Amadeus? Never heard of him.

By Lawrence Toppman

The name serves today for a respected film and play, a travel technology for online ticketing, Falco’s 1985 single “Rock Me, Amadeus” (the first German-language song to top the Billboard Hot 100) and an acoustic enhancement system for concert halls and theaters. But it almost never served Mozart.

I learned this while reading Maynard Solomon’s 1995 biography “Mozart: A Life.” Solomon spends too much time with Freudian interpretations, often attributing Mozart’s behavior to compliance with papa Leopold’s wishes or lifelong rebellion against them. But he gets into fascinating byways, one of which is WAM’s name.

The young composer liked to introduce himself as De Mozartini, Mozartus and Mozarty. Sometimes he became Romatz or Trazom. (He invented a mythical land, the Kingdom of Back, and inverted the names of other “inhabitants.”) He toyed with his first name, from Wolfgangus to Wolfgango to Gnagflow.

And he preferred to sign his middle name Amadé, with the occasional variations Amadeo or Amadi. He apparently didn’t use Amadeus until he was 18, in a joking message to his sister, and seldom revived it. Solomon thinks it acquired universal appeal only after his death, when Breitkopf & Härtel published “The Complete Works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.”

Yet here’s the weirdest thing: He signed the register at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna “Wolfgang Adam Mozart” when he married Constanze Weber in 1782. In fact, though he signed the marriage contract with the middle name of Amadé, he wrote “Adam” on all other marriage papers.

If it appears on multiple documents, it can hardly be a mistake. So what was he thinking?

Was it a metaphoric connection to the first man and woman in the Bible? Was it a symbol of creative power, because the Old Testament Adam had dominion over his world before the biblical “fall” and founded the human race afterward? (Of course, Mozart would hardly have seen his willing departure from provincial Salzburg as an expulsion from the Garden of Eden.)

Solomon thinks he may have renamed himself the way Mary Ann Evans and Alexei Peshkov did, when they became George Eliot and Maxim Gorky – a last name that means “bitter” in Russian. New names represent artistic reinvention, freedom to explore ideas through other personalities.

Whatever Mozart’s reason, we know he didn’t care to be called Amadeus. But 228 years later, he’s stuck with it.

Opera Singer Jessye Norman Dies At 74

Updated at 6:40 p.m. ET

Opera singer Jessye Norman died Monday morning at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York. The official cause of death was septic shock and multi-organ failure secondary to complications of a spinal cord injury she had sustained in 2015. She was 74.

Her death was confirmed to NPR by a spokesperson for her family, Gwendolyn Quinn, as well as a representative from The Jessye Norman School of the Arts.

Norman was one of the leading opera figures in the world in a time when there were fewer celebrated African Americans than now. The soprano won four Grammys and the National Medal of Arts.

Norman is survived by a brother and sister, James Norman and Elaine Sturkey, who released a statement saying they are proud of her musical achievements and, “We are equally proud of her humanitarian endeavors addressing matters such as hunger, homelessness, youth development, and arts and culture education.”

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Don’t get history lessons from Hollywood

By Lawrence Toppman

The movie “Amadeus” went into wide release 35 years ago last week. It quickly ensconced itself in America’s consciousness: It was nominated for 11 Oscars and earned eight, including best picture, and it ranks 83rd on the Internet Movie Database list of all-time audience favorites.

Countless viewers told me, “Now I understand Mozart better.” Even this month, when I mentioned I was writing a blog called My Year with Mozart, a friend replied, “Oh, he was crazy!” I told him the movie on which he based that view had numerous inaccuracies, and he frowned: Hadn’t the filmmakers done research?

I used to get this a lot as film critic for The Charlotte Observer. People would watch a historical picture and tell me, “I never knew….” I would have to explain that, counter to Oliver Stone’s view in “JFK,” we lacked credible evidence that Lyndon Johnson became president by taking part in Kennedy’s assassination. (The eye-opening book “Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies” gauges the accuracy of dozens of such projects but skips “Amadeus.”)

It’s a big anniversary year for “Amadeus.” Peter Shaffer’s play, which won a Tony when it reached New York, saw the light of day in London 40 years ago. F. Murray Abraham, who jump-started a stalled career as Salieri, turns 80 on October 24. (He was playing a bunch of grapes in a Fruit of the Loom underwear commercial when director Milos Forman cast him in the Oscar-winning role.)

The play and film, both well-crafted, provide plenty of entertainment. They invite us to meditate on the nature of genius, the feelings of hard-working mediocrities who can’t achieve their dreams, the failure of bureaucrats to support ground-breaking art – a concern in Forman’s native Czechoslovakia – and the brevity of fame.

But Mozart didn’t regularly write whole manuscripts in one faultless draft, without revisions. His wife wasn’t a giggling booby with no understanding of her husband’s skills. Salieri may have envied him – what composer wouldn’t? – but didn’t plot to destroy him. The thing that most annoys fans of Mozart is the depiction of the title character as a simple-minded, foul-mouthed savant who produced masterpieces almost accidentally, while behaving like a juvenile nitwit in all other respects. That’s why a friend of mine referred to the title in his thick Southern accent as “Ahm-a-dumbass.” Unsubtle, perhaps, but he had a point.

Bach, Mozart, beer and me

By Lawrence Toppman

A confession: I can’t see any way I’ll live up to the promise I made at the beginning of this journey in January. I am two-thirds of the way through writing “My Year With Mozart,” and I doubt I’ll listen to every piece of music WAM wrote before reaching the last blog post.

I’ve gotten well into the symphonies, listened to all the concertos, absorbed most of the chamber music, tried stuff I’d never heard – for example, his plebian organ sonatas – and started to explore the choral repertoire, which is larger than I’d realized.

But like a kid who leaves his broccoli for last, I’m not sure I can face the sea of concert arias indistinguishable to me. Or, perhaps, the juvenile operas that are as long as the mature ones but one-tenth as inventive. Those may come later in my lifetime, after I retire. Or in another lifetime.

A late friend believed J.S. Bach never wrote a piece that didn’t need to be heard. Every organ chorale or trio sonata demands our attention, he used to say. Listen endlessly and intently, and you too will come to believe nothing can be skipped without loss.

This recalled the argument my college roommate made when I told him I didn’t like beer. “You have to drink a lot to get past the point where you don’t enjoy it,” he told me. “Eventually, you’ll develop a taste.” I pointed out that, if I still didn’t like it, my wallet would be a lot lighter, and I’d be a lot heavier. “Nah, it always works,” he insisted. I later heard a similar claim made for fatherhood but haven’t tested either one. It turned out not to be true for Bach.

I’ve taken a stab at Mozart’s concert arias before. I remember them as melodious in a bland, long-winded way and full of generalized emotion, usually joy in the beloved or sadness in the lack of the beloved. (Don’t confuse these with his pithy, pungent songs. They’re snappy.)

Yet the relatively small percentage of Mozart I’m reluctant to encounter proves how amazing the bulk of his output is. Measured like a baseball player, I think he’d have the highest batting average of any composer who wrote prolifically.  But even the greatest geniuses sometimes sleep when they take pen in hand.

Q & A: Soprano Melissa Givens on Considering Matthew Shepard

Considering Matthew Shepard is a contemporary oratorio written by Craig Hella Johnson, founder and director of the acclaimed choral group, Conspirare. The work is a powerful and moving artistic response to the death of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in October 1998.

In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of this tragic event, WDAV will feature Considering Matthew Shepard in its entirety on Sunday, October 7 at 6 p.m.

We’ve also spoken with soprano Melissa Givens, one of the singers featured in the memorable work. Givens currently serves on the voice faculty of Pomona College in Claremont, California. A Davidson College graduate, Givens has been involved with the project since the beginning and is traveling nationally to present the work in performance.

Melissa Givens
Melissa Givens

What has it been like to be a part of this monumental project?

It has been an amazing, touching, soul-opening experience. Each time we sing Considering Matthew Shepard (CMS) is another opportunity to introduce people to Matt and to gain new insight into this brilliantly written piece of music.

Composer Craig Hella Johnson has said that the voices of Conspirare were in his mind as he was writing this oratorio. Describe the process of learning, rehearsing, performing and recording the work.

We first prepared CMS for Conspirare’s 2014 ComPassion Festival. At that point, all that existed was a portion of the Passion section. Even then, we could tell what an affecting work it would be. Our first read-through was incredibly emotional. Between Matt’s story, the texts, the music, and just the pride we felt for the accomplishment of our friend and colleague, the tears flowed freely.

Later, with the completed score in hand, it was a joy to see how Craig structured the finished work. It mirrored the collage form of the Carillon concerts for which he is known; drawing disparate styles of music together into a glorious whole. He wrote to our strengths, making the learning process both challenging and familiar at the same time.

It was exciting to see CMS come together as the rehearsal process continued. To hear the orchestrations the first time our instrumental colleagues joined us. To see the audience reactions in the first dress rehearsals and the premiere in Austin.

The culmination of the birthing process was the recording sessions at Goshen College. Fortunately, those familiar surroundings mitigated any nerves we had about getting the recording right— both for Craig and for Matt.

What are the highlights for you, specifically, as a soloist with the ensemble?

Lesléa Newman wrote a beautiful book of poems about Matt’s death, October Mourning. Craig used some of the sections written in the voice of the fence in CMS. I am one of the three singers who portray the fence in arias. Besides singing beautifully written music, it is rewarding to be entrusted with one of the many emotionally laden moments of the evening.

You’ve been traveling with the ensemble presenting a national tour of Considering Matthew Shepard. How has the work been received at these programs?

The audience response has been universally positive. We can always hear sniffling throughout the evening, so we know that some audience members are connecting to it emotionally. Occasionally an audience will be moved to complete silence at the end and it will take a moment before the applause begins. But when it does, it is always generous and sustained. People will stop us to talk after the show to tell us how moved they were, or to tell us how grateful they are that this work exists.

As a follow up, how are you feeling about the upcoming performance of the oratorio in Laramie this October?

I expect that it will be very special, very difficult, and incredibly moving to honor Matt in that way in that place.

Why is a piece like this important and even essential in helping to remember Matthew Shepard and his story?

Matt was an ordinary boy murdered by hate. That fact alone is enough reason why he should be remembered. But we’re also in a time when hate has been weaponized, so an antidote is needed. The music of Considering Matthew Shepherd not only memorializes a murdered boy, but celebrates him—and reminds us all that love is the answer; that loving one another is how we save the world.

This article was originally published on October 2, 2018. To learn more about the Charlotte Master Chorale’s performance of “Considering Matthew Shepard” listen to our interview with Craig Hella Johnson or visit their website here.

The Only Composer Everybody Loved

By Lawrence Toppman

Technically, not everybody: The young Berlioz, who responded to revolutionary fire in composers and revered Beethoven as God, didn’t have much use as a young man for Mozart. When he got older, he recanted harsh words and became a qualified admirer.

Haydn called Mozart the greatest composer he knew, personally or by reputation. Beethoven, who played his 20th and 24th piano concertos, doubted he’d write anything as beautiful as the latter and created piano and cello variations on arias from “The Magic Flute.”

Chopin acknowledged WAM’s piano influence in such pieces as the forward-looking Adagio in B minor. At his first Paris concert, he played his own Piano Concerto No. 2 and Variations on “La ci darem la mano” from “Don Giovanni.” He asked that Mozart’s Requiem be played at his funeral; it was, for a reported 3,000 mourners.

From Rossini:

“Beethoven I take twice a week, Haydn four times, Mozart every day.”

From Brahms:

“If we cannot write with the beauty of Mozart, let us at least try to write with his purity.”

From Wagner, who had few kind words for other composers:

“The most tremendous genius raised Mozart above all masters, in all centuries and in all the arts.”

Tchaikovsky not only wrote an orchestral suite on WAM’s themes (his fourth, “Mozartiana”) but praised him above all composers: “Mozart is the musical Christ.” Or, less fulsomely, “Mozart is the culminating point beauty has attained in the sphere of music.” Even Stravinsky, the most important composer of the 20th century, studied Mozart’s counterpoint while moving into his neoclassical period.

Plenty of composers have achieved universal respect, at least after their deaths: Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler and, closer to our time, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. Some give great enjoyment while being ranked in the second tier as creators: Dvorak, Copland, Puccini, Saint-Saens.

Yet Mozart shows up simultaneously on the largest number of “admire” and “love” lists among fans, particularly among composers. Leonard Bernstein offers the best explanation I know: “It is hard to think of another composer who so perfectly marries form and passion. Mozart combines serenity, melancholy and tragic intensity into one great lyric improvisation. Over it all hovers the greater spirit that is Mozart’s: the spirit of compassion, of universal love, even of suffering – a spirit that knows no age, that belongs to all ages.”

What IS a genius, anyway?

By Lawrence Toppman

An interviewer once described Jimmy Page as a genius. “Mozart was a genius,” he replied. “I’m a guitar player.” (A great one in his style, as this live recording of Led Zeppelin proves. You’ve gotta admire anyone who plays electric guitar with a violin bow.)

But what defines a genius? First, he or she must be creative, rather than recreative. I don’t think an interpreter can be anything but a re-creator. As amazing as Horowitz or Heifetz or Toscanini were on their best days, they weren’t geniuses.

Sometimes a performer or conductor gives us a new experience by wrenching a piece out of recognizable shape, as Leonard Bernstein did in his final recording of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. Whatever the results may be, that’s not really a creative act.

On the other hand, I would call Bernstein a genius if he had never waved a baton or sat down at a keyboard. No other composer flowed back and forth as deftly from concert hall to stage to screen, and he wrote masterworks in each area.

Of course, there has to be more to genius than simply making art, however prolifically or diversely. Hollywood studio directors of the 1930s and 1940s belched out movies at the rate of two or three a year in multiple genres, but few rose above mediocrity.

The definition also goes beyond skill. Georg Philipp Telemann wrote more than 800 pieces. His viola concerto, “Don Quixote” suite and some other works (especially orchestral compositions where he mimics animals) make me smile, but even the ones that put me to sleep – pretty much all of the rest — show impeccable craftsmanship.

I think a genius has to make us understand art itself in a different way. That doesn’t mean we need to admire the result: I consider Andy Warhol a genius as the most seminal figure in Pop Art, though I seldom take to his paintings or prints. Jimmy Page expanded the possibilities for nimble rock guitarists but didn’t redefine the form. Mozart made us think differently about what classical music could be, whether giving shape to the modern piano concerto, composing for a clarinet with an extended range or creating ensembles in operas where each character sings a different line yet can be understood. That’s the difference between a terrific musician and a genius.