A book that will unquestionably stand among the more poignant investigations of Mozart and his genius, Mozart and Motion: His Work and His World in Pieces, by poet and former Harvard visiting fellow Patrick Mackie, is a serious study of the composer’s character and music as it fits within the context of European manners and mores in the second half of the eighteenth century. In Mackie’s capable hands, we gain clarity as to how this complex figure was in significant part determined by the complexities of his milieux, a post-Enlightenment Europe “wavering on the brink of the modern world,” with France in slow decline (ripening for the 1789 Revolution), and the growing instability of the Holy Roman Empire and, by extension, Mozart’s Hapsburg Vienna. At this time, it was musical culture that tied together all of Europe’s major avenues, intellectual and political, and Mackie, taking as each of his chapters’ centerpieces one or two of Mozart’s works, demonstrates how the Austrian’s stylistic brilliance was charged by not only his seemingly endless personal energies but by the salons, courts, cafés, and opera houses he frequented. How, in the final analysis, Mozart was both product and co-progenitor of his environment. I had the great pleasure of Zooming with Patrick Mackie recently to discuss his probing look at the motion, the magic of Mozart.
Perhaps an effective entry point into Mozart is the 1984 Milos Forman film Amadeus, based on the Peter Shaffer stage play. I’d guess it’s how many of us immediately envision Mozart. Quirky, scatological, overly emotional, a man sometimes on sanity’s edge. I love Shaffer’s drama, I dearly love the film, but there is something … dissatisfying about Mozart’s character as given. He’s a little too buffoonish. How different is the film’s Mozart from the Mozart you have come to know?
Amadeus is, really, a great entry point, and in fact it’s a great entry point for me personally because I don’t come from a massive classical music background in terms of my family—my parents loved music, but they loved all sorts of music and, inevitably, when you’re a kid, you get pulled towards what’s most popular, and what was most popular in my early to mid-1980s was Amadeus. It’s loomed large in my life for all sorts of reasons. I can remember a long, agonizing, rather bizarrely violent argument between myself and my friends and a music teacher at school about its merits. Then, when I was at Oxford, I actually got to know Shaffer because I was involved in playwriting, and he was a visiting professor when I was an undergraduate. So, I have all these different links to the film.
I don’t know if it’s because the film wants to appeal to a mass audience, but it’s always seemed to me to there’s been a real distaste for Shaffer’s ‘betrayal’ of the historical record. There’s something quite peculiar going on, I think, some sort of odd inability to think through actually what I believe the film offers, which is a really interesting argument about music and about talent and about character. It does present a very limited vision of Mozart; it’s not what you would send someone to if they wanted to understand Mozart and all his nuances. In fact, it’s much more of an interesting character study of Salieri. More interesting to me is the fact that Shaffer himself was pulled as to who of these men he was as an artist: a rancid mediocrity or a brilliant tyro, and was never quite sure.
Ultimately, I’d have to say it’s the music that the film gets so spectacularly right. People’s resentment of Amadeus also shows that there’s something difficult about our attraction to this music, that people don’t quite know their own reactions to it. If you’re an academic or a professor or a Mozart expert who’s meant to know their way around the music then here’s something that shows you that maybe you actually don’t as well as you imagine. I think that can be quite discomforting. I’ve ended up finding it very stimulating.
In a similar vein, in terms of popular attitude, I think if you spoke to the average non-classical listener and said, “Name me two of the great composers,” Mozart and Beethoven would show up readily, but accompanied by great vagaries of understanding. So, how would you describe their essential compositional differences? At root, what attitude or attribute best defines each composer?
I’ve thought about that a lot. I think in some ways a love of Beethoven comes more naturally to non-musicians than does a love of Mozart. Beethoven is such an imposing personality and had such an obviously dramatic sense of his own historical and cultural importance that it’s easier to get a handle on him and find arguments for his work. A really crystalline way of putting it, almost to the point of parody, would be to say that, because they are incredibly close in so many ways stylistically, that just makes their differences more breathtakingly apparent.
It’s simple to say that Mozart stands for a highly achieved version of Classicism, and Beethoven for the start of Romanticism. Goethe famously said somewhere that everything begins to go wrong with Beethoven, that Mozart is the apogee, and with Beethoven you know the chaos has finally come. Beethoven tweaks his music into the new world of the French Revolution in full, Napoleonic, chaotic unfurling. Much of the burden of my book is showing how much of that sensibility is already being worried over and promised in Mozart. His music is full of premonitions of, and yearnings for, a mixture of promise and anxiety concerning some coming democratic future.
Haydn and Mozart were adept manipulators of the governing professional paradigm, extremely good at knowing their ways around the sort of professional codes of the old, courtly worlds of Europe. With Beethoven, those opportunities are mostly gone, it’s a different world. Artists are going to have to be artists; they’re going to have to make claims on their own cultural behalf and stand up for the autonomy of their work, and their work is going to have to live up to the claims that history makes for it. No more, ‘I’m just having fun at this particular court, here.’ In Beethoven you can feel the thrill of that as well as the anxiety. Every note in Beethoven is full of the worry of that but also bristling with the thrill, the arrogance, even the brio of being the inheritor of this position.
You write about Mozart how as a composer he is at once deeply original and unoriginal. This, I think, has something to do with your points about Beethoven.
Yes, very interesting. The difference between the two is that Beethoven is innovative at almost every level apart from the one at which Mozart is most innovative, which is in terms of the actual structure of musical phrases and arguments. Beethoven is full of original gestures, original sounds; he changes the language in all sorts of intricate ways but keeps the basic grammar of the Classical statement within basic parameters. A Beethoven piano concerto is structurally conservative. He’ll move bits around, start off with a trill, or he’ll shift away from where the cadenza would typically go. Mozart is the person who literally sets out how the grammar must work, how one gets from A to B in the movement of a piano concerto. He’s more derivative in a very different way, which is that he absorbs everything musical in his environment. Mozart is influenced by everybody, by what people are whistling in the streets as well as by the most innovative symphonic concepts. Mozart is so entirely porous that there’s something almost terrifying in listening to him, to hear just how much of the world you can detect through his music, just how many different rhythms are at work.
Your thesis argues that there was, essentially, a two-way mirror of, on one side, Mozart’s music and on the other his late eighteenth-century environment, which rested on numerous dichotomies, arguably paradoxes. For example, Mozart was dedicated to his art, extremely hardworking, yet he constantly interrupted his own progress with flights of fancy and extravagance, with doubtful career moves and self-defeating arguments with patrons. He was actually a capable money manager but could be unthinkingly profligate. Europe itself is in the midst of a twitchy transition period, between its Enlightenment past and the emergence of what will be the Romantic age. Neither Mozart nor his time and place know exactly what they want, what’s best. Yet, this tension not only defines both composer and continent, it spurred them forward. Could you break this down for us?
That’s really a wonderful description, maybe better than I’ll be able to come up with by way of answer [laughs]. I think it has to do with the extraordinary level of sensitivity that he both thrived on and was sort of flawed by. I think the way I’ve ended up phrasing this to myself is that he had to be a genius at being a son. His relationship to his father Leopold was a strange cipher and parallel to a distorted version of his relationship to Europe and its music. Meanwhile, Europe was ready for change but didn’t yet know what that change could be. It was in a state of heightened anxiety as to its own cultural future inseparable from its excitement about that possibility and its nervousness about the incredible power of the structures that still existed. European culture was at its most lively in its music in that period, and what we hear in Mozart’s music is that particular condition of eager readiness and anxiety. Mozart’s music is a continual oscillation between delight and structure, between the desire of each note to provide a new twist of melody or a new take on harmony and the desire to produce structures that are going to last, that are going to endure, to convince people, and, not unimportant, to get to the next payday. Europe and Mozart are active laboratories of culture.
There was so much fluster and so many dead-ends in Mozart’s life. One could say he was terribly unlucky, and yet it’s possible to argue he was a victim of his own nature. He should have been huge in Vienna, it seems to me; there was no reason apart from character defects, let’s put it, why he shouldn’t have been truly beloved. Was he a victim of too many negative outside forces? Or was it his, as you say, heightened sensitivity that led to his downfalls?
I think what it’s connected to is his intense excitability. Amadeus catches this well, actually. One of the reasons his music is just so fun to listen to is that he was thrilled by its possibilities. He found such pleasure in giving pleasure. You can hear that sort of meta-reflection on pleasure in many of his pieces. You’re right: his work should have made him an absolutely successful star who would have been able to put together a very cushy, stable lifestyle. But his volatility was too voracious, it was too insufferable, and it was inseparable in him in the way you can hear his pieces questioning themselves: whether this instant of pleasure was enough, whether this note was really right, whether this genre wouldn’t be better if extended in these particular ways, and so on. You also hear this in the relationship between his individual pieces, in the way in which one opera takes ideas from another opera and turns them on their heads.
For example, in the book I try to make a lot of how in the mid-1780s he gets to write The Marriage of Figaro and takes a really long time to come up with the opera that everyone in Vienna is expecting from him. When he does finally stage it, it gives them what they want, but it gives it to them so passionately, in such extraordinary ways, in the sense of being too long, too full of ideas. This made it unpopular with Emperor Joseph II, of course, and you could argue that Mozart just couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t help seeing so deeply into the possibilities of form, into what it meant for him to be able to give the pleasures that he could give, that he simply couldn’t help asking too much of people as he asked too much of himself. This was probably one of the key causes of his early death, by the way, along with the state of his finances: he was simply exhausted. He’d been working non-stop for thirty years. We think of him as a young guy, but if you start full-time work in show business at the age of six, you’re an old guy by the time you’re in your mid-thirties.
You mention the scholar and pianist Charles Rosen’s seminal The Classical Style in your book. In my research I came upon this quote from him that I thought was particularly poignant: “In all of Mozart’s supreme expressions of suffering and terror … there is something strikingly voluptuous. Nor does this detract from its power or effectiveness: the grief and the sensuality strengthen each other, and end by becoming indivisible, indistinguishable one from the other.” How would you respond to that?
That’s an amazing quote. Rosen was a great reader and literary critic. Mozart’s sense of drama, his sense of pathos, his insight are so peculiar because they’re always closely linked to his childhood as well as himself as an entertainer, as someone who had to put on a show in order to get through the day. That’s a very strange position for someone as insightful as he was to be in, and what it does is adds this extraordinary dimension to whatever he tries to do. It’s an uncanny combination for an artist to have such deep devotion to pleasure and an endless capacity to merge it with contrary elements. His music of the early 1790s, some of the last pieces—the famous ones like the Requiem, the Clarinet Concerto, and The Magic Flute—you find him juxtaposing grandeur and horror. I think he was moving towards even richer and stranger combinations.
Mozart in Motion: His Work and His World in Pieces
By Patrick Mackie
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published June 6, 2023
RYAN ASMUSSEN is a writer/educator who works as a Visiting Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has published criticism, journalism, fiction, and poetry. Having earned a BLS and MAT from Boston University, he has just completed a Master's of Liberal Arts in Creative Writing and Literature from Harvard Extension School. His Twitter handle is @RyanAsmussen.