children were home again.

   Mozart was born 27th January 1756 in the city of Salzburg, Austria, and was named Johannes Chrysostomos Wolfgangus Theophilos Mozart.  “Theophilos”, Greek for “lover of God”, was Latinized to “Amadeus”.  Thereafter he was known by his last three names, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

   His father began instructing him in music theory when he was three.  By age four he was playing minuets flawlessly and had composed his first piano concerto.  His father looked at his son’s composition and remarked that wonderful as it was on paper, it was so difficult that no one would be able to play it.  Whereupon the four year old played it.  When he was eight he was asked to accompany a singer in an Italian aria.  He had never heard it before.  Still, he improvised each repetition by developing it from the previous stanza.  When the singer had finished, Mozart kept playing the piece, fully scored, ten times over, each time with a different variation.  He would have continued playing in his inner transport and untrammelled spontaneity had not the adults in the room stopped him.

   In 1782 Wolfgang married Constanze Weber.  His father vehemently opposed the marriage, vowing he would have nothing to do with her; thereafter he treated Constanze contemptuously if he had reason to deal with her at all.  Wolfgang, for his part, wrote his father, “I am just beginning to live.”   Her life would never be easy.  In six of her nine years of marriage she would be either pregnant or recovering.  (The longest interval between pregnancies was seventeen months; the shortest (twice), six months.)  In 1789 she was bedridden for weeks with fever, severe nausea, and lameness.  The pseudo-medical treatment prescribed for her was to bathe her feet in water in which the entrails of an animal had been boiled.  The child she was carrying died at birth.  Throughout her life she lacked everyday wisdom, homespun “horse sense”.  Despite her appalling lack of worldly wisdom and her relentless suffering, Constanze remained uncomplaining.

   The young husband and wife were happy.  They were both silly, frivolous, and financially unteachable, apparently a perfect match.  They moved twelve times in their nine years of marriage, house-rent being one of the financial items they could never quite manage.  

   In the social pecking order of eighteenth century Europe musicians were generally disdained, being one step (but only one) above the bricklayer or stonemason or blacksmith; certainly nowhere near the gentry, let alone the nobility.  Constanze belonged to the same social class and knew it.  She and Wolfgang never strove to leave it.  Whereas Beethoven was socially ambitious and committed notable social blunders in his zeal for social climbing, Mozart didn’t blunder in that he scorned the game; he never cared a fig for ingratiating himself with social superiors.

   In some respects he never grew up.  Emotional immaturity was as natural to him as musical sophistication.  On one occasion he was practising the piano in an auditorium when he suddenly took note of the silence of those who had come to hear him rehearse as they hung on every note.  He thought these people entirely too serious, entirely too adulatory; after all, he was only practising.  Whereupon he jumped up on the back of a seat and capered around the room from seat-back to seat-back, all the while meowing like a cat.

   Despite the people who recognized his gifts, and despite his fondness for partying, Mozart was so very isolated that it hurts even to read of it.  Other musicians envied him and shunned him.  Salieri, a court-composer of vastly less ability, plotted intrigues to ensure Wolfgang’s non-recognition.  As has already been mentioned, his father detested Constanze.  (Later she burned every letter the older man had sent to his son.)  His sister, not wishing to alienate her father, took the father’s side and was barely civil to Constanze.

   So lonely was Mozart that his heart leapt when he found recognition and affirmation in a bird.  He was passing a pet shop in Salzburg when he heard a bird chirping a few notes from one of his piano sonatas.  Now only recently he had decided to attempt a measure of financial responsibility by writing each expenditure in a notebook, hoping thereby to see exactly where his money was going and get himself and his wife beyond their pecuniary precariousness.  The notebook shows careful entries of small sums for pencils or buttons or food; then a huge entry for the bird.  Mozart had done it again: bankrupted himself unthinkingly, recent resolution thrown to the wind, as he knew he had to have this bird.  Having dutifully jotted the purchase price in his notebook, he wrote down the musical notes he heard the bird chirp, commenting that the bird did not sing a G-sharp and several grace-notes.  Underneath all of this he penned, “Das war schoen” — “That was beautiful.”  The bird lived three years.  When it died he mourned it as he was to mourn little else.  

   A talent as rich as his would always ensure isolation.  His music pioneered new harmonies.  His grasp of counterpoint left people gasping.  (Counterpoint is the art of writing two different melodies in the one piece of music.)  Whereas many composer/performers wrote a few piano or violin pieces and then took them on the concert tour, playing them over and over to different audiences in different cities, Mozart found that the more he performed the more he was inspired to write.  As a result he frequently wrote new sonatas and concertos for each performance on a concert tour.  When he did repeat a piano item with orchestral accompaniment, the orchestra, of course, played the music he had scored for it.  Mozart himself, however, played what he had written for himself the first night only; from the second night on he improvised, composing on the spot, nothing written at all, his on-the-spot creation fitting perfectly into the orchestral score.  Each night there was the same orchestral accompaniment but a brand new piano rendition, never heard before, and never to be heard again, since nothing was written and nothing recorded.

   Unlike Rachminoff who had huge hands, Mozart’s hands, like his body, were small.  So dextrous were they nonetheless that they caused the most difficult passages to resemble “flowing oil”, in the words of the little man himself.  At the same time, his wonderfully able hands were useless for virtually everything else.  And yet at the dinner table his wife customarily cut up his meat, a knife and fork being too difficult for him to coordinate.

   On one occasion he asked a fellow-composer if he could look over the latter’s new symphony.  The man refused to let Mozart see it.  Whereupon our friend went to a concert hall where it was being performed, heard it once, returned home and wrote out every note for every instrument.

   Despite his financial disasters and his isolation at the hands of the musical fraternity he never lost his confidence.  In fact he was self-assured in a way that others found off-putting.  When the Austrian emperor, no less, remarked that an aria had too many notes in it, Mozart replied (to the emperor), “…there are just as many notes in it as there ought to be.”  (Wolfgang, remember, wasn’t a social climber.)

   Most composers created music at the point of a pencil, writing and erasing over and over until they got down what they wanted.  Mozart, however, created exclusively in his head; then he wrote it all out once, once only, never erasing a note.  Not surprisingly, he found the writing of music mechanical drudgery and a bore.  When asked about his musical inspiration and his manner of composing he remarked that he had very little to say about it.  “Travelling in a carriage, walking after a good meal, during the night when I can’t sleep; it’s on such occasions that my ideas flow best and flow most abundantly.  Whence and how they come I know not; nor can I force them…. Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once.”  As soon as he had heard the full orchestra in his head at once, all that remained to be done, he liked to say, was mere scribbling.

   There was no form of music which he didn’t write superbly.  Symphonies, quartets, trios; piano, violin, cello, clarinet and trumpet concertos; operas, church music.  Indeed it was as church musician that he acquired what he had long wanted: a job with a salary and therefore a regular income.  As Master of the Chapel in Salzburg he wrote music for the Sunday services.  He and the archbishop, however, could not get along.  Their relationship worsened until in May, 1780, having had the long-awaited steady job for a year and four months, he was fired.  

   While our soloist is singing Mozart’s church music today and the congregation a hymn-tune, relatively little of his church music is sung in Protestant worship.  His church music is largely the musical setting for the Roman Catholic mass.  Furthermore, the Protestantism Mozart was exposed to was exceedingly dilute.  The rich gospel of the Reformation, addressed to the entire person, had given way to a dry, cold, mental abstraction, little more than an intellectual parlour game employing a religious vocabulary.  It led Mozart to comment that Protestant Christianity was a head-trip that left people unmoved, inert.  

   Another critical observation was even more telling.  The Lutheran recovery of the biblical truth of justification — namely, that God justifies sinners or puts them in the right with himself as they seize in faith the crucified one whom God has given as provision for sinners — this glorious dimension of the gospel was distorted and diluted until “justification” was nothing more than the thinnest coat of whitewash applied to sin, which sin was deemed only skin-deep and didn’t matter anyway.  For this reason Mozart commented that Protestants rarely understood the core of the Roman mass, “O Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world.”

   His poverty worsened.  In order to earn money he gave piano lessons to the children of aristocrats, virtually all of whom were without musical talent.  One fellow, however, pleaded with him for lessons, and Mozart recognized enormous talent in the youngster; but Mozart’s father was dying and he felt he couldn’t spare the time or the concentration which so promising a pupil needed.  He declined to take on this one outstanding student.  The student’s name was Beethoven.

  Wolfgang began selling as much as he could part with.  His long, green velvet coat with the flared skirt, plus his red velvet coat (his favourite), even his viola — he sold them all, his viola fetching only a few dollars.  Between major compositions he dashed off little ditties, tunes for what had become the new rage in Austria, mechanical music boxes with revolving metal cylinders.  These music boxes sat on a woman’s dresser and tinkled a tune while she brushed her hair.  Surprisingly, he was well paid for these.  Still, he was so far in debt that he was beyond help.

   By now he was not only poor but sick.  His illness worsened rapidly.  In the last year of his life, knowing himself in a race against death (as he often said), he produced a torrent of glorious music.  At the same time, with only months left to him, he performed 20 two-hour piano concerts in four weeks.  Very ill now, he wrote to a friend in England, “I go on writing because composition tires me less than resting.”  A stranger commissioned him to write a Requiem.  He put the finishing touches to his last opera, The Magic Flute, and began work on his final piece of church music.  Sick unto death, he summoned three men who sat with him for several afternoons while he hummed the parts and dictated the score.  When he whispered to Constanze, “I have the taste of death on my tongue”, she summoned a priest.  He died at 1:00 o’clock in the morning, 5th December 1791, aged thirty-five, and was buried in a pauper’s grave, unmarked.  

   His debts were massive.  The emperor sponsored a benefit concert for Constanze, as did his old friend Haydn, and the money gave her a small monthly pension.  Her health improved now, and she lived until she was seventy-nine.  Whereupon she was buried in the grave of the man who had afflicted her for years and whose letters she had burned, her husband’s father.

Mozart’s life was short.  His published works number six hundred and twenty-six.  We shall never know how much more music he wrote which his elbow knocked onto the floor and a broom later swept up.  And of course we shall never hear the music he played but never wrote.

   Music-experts regard him as the most gifted composer ever.  Leonard Bernstein, American composer, conductor and pianist, maintains that compared to other outstanding composers Mozart resembles a deity who kissed the earthy briefly and then departed.

   This little deity, however, was humble too.  All his life Mozart was especially fond of people below his social station.  He loved to play for sick, elderly people in nursing homes.  “The unlearned will appreciate my music without knowing why”, he commented.  They did.  They do.  And they always will.

II: — Why are we honouring Mozart today in a service of worship?  Music isn’t the Word of God.  To cherish Mozart’s gift isn’t to relish the gospel.  Then why do we bother with him at Sunday worship?

(i)  In the first place, while music is not the gospel it does assist us in our praise of God.  Architecture also assists us in our praise of God.  Sunday by Sunday we worship God in this building.  It cost much to build and it costs much to maintain.  Yet we continue to maintain it and gather within it inasmuch as it facilitates our worship of God.  Music does as much.  

   It always has.  Our Hebrew foreparents knew this.  They used the flute at weddings and funerals; in other words, the flute was used in services of worship which had to do with the extremes of elevated joy or piercing grief.  The tambourine was used in conjunction with dancing, and was always associated with gladness.  The trumpet was used to remind the people of God’s summons to spiritual conflict.

   We sing here Sunday by Sunday just because singing expresses a devotion, an ardour, a response of the heart so deep that merely spoken words can’t do justice to it.  The lyrics of our hymns are poetry.  But we don’t stand and recite poetry together week after week; we sing it.  Poetry which is sung comes from depths in us even deeper than poetry which is said.  Music assists us in our praise of God.  This being the case, it’s only fitting that we recognize someone who was musically gifted above all others.

(ii)  In the second place Mozart’s music is known for its structure, its order.  The order of his music reminds us that our world remains ordered by God’s providence and God’s mercy.  To be sure, in the wake of the Fall the world is disordered; not superficially disordered, but profoundly disordered.  Sunday by Sunday worshippers hear me illustrate and analyse the world’s disorder and also hear me point, I trust, to its recovery in Jesus Christ.  Disordered as the world is, however, it’s never as disordered as it could be.  It’s never disordered entirely.  If it were, existence would be impossible.  

   Everyone knows that life is impossible amidst chaos.  A completely chaotic world would be an uninhabitable world.  Scripture insists over and over that humankind’s wickedness imparts an element of chaos into human existence.  Then as one generation’s wickedness is added to another’s, why doesn’t chaos mount until it overtakes us and life becomes impossible?  Because God himself, in his goodness and patience and mercy, constantly keeps chaos at bay as he preserves order enough to let us live.

   The Hebrew mind always thinks concretely.  When it thinks of chaos it envisages water, torrents of water, both coming down from above and welling up from below.  When the two waters meet, chaos overtakes the world and life is impossible.  It is the testimony of scripture that God, by his goodness, patience and mercy, holds the “waters” back and preserves order, order enough to let us live and work.

   When I hear Mozart’s music, with its marvellous structure, its exquisite order, I know it to be a reflection of that order by which God preserves the world in his mercy.   However fallen the world is, however tarnished, weakened and vicious it might be, it is never this entirely; if the world were this entirely, it would no longer be good.  But God created it good and pronounced it good.  Its goodness remains even in the wake of the Fall, for otherwise it couldn’t be the theatre of God’s glory.

   Mozart’s music embodies an order, intricately worked out, subtle to be sure, yet always balanced and elemental.  His music is a token of that order by which God preserves a world which, if left to itself, could only collapse into chaos.  World?  Your life and mine: left to itself, without God’s preservation — it too could only collapse into chaos.

(iii)  Lastly, Mozart’s music is to be received with thanksgiving simply because it’s a thing of beauty.  Beauty is a gift of God.  Not the gift (Jesus Christ, with all that he does for us and in us, is the gift); but a gift nonetheless, and a glorious gift.

  Think for a minute of the Lord’s Prayer.  We are commanded to pray for daily bread.  Daily bread is not the bread of life.  (Our Lord is this.)  But to say that daily bread isn’t the bread of life isn’t to say that daily bread is unimportant.  Indeed, so important is daily bread that we can’t live without it, and must ask God for it without ceasing.

   Just as bread is food for the stomach so music is food for the mind and heart.  Music too is a kind of “bread” that humankind needs and for which we are to thank God.

   Do you ever think about the cloak which our Lord wore?  It wasn’t a potato sack.  It was beautiful, so beautiful that the soldiers who stripped him didn’t throw it aside.  Instead they gambled for it, each one wanting to be the lucky fellow to take it home.

   Do you recall what Mozart wrote in his notebook about the bird that could chirp a few notes of his music?  “That was beautiful.”  How much more beautiful was the gift of the man whose piano-playing resembled “flowing oil” and whose compositions are without peer.

At one point Mozart’s father, exasperated with his son, wrote to Wolfgang, “It’s always too much or too little with you, never the middle of the road.”  The older man was correct on one thing: for Wolfgang it was never the middle of the road.  But he was wrong when he said that with Wolfgang Amadeus it was always either too much or too little.  It was certainly never too little.  Then was it ever too much?  There can’t be too much of Mozart’s gift.

There can’t be too much of the gift; there can’t be too much of the love our Lord poured out upon us at the cross and continues to pour out.  There can’t be too much of the love we must pour out upon him and upon one another.  Love, like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself, is always a spendthrift.

Victor Shepherd   Updated July 2014