Lorenzo Da Ponte: Mozart’s other half

By Lawrence Toppman

According to legend, the wife of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II heard a guy at a “Show Boat” reception praise “Jerome Kern’s song ‘Ol’ Man River’.“ Dorothy Hammerstein quickly corrected him. “Jerome Kern wrote ‘Dum dum dum dum’,” she said, humming the famous melody. “Oscar wrote ‘Ol’ Man River’.”

Because we often speak of “Mozart’s operas,” it’s easy to forget one man wrote words for the wittiest, most beautifully proportioned, most warm-hearted pieces: Lorenzo Da Ponte. By my count, he supplied 27 complete libretti for 10 composers, plus words for pastiches, cantatas and oratorios. But he’s remembered for “Cosi Fan Tutte,” “Le Nozze de Figaro” and “Don Giovanni.”

He had more enduring partnerships with Antonio Salieri (six operas, written before and during Da Ponte’s time with Mozart), Giuseppe Francesco Bianchi (five) and Vicente Martin y Soler (five including “Una Cosa Rara,” of which we hear a snippet in the banquet scene of “Giovanni”).

Whole books, including his autobiographic “Memorie,” have been written about Da Ponte’s extraordinary life. He was born an Italian Jew but converted to Catholicism at 15 with his father, when dad wanted to marry a Catholic woman. Lorenzo became a priest at the church of San Luca in Venice but was banished from the city for taking a mistress and fathering two kids.

He spent the years between 1783 and 1805 in Vienna and London, writing all his opera libretti, but debts forced him to flee to the United States with another mistress and their four children. He lived mostly in New York, became a professor of Italian at Columbia University and founded the short-lived Italian Opera Company at the age of 84 in 1833. But except for the words of “Hymn to America,” written by fellow Italian immigrant Antonio Bagioli, he produced no more lyrics.

Why does his work with Mozart endure, when all his other operas have been forgotten? I’m reminded of Katharine Hepburn’s comment about the appeal of dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: “He gives her class. She gives him sex.” Mozart would be Astaire in that analogy: unflappable, often a little cool and detached, ceaselessly inventive and graceful in every bar. Da Ponte would be Rogers: down-to-Earth, elegant where necessary but more at ease being playful and a little naughty. No better pairing of composer and librettist has ever taken place.

Pictured: Lorenzo da Ponte by Michele Pekenino (engraver, 19th century) after Nathaniel Rogers (American, 1788-1844), Public Domain.

Genius: Neither brains nor sweat

By Lawrence Toppman

You know the quotation attributed to Thomas Edison, right? “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” He said that because he came up with ideas, and workers in his laboratories experimented endlessly, until one worked out. (Genius is also partly marketing: The first home lit by electricity was in England, using bulbs designed by Joseph Wilson Swan. Do you think of him as the father of incandescence?)

But what, really, is genius? It’s not just an intuitive gift for grasping a situation with which others struggle. When I see the Jumble in the newspaper, mixed-up letters rearrange themselves instantly into words without effort on my part, and I seldom use a pen to solve the puzzle. That doesn’t make me a genius, just a guy with a quirky brain.

It’s not diligence, or writers turning out millions of words would qualify. The most prolific author in America today must be James Patterson, but neither he nor anyone else could seriously consider him a genius.

It’s not always about creating things from scratch. My late friend Chuck Foley came up with the idea for Twister, an insanely popular 1960s product marketed by Milton Bradley and the first game to use human bodies as playing pieces. Smart, creative guy — but not a genius.  

It doesn’t necessarily involve profound insight. Multimillionaire Gilbert Kaplan spent 50 years in his devotion to Gustav Mahler, specifically his Symphony No. 2. He considered the “Resurrection” Symphony the greatest piece of music ever, conducted it more than 50 times and recorded it twice, never accepting a fee. He probably understood that masterpiece (and in some ways, Mahler) better than anyone on Earth, yet nobody thought of Kaplan as a genius.

If I had to offer one description, it would be this: To see possibilities – perhaps a nearly infinite range of possibilities – that no one else has considered, choose precisely the right one and explore it thoroughly in a unique way. Haydn, rightly considered the father of the string quartet, was a genius because he had a new understanding of what two violins, a viola and a cello could do. Mozart took the same four instruments in unprecedented directions, then added another viola to write quintets. His gifts lay not so much in invention as re-invention, transforming accustomed models in miraculous ways. That’s genius at work.

Mozart and Masons

By Lawrence Toppman

You cannot fully appreciate Mozart without knowing something about his connection to Freemasonry. He entered the Beneficence Lodge in Vienna just before his 29th birthday, rose from the ranks of Apprentices to become a Journeyman the following year, then shortly after became a Master Mason. He remained active until his death six years later.

He wrote a lied, “Gesellenreise,” to be used at the induction of journeymen shortly after he became one. Then came a cantata for tenor and male chorus, “Die Maurerfreude” (“The Mason’s Joy”), Masonic Funeral Music for a memorial service for two brethren, a cantata (of which a fragment remains), various songs and brief orchestral works – nearly two hours’ worth of music total. “The Magic Flute,” his comic opera masterpiece, pays tribute to both the ceremonies and philosophies of Freemasons.

A cynic might say Mozart signed up to have a personal connection to wealthy and influential people. He attended meetings not only at his lodge but others, where some of Vienna’s most powerful citizens gathered. But he’d lived in Vienna for four years when he joined in 1784 and made a name with his Great Mass in C Minor, late piano concertos and the opera “Abduction from the Seraglio.”

He certainly felt drawn to Freemasonry’s philosophy. The Age of Enlightenment had run for a century when Mozart became a Mason. Western Europeans everywhere, even those ruled by an Emperor (as Austrians were) had begun to stress reason and scientific exploration over unquestioning obedience to church or government authorities. Emperor Joseph II embraced Masons because they favored separation of church and state, then clamped down when they sought political reform.

Yet Beneficence and True Concord, its sister lodge, remained places where philosophers and scientists exchanged ideas. Mozart respected the Masons’ undogmatic approach to Christianity, their vision of salvation coming through love and reason, their ideals of tolerance, fraternity (though women were excluded) and personal liberty. According to fellow Mason Anton Stadler, for whom Mozart wrote his incomparable Clarinet Concerto and Clarinet Quintet, Mozart sought to form his own mini-society, “The Grotto,” within the order – though Stadler never explained what it would do.

We can’t know how well Viennese Masons stuck to their high ideals. But their beliefs inspired Mozart to write some of his most noble and profound music, right up to the last months of his life.

10 Mozart pieces you need to hear

By Lawrence Toppman

A friend familiar with this blog suggested a post titled “The Best of Mozart.” Those would be impossible to choose, and WDAV listeners already know “Don Giovanni,” the late symphonies, the requiem, famous piano concertos, etc. But it’s worth suggesting 10 works you may not know as well but might love if you heard them.

Piano Quartet No. 1 – Publisher Franz Hoffmeister commissioned three piano quartets for amateurs in 1785 but deemed this one too difficult for buyers and cancelled the others. (WAM wrote a second anyway.) This warmly touching work is the first piano quartet masterpiece.

String Quintet No. 3 – Mozart’s fondness for the viola (which he played expertly) came out in his six works for string quartet with a second viola added. If you don’t know them, start with this profound, melancholy outing.

Horn Concerto No. 1 – He allegedly didn’t warm to the sound of the French horn, but he wrote four concertos and some fragments for it. We don’t associate the adjective “fun” with this composer as much as we should, but this buoyant piece makes me smile.

“Die Entführung aus dem Serail” – We needed an opera on this list, so I chose the first of his great comedies. “Abduction from the Seraglio” has wonderful roles for soprano, tenor and bass and an early message about his favorite operatic subject, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Adagio in B Minor for Piano – One of Mozart’s most forward-looking and emotional pieces plants the small, early seeds of romanticism that would bloom in Beethoven and Chopin.

“Gran Partita” Serenade – We don’t hear much these days about serenades, a genre Mozart converted from pleasant background music (usually for outdoor listening) to a longer, grander, beautifully balanced series of movements designed to give pure pleasure.

Symphony No. 25 – If you like the “big” G minor symphony, the tumultuous No. 40, try the “little” one in the same key. He wrote its wide-leaping melodies and unusual rhythms at 17, and it’s the first of his symphonies that stamp him as a genius.

Masonic Funeral Music – This somber march, written for the memorial service of two of Mozart’s brethren in Freemasonry, proves that a masterwork can say all it needs to in six minutes. The shift from minor to major midway through lightens the load upliftingly.

Piano Concerto No. 8 – My first music teacher said this concerto was “where Mozart became Mozart,” revealing his compositional gifts for the instrument most associated with him. Many great Mozart players (Murray Perahia, Wilhelm Kempff, Alfred Brendel) have agreed.

Sinfonia Concertante for Winds – Some scholars doubt he wrote this work for bassoon, oboe, clarinet, horn and orchestra. Its merry elegance makes me grin, so I stuck it in. It may have inspired Haydn to write his delightful sinfonia concertante for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon.

Separating the Artist from the Art

Lawrence Topman

Critics have no harder job than distinguishing between the thing they’re watching or hearing and the person who made it. The average citizen doesn’t need to do that: Jane Fonda posed atop an enemy tank during the Vietnam War (a decision she regretted), and my dad has refused to see her perform for more than 50 years. A critic can’t think that way. I’ve given positive reviews to actors I believed were creeps and negative reviews to those I enjoyed meeting.

The genius and the jerk can coexist in the same brain: Richard Wagner cheated people in business deals, fled debts and responsibilities, treated women badly yet composed music of extraordinary power and beauty. We can be disgusted by his anti-Semitism – which Europeans of his time commonly expressed, and the Nazis blew out of proportion – while being swept up in the nobility of “Lohengrin.”

Classical music seems to encourage this identification of composer with composition. We assume that wild emotions swirled through Berlioz like summer storms, and a graph of his brain would look like his notations for the Symphonie Fantastique. Tchaikovsky wrote heart-on-the-sleeve emotional music, so he must have been a big hot psychological mess.

Shostakovich’s symphonies churn with suppressed terror and hollow happiness, so his stomach must have churned the same way. Beethoven’s music rings with revolutionary ire, spiky wit, love of nature and an indomitable spirit, so those things must also have been true of the man.   

To some extent, that’s all accurate. Yet Berlioz wrote the suave opera “Beatrice et Benedict,” Tchaikovsky composed four untroubled orchestra suites, Shostakovich let his lyrical and humorous sides come out in film scores, and Beethoven knocked out dozens of songs (admittedly, on commission) full of light-hearted humor or blandly conventional sentiment.

Where, then do we find Mozart in his music? Is his personality best represented by the gravity of Symphony No. 40, the detached elegance of Piano Concerto No. 27, the weird mix of buffoonery and philosophy in “The Magic Flute,” the sparkling diversions of his serenades, the crude songs, the sonorous grandeur of the Mass in C Minor? Or was his restless mind a musical universe too expansive to measure? I think that’s it. All of his works, the most diverse catalog in history, represent aspects of his extraordinary personality. That’s why I never tire of him.

5 Perfect Holiday Gifts for the Classical Music Lover

By Mary Lathem

You’ve found the perfect gift for your mother-in-law, teenage cousin, and even that niece who’s going crazy for dinosaurs these days – but one name stands between you and the end of your holiday shopping list. You think to yourself, “What can I buy for my classical music-loving friend when listening to WDAV is free? What more could they possibly want?” The familiar panic sets in, and suddenly your midwinter looks pretty bleak. 

Luckily for you, we’ve scoured the internet this year for the best gifts to satisfy every classical music lover in your life. With options for the seasoned classical music fan and budding musicians alike, this list will make sure your holiday shopping yoke is easy (and your wallet’s burden is light). 

1. Music Fraction Bars

Music Fraction Bars
Credit: Courtesy of Mirus Toys, Etsy

Ideal for clever music teachers and curious students, this unique puzzle encourages mastery of musical notation through fractions and vice versa. It’s fun and functional, but this toy’s streamlined beauty is a bonus that will steal the heart of any recipient – you’ll never find this gift tucked away in a closet! 

Credit: Courtesy of Mirus Toys, Etsy

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2. Yousician

Yousician logo

Billed as “the largest music educator in the world,” Yousician is an interactive music app that teaches users to play an instrument of their choice, including options for guitar, bass, piano, ukulele, and voice. As subscribers are guided through tailored music lessons using their phone or tablet, the app offers feedback in real time and assigns exercises based on the user’s needs.

While technology can’t replace private music lessons, a Yousician subscription is a fantastic gift option for complete beginners, experienced musicians in need of a refresher, and aspiring performers on the go. 

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3. Mozartkugeln


Filled with pistachio marzipan and nougat and covered in dark chocolate, these scrumptious Austrian confections come in an endless variety of decorative packaging celebrating the legendary composer. Sweet, sweet music. 

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4. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony Cookie Cutter

Beethoven's 5th Symphony Cookie Cutter

Has your loved one ever: 

  • Looked at a cookie and thought “it needs more suspense”?
  • Wished sheet music was edible? 
  • Expressed a desire to be more like Rachel Stewart? 

If you answered “yes” to any of the above, your search for the perfect gift ends here. They’ll serve up this iconic moment in classical music history in no time (and they’ll have no excuse but to throw a party for Beethoven’s 250th birthday in 2020).

 Credit: Courtesy of Bakerlogy, Etsy

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5. WDAV’s Buy-A-Brick Program

WDAV's Buy A Brick Program

Make a statement that will stand the test of time! WDAV is offering a unique opportunity for listeners to demonstrate their commitment to great music through the purchase of a personalized brick to be placed in the station’s front walkway.

Surprise your loved one with a brick in their honor this holiday, and they’ll be thrilled to see their mark on the Davidson College campus when the next bricks are installed in early spring.

Want to wait to purchase a brick for an anniversary or a birthday? Don’t worry – you can participate in the Buy-A-Brick program anytime, not just the holiday season.

Proceeds from this project will provide long-term support of WDAV’s classical music mission, the gift that keeps on giving!

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No Top 40 for Wolfgang!

By Lawrence Toppman

Pop songwriters have pillaged classical music for 80 years. Big bands first turned memorable tunes into dance numbers: Everybody with a radio in 1941 hummed Freddy Martin’s “Tonight We Love,” perhaps not realizing the tune came from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

Sometimes songwriters swiped melodies verbatim. Sometimes they took classical composers in a different direction: Claude Thornhill wrote lush wind and brass arrangements of Debussy and Tchaikovsky, while Duke Ellington swung the “Nutcracker” and “Peer Gynt” suites with his versatile orchestra.

The West End and Broadway got in the game with scores adapted from Schubert (“Lilac Time”), Grieg (“Song of Norway”), Rachmaninov (“Anya”) and especially Borodin: “Kismet,” based entirely on themes from his work, ran for 583 performances, won a Tony Award for best musical in 1954 and produced the ubiquitous “Stranger in Paradise.” (That song came from the Polovtsian Dances in the opera “Prince Igor.”)

Adaptations of opera arias entered the top 40 in the 1950s, from Della Reese’s “Don’t You Know” (Musetta’s Waltz in “La Boheme”) to Jackie Wilson’s “Night” (“Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from “Samson et Dalila”).

Even when popular music split into harder and softer elements, the trend continued. Progressive rock bands Deep Purple, Procol Harum and especially Emerson, Lake and Palmer delved into the classics – remember ELP’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”? – while the swoony vocals of Eric Carmen and Barry Manilow got instrumental accompaniment from Rachmaninov and Chopin. The Toys crooned “A Lover’s Concerto” to a minuet from J.S. Bach’s “Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.”

But where was WAM in all this?  I can’t find a single hit song based mainly on his work. Even Falco’s No. 1 outing “Rock Me Amadeus,” inspired by the 1984 movie, contains no music by Mozart!

When Classic FM compiled this list of top pop-song samples from the classics between 1992 and 2017, Mozart makes one brief appearance: Ludacris sampled the Dies Irae from his Requiem in the 2001 “Coming to America.” (Beethoven and Bach appear three times each.) Why should that be? Mozart’s vocal and instrumental melodies can be beautiful, dramatic, witty or romantic. They’re easily singable in all registers and, to my mind, as catchy as any other composers’ themes. Maybe they’re just a shade too subtle or complex to become the earworms that pop composers pray for when trying to write a hit.

The myth of the pauper’s grave

By Lawrence Toppman

You’ll occasionally hear that Mozart was ignored at the end of his life, dumped into a mass grave without a headstone because Viennese society had already begun to forget him. He died 228 years ago today (December 5), so this may be a good week to debunk hoary legends about his passing and funeral.

Accounts about the nature of his fatal illness don’t agree. Most sources point to rheumatic fever; he’d had bouts of it as a boy, and it probably came back in adulthood. His late-life symptoms of swelling and joint pain suggest a recurrence, and rheumatic fever often leads to heart disease.

He spoke at least twice of the belief that he’d been poisoned by an unidentified enemy but also repudiated that idea, as scholars do today. Theorists have suggested he had a severe deficiency of vitamin D, succumbed to a subdural hematoma or trichinosis, or filled his body with patent medicines that contained antimony.

Reports in the 19th century claimed nobody accompanied the body to the interment, partly because of terrible rain and snow. But weather journals for 1791, found long after the “dark and stormy night” narrative circulated, say the weather was calm. And it was less customary anyway for mourners at the funeral to ride out to the gravesite in the 18th century.

Emperor Joseph II had forbidden the use of headstones and encouraged burials that were simple, hygienic and inexpensive: Bodies were supposed to decay quickly, and the city of Vienna sometimes opened communal graves to replace occupants with fresh corpses. Leopold II ruled during the last years of Mozart’s life but had not changed those practices much.

Biographers also dispute whether Mozart lay in a “common” grave or a “communal” one. The former adjective simply means humble or non-aristocratic. The latter means he shared space with other bodies, at least until they were removed. He definitely landed in St. Marx Cemetery, where a statue of a weeping angel now sits at the spot thought likeliest to be his resting place. Except, perhaps, for his skull (minus the lower jaw). That, according to the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation in his birth city, may be in their hands, though DNA testing has been inconclusive. Of course, what really matters is not the skull itself but the amazing music that came out of it.