Sunday, January 22, 2006

a short order composer

Again and again in the new documentary "In Search of Mozart", commentators emphasize the choices Mozart didn't make. The forms, ensembles, texts, even the character of his music were dictated by his patrons and their commissions. The Romantic artist constrained only by the limits of imagination and personal expression didn't exist in Mozart's time - he worked under strict guidelines, with pressing deadlines. One of the documentary's historians noted that Mozart was not a particularly good employee, that he would much rather serve his own artistic ideals than some tone-deaf aristocrat. Still, that sort of independence did not exist for Mozart, or any other composer of his time. It would take a later generation of composers, such as Beethoven, to rebel against the patronage system and stake out a new role for the musical artist.

Mozart's "Posthorn" Serenade was typical in its utilitarian purpose. It was written for a graduation ceremony in 1779, on orders from the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg. Even the use of the posthorn, the quirky instrument that gives the piece its nickname, was a function of the occasion. And yet the music transcends that occasion, and surpasses the forgettable circumstances that inspired it. It is not subversive music in any ordinary sense, but in its extraordinary beauty and timelessness it seems to defy its subservient origins.

To me Mozart's work is even more impressive for its mercenary origins. Even when writing for silly and banal occasions, for unappreciative or even stupid patrons, he wrote glorious, uplifting, beautiful and moving music. He poured his life into this music, his joys, his disappointments and suffering, his wisdom and insights into human nature, and even if those original patrons didn't always appreciate it much, we certainly do.

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