Lawrence Toppman

Do composers marry the wrong people?

By Lawrence Toppman

Think of how few classical masters ended up with enduring attachments to mates who suited them. J.S. Bach did (twice), and mentally troubled Robert Schumann had Clara’s ministrations until his final breakdown institutionalized him. Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears had a loving relationship until Britten died; had marriage for gay men been legal, they’d surely have wed.

The 20th-century Russians – Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Stravinsky – found wives who were often supportive or at least stayed out of the public’s eye.  But many composers get the wrong mates or never find a soulmate at all.

Peter Tchaikovsky married idolatrous fan Antonina Milyukova to convince Russian society (and perhaps himself) that he wasn’t homosexual, and he made her wretched. Leonard Bernstein did the same with Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, though perhaps he was more bisexual in the 1950s, then openly conducted gay affairs she reportedly tolerated.

Hector Berlioz saw British actress Harriett Smithson play Juliet and Ophelia in Paris – in English, a language he didn’t know – madly pursued her and browbeat her into a marriage that made both unhappy. (He won her partly because she learned that “Symphonie Fantastique” depicted his mental state while longing for her.) Gustav Mahler married Alma Schindler, one of Vienna’s most alluring women, in 1902; she became restless, possibly because he suppressed her desire to compose, and had affairs, most notably with painter Oskar Kokoschka. Neither Joseph Haydn nor his wife had affairs, as far as I know, but she seems to have been a shrew.

Then there are the never-married and, perhaps, never marriageable geniuses. Brahms loved Clara Schumann, who was not only too old for him but wed to Robert when Brahms lived with them in his 20s. Chopin and Liszt had affairs – and, in Liszt’s case, children — but didn’t marry. Schubert (whose sexuality still gets debated), Ravel (ditto), Mendelssohn and Beethoven never found an immortal beloved.

How lucky, then, was Mozart. Though his father disapproved of his match to Constanze Weber, partly because it diverted income from the family coffers, she nursed WAM through illnesses, inspired him – he wrote the soprano part of the Great Mass in C Minor for her to premiere – stayed faithful and, after his death, undertook a campaign to publish his works and organized memorial concerts to get the family out of debt. All composers should be so fortunate.

Classical Music’s Greatest Utility Infielder

By Lawrence Toppman

The National Baseball Hall of Fame contains not a single player who could reliably step into every position. Many members played at more than one spot: Outfielders who lost a step or catchers whose knees gave out moved to first base, for instance. Yet no one there has been honored primarily for versatility. (By the way, everyone should visit Cooperstown, N.Y., at least once. If you go next summer, you can drive down the road to see “Cosi Fan Tutte” and “Don Giovanni” at Glimmerglass.)

But if someone established a Classical Music Hall of Fame, pretty much everyone in it would have excelled in multiple ways. Of course, only one hit a home run at least once in all genres.

Wolfgang Mozart produced first-rate symphonies, concertos, sacred choral pieces, chamber works for large ensembles, chamber works for small ensembles, solo pieces, comic operas, serenades, serious operas and songs. (Nobody wrote full-length ballets until long after his death.)

Everybody else has at least one deficiency. Beethoven never wrote a comic opera. Schubert never gave us a full-length concerto, and Bruckner and Wagner didn’t turn out any at all. Chopin never wrote anything that didn’t involve a piano, period. Mahler limited himself to symphonies, songs and one movement of a piano quartet.

Handel’s great operas end in tragedy, not laughter. Bach wrote powerful Christian passions but chose not to compose secular operas. Verdi remains the supreme operatic genius of all time but wrote only negligible works away from the stage. Ravel died before he could get to a symphony.

Occasionally, a composer did touch all the bases. But Dvorak and Saint-Saens didn’t produce comic masterpieces, and I couldn’t make a strong case for either man’s choral music. Tchaikovsky’s piano sonatas and the two comic operas I’ve heard cure insomnia. So do the four Haydn operas I have endured. Vaughan Williams’ concertos aren’t top-shelf, though tuba players may disagree. (After all, they have so little repertoire in which to shine.)

I account every one of these men a genius, along with Schumann, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Sousa, Strauss (both Richard and Johann the younger) and plenty of people whose names don’t begin with “S.” But their talents all ran in particular channels. Mozart alone excelled at least once at everything. That, for my money, is one huge reason he’s the greatest classical composer.

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.

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.

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.

Mozart good enough to eat

By Lawrence Toppman

I tasted my first Mozartkugel in college, when an Austrian exchange student passed a box around. I couldn’t have said what was in them – apparently, pistachio marzipan and nougat covered with dark chocolate — but I remember scarfing them down greedily. I neither knew nor cared who Mozart was, because I hadn’t yet had my first music appreciation course. He was just a guy whose beaky-nosed profile graced an imported candy.

Fans of these sugar balls can go to here to learn more. My three favorite factoids are these:

1)  Salzburg confectioner Paul Fürst invented them in 1890, and his descendants still make them by hand. At least eight other candy makers have created copies of various kinds, but by industrial processes. An imported 7.7-ounce Reber Mozart Specialties Gift Box ($37 via Amazon) contains chocolates of various flavors and shapes, including something described as “Mozart pie.”

2) Copyright entanglements resulted in rulings as to which could be round and which must have flat sides, which could have “Real” in their names, and which had to be designated Mozart-kugeln (with a hyphen) instead of Mozartkugeln.

3) Salzburg artists built 80 polyester Mozartkugeln, each five feet across, and put them in the city’s old town in 2006. One cannot have beauty without stupidity, alas, and vandals caused 7,000 euros worth of damage by unbolting one and rolling it into the street.

Assorted Mozartkugeln
Assorted Mozartkugeln

Aside from making my mouth water, this contemplation of Mozart Spheres (that’s one meaning of “kugel” in German) has made me wonder, “Why Mozart?”

He’s not the world’s most beloved classical composer: That would probably be Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, and you never see Beethoven Balls or Tchaikovsky Treats. Nor does one encounter Bach Rocks, Schubert Sugarsnacks or Brahms Bombs. (I would buy one of those sight unseen.)

Yes, a Salzburg confectioner named his product for the most famous celebrity from his home town – really the only one, unless we count physicist Christian Doppler, and Doppler Dream Bars probably wouldn’t sell as well. But nobody else, as far as I know, has named a candy for a composer.

I think it’s because Mozart epitomizes the spirit of joy in his buoyant symphonies, vivacious concertos and witty comic operas. Whether absorbed by ears or mouth, he and his candy are linked because they provide unfailing pleasure.

Pictured: Fürst Original Mozartkugeln; CC BY-SA 3.0.