Lawrence Toppman

Was Mozart a Christian Composer?

By Lawrence Toppman

As Easter draws near, that question has been on my mind. On one hand, the answer’s obvious: He wrote short and long masses, a requiem and other pieces with sacred content. He belonged to the Roman Catholic church all his life.

On the other hand, you can compose religious music without being devout; Benjamin Britten, Johannes Brahms and Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote first-class Requiems. Mozart himself never spoke much about his spiritual beliefs, and contemporaries didn’t take note of a religious side.

For me, however, his music – particularly in the operas – represents one of the truest expressions of Christ’s teachings from any composer. Christians (and others, too, of course) famously ask God to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And every one of Mozart’s mature operas is about forgiveness in the end.

In “Idomeneo,” when the Cretan title character offers his son’s life as a sacrifice to Neptune, the boy forgives his father and becomes king of Crete. Pasha Selim allows Belmonte to remove Constanze (whom they both love) from his harem in “Abduction from the Seraglio,” showing a clemency the Spanish hero never expected from a presumably bloodthirsty Turk.

Spouses and lovers in “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Cosi Fan Tutte” pardon each other for all their scheming and promise fidelity thereafter. In “The Magic Flute,” Sarastro forgives the Queen of the Night’s misguided daughter for seeking his death; in “La Clemenza de Tito,” Roman emperor Titus does the same for would-be assassin Sesto, singing in “Se all’impero” that he’d rather have the world indict him for too much mercy than a vengeful heart.

In “Don Giovanni,” the libertine (or maybe attempted rapist) and slayer of an old man gets a chance to beg God’s pardon but rejects it. The Commendatore’s statue interrupts a banquet to give Giovanni a final warning: Unless he renounces sin, he’ll be damned. “Pentiti!” thunders the statue multiple times. Giovanni repeatedly refuses to repent, and devils drag him off to Hell.

Mozart wrote some of his most serenely lovely music for these final scenes of reconciliation, showing us how deeply he felt them himself. Whatever his personal relationship with God may have been, that proof makes him perhaps the most Christian composer of all.

His Frenemy, Yes – but Not His Killer

By Lawrence Toppman

Poor Antonio Salieri. Nearly two centuries after his death, virtually everything he wrote has been forgotten, and he’s remembered for something he didn’t do: murder Mozart.

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra will play his symphony “Il Giorno Onomastico” this weekend, pairing it with Mozart’s Requiem – once again, Salieri will be overshadowed by the young genius – and a welcome revival of Nkeiru Okoye’s 250th-anniversary tribute, “Charlotte Mecklenburg.” (The title of Salieri’s piece refers to the Christian church’s celebration of birthdays and death days of saints.)

I’ve heard Salieri’s music and own a couple of his piano concertos. It’s well-crafted, mildly inventive but mostly rule-following, generally indistinguishable from work by such minor contemporaries as Franz Anton Hoffmeister, Carl Stamitz or Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach.

Salieri was director of Italian opera for the Habsburg court in Vienna from 1774 through 1792 and kapellmeister (in charge of the court chapel and school) from 1788 through 1824. While Mozart lived in Vienna in the 1780s, no one wielded more musical power.

Despite letters in which Mozart felt Salieri and his Italian “clique” tried to hold him back, the Italian encouraged premieres of his works (notably the 40th symphony), praised others (especially “The Magic Flute”), co-wrote a cantata with Mozart that was lost until 2016, even tutored Mozart’s younger son after his dad’s death.

Salieri may have been jealous of Mozart’s gifts (who wouldn’t be?) and annoyed that Mozart publicly suggested he be given Salieri’s job (ditto). But how did the nutty idea arise that Salieri fatally poisoned him?

Mozart never said so. He did believe he was being poisoned, at least according to his wife; Constanze later said he made and rejected that claim off and on during his long fatal attack of rheumatic fever.

The Viennese were annoyed that an Italian interloper supervised musical activity in the capital, so perhaps they enjoyed spreading malicious gossip. Russian author Alexander Pushkin revived the story in his short 1830 play “Mozart and Salieri,” composer Albert Lortzing alluded to the rumors two years later in his mini-opera “Scenes from Mozart’s Life,” and Rimsky-Korsakov set Pushkin’s prose in the one-act opera “Mozart and Salieri” in 1897. The rumor simmered for a while until playwright Peter Shaffer revived it 40 years ago in “Amadeus.” Most people now draw their ideas about Salieri from that entertainingly untrue play and movie – which reminds us why pop culture shouldn’t stand in for history books.

Are dying composers sending us a message?

Lawrence Toppman

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra bills its April 12 – 14 concerts as “Mozart’s Requiem: His Last Statement.” It is certainly his final finished composition and a profound statement about death and resurrection, and it rises above any previous mass for the dead. However….

A lot of posthumous rumors flew around the piece, many spread by his wife. She told people he’d intended it as his own requiem and said Franz Sussmayr finished it in accordance with directions on scraps of paper Mozart left behind. Count von Walsegg, who commissioned it and had a history of passing others’ works off as his own, may have planned to claim it as his tribute on the anniversary of his wife’s death.

Mozart struggled to complete it on his deathbed, in December 1791. But according to biographer Maynard Solomon, he accepted von Walsegg’s commission about six months earlier and set it aside, because he was too busy to work on it. He got sick in September, recovered to finish history’s greatest clarinet concerto (which premiered in October), then began the requiem. He knew by December he was dying, but he didn’t know that in October.

What is a final statement, anyway? Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” qualifies; the 37-year-old composer premiered it in Paris in 1829, said he’d write no more operas and stuck to his word, though he lived to be 76. Anton Bruckner worked on his ninth symphony for nine years through ever-worsening health, realized he would not complete the fourth movement and dedicated “my last work to the majesty of all the majesties, the beloved God.” Those are final statements.

We often assume a composer knew that the last piece he finished would be the last piece he would ever finish. A friend who venerates Tchaikovsky used to say the Russian composer – who may or may not have committed suicide in 1893 – poured all his soul into the Pathetique Symphony, because it would be his last. Alas, he eventually learned Tchaikovsky had written a latter after the Pathetique saying he was excited about starting a seventh symphony.

We should be careful when claiming to understand composers’ intentions or states of mind, unless those are clearly spelled out in their letters and diaries. (Mozart’s were not, in this case.) Musical masterpieces speak loudly enough without being glamorized by murky mysteries.

Are aliens enjoying Mozart right now?

By Lawrence Toppman

I listened lately to The Golden Record, perhaps the noblest unified cultural endeavor in history. I didn’t pay much attention when Voyager I and II were launched in 1977; I had just gotten my first journalism job and an unreliable car and had down-to-Earth concerns. There was nothing down-to-Earth about these spaceships, which sailed across the solar system relaying photographs of unprecedented clarity and color to NASA scientists.

They each carried golden discs that brought greetings in 55 languages, sounds ranging from crackling fire to a steamship to a baby’s cry, 32 musical selections across many cultures, photos and diagrams of flora and fauna, and pictorial instructions on how to extract this data. Because this was the pre-digital age, a cartridge and phonograph needle went along.

The late Carl Sagan came up with this idea to let aliens know what we are like – or, as the discs could last for millions of years, maybe what we were like before we destroyed ourselves. He and his team believed photos and music were the best ways to do that; even if aliens had no ears, they might absorb the music in some other way. 

Despite naysayers, who worried that alerting aliens to our presence might encourage them to attack, this concept seems innocently hopeful: We sent a message, never expecting to learn whether it was understood or even received, to say, “Here we are. Know us. Drop by, if you’re friendly.” Voyager I became the first object to reach interstellar space in 2012 and will leave our solar system completely in 30,000 years.

You can buy a book explaining the mission and technology used and containing everything recorded for the outing, along with photos Voyager sent back. The music ranges from Chuck Berry rocking “Johnny B. Goode” to the Georgian State Merited Ensemble of Folk Song and Dance harmonizing on “Chakrulo” to a young Peruvian girl singing a wedding song. Classical selections include Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Mozart, with Edda Moser curdling the blood in “Der Hölle Rache.” What will aliens make of this outburst of rage from the opera “The Magic Flute,” whose first line translates as “Hell’s revenge cooks in my heart”? Perhaps that we were a warlike race who had a heavy hand in our own destruction. By the time they hear it, that may be true.

Listen to Der Hölle Rache

Photo by Štefan Štefančík.

Mozart’s Invisible Sister

By Lawrence Toppman

By that I mean invisible to us today. Crowned heads of Europe saw plenty of Maria Anna Mozart, called “Nannerl” by her brother, when the two toured in the 1760s. Papa Leopold mainly wanted to put his elementary-school-age genius on display, but he took both to Vienna and Paris. Nannerl, who was five-and-a-half-years older, sometimes got top billing in harpsichord and fortepiano recitals.

Wolfgang later praised her songs in his letters, but none of her music remains for us to judge. When she reached the marriageable age of 18, Leopold “retired” her from performing. He frustrated her romance with a military captain; she then ran her parents’ household, especially after her mother’s death, and remained unwed until she married a magistrate at 32.

In the midst of Women’s History Month, I’ve been thinking about Nannerl, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler and Amy Beach. All five were talented pianists who showed promise as composers but were overshadowed or suppressed by two brothers and three husbands, respectively. Four left memorable work behind: Mendelssohn a piano trio, Schumann a concerto and trio, Mahler a group of songs, Beach a symphony, piano concerto and chamber music.

I can think of only one woman allowed to compose freely all her life before 1950. Lili Boulanger’s father died when she was 7, and nobody pressured her to marry. She had no brother to grab attention away from her. Elder sister Nadia, herself a composer and teacher, supported her financially and psychologically.

Lili Boulanger remains my candidate for the greatest female composer. She was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome for music, writing the cantata “Faust et Hélène.” Her settings of Psalms 24, 129 and especially 130 (“Out of the Depths”) have beauty and innovative touches. “D’un soir triste,” written in the last year of World War I with her native France in turmoil, is among the most profoundly melancholy pieces you’ll hear. But tuberculosis killed her at 24 in 1918, so we’ll never know what she might’ve done. And isn’t that true of all these women? Ruth Erickson, my first college music teacher, regretfully noted no female composer has left a large body of first-rate work. Perhaps that’s because they weren’t the equals of Wolfgang Mozart or Gustav Mahler. Or perhaps it’s because none were encouraged to find out if they could be.

The filthy Mozart

By Lawrence Toppman

I own “The Comic Mozart,” an album with songs performed by lieder masters Peter Schreier and Hermann Prey, and it has the most euphemistic liner notes I’ve seen. A sampling:

“He frequently shows little regard for the finer feelings of later generations, as is evident in the text of some of his light-hearted part songs…where the offending passages have usually been replaced with tantalizing blanks by prudish editors.”

In the canon “O du eselhafter Martin” (“O you ass of a Martin”), Mozart writes, “Stupid yap, shut your trap, I’ll sh—in your face” and repeatedly orders Martin to kiss his a–. In another canon, “Bona nox, bist a rechta Ox” (“Good night, you’re a stupid ox”), he encourages the object of his scorn to “Sh—in the bed until it crashes.”

And these songs don’t come from his youth: They were written in 1788 between the “Jupiter” Symphony and his sublime Divertimento for String Trio!

Mozart kept up a scatological, sometimes carnal flow in letters to his wife, Constanze. Some of their private endearments show up in the quartet “Caro mio druck und schluck” this way: “My dearest Squeeze-and-Sip, Sip-and-Squeeze, I leave you, God, o Butterball. What a pain! Half an ounce’s no pound.” And of course, there are multiple bathroom references.

These songs show a surprisingly violent, if presumably joking, streak. The singer threatens to beat a woman he’s drunkenly serenading, break the noses of comrades, crack the heads of annoying musicians and “stuff their strings down their throats,” box the ears of hapless students until their pants are full of – well, you get the idea.

Songs like these, which have no parallels among Mozart’s contemporaries – perhaps none anywhere, until the Sex Pistols – perpetuate the myth of the eternal child, combining celestial inspiration with baseness in an infantile way.

Perhaps he wrote these to let off steam after producing serious works. Maybe he wanted to shock city fathers and church officials who hadn’t treated him well. The liner notes claim “One can sense the latent melancholy which led the composer to seek doubly hard to overcome it by poking fun.” Or is it just a guy thing? My wife still wonders how I can admire Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” and chuckle at The Three Stooges. Finding out Mozart liked butt jokes makes him seem more complicated to me, not less.

Honey, I Shrunk the Concertos

By Lawrence Toppman

Symphonies, concertos, operas and other genres Mozart mastered all existed before he came along. But he seems to have invented the piano quintet – if inadvertently.

Despite modern stereotypes of him as a naïve music-making machine, he could be a shrewd businessman. By 1785, upper-middle class households were acquiring fortepianos. They wanted to make music with their families or a circle of friends. So he dropped the winds and pared down the strings from six concertos to make them playable by a pianist and string quartet. (Jean-Philippe Collard and Quatuor Muir made a superlative recording of all six.)

Mozart picked concertos 6 through 14, leaving out 7 (written for three pianos), 10 (written for two) and 9 (too difficult). He stopped there, because winds became indispensable to the sound he wanted, and solo parts became too hard for amateurs. He thought of 14 as a game-changer and made it the first entry in a private catalogue of works he kept until he died.

He wrote his father that the original concertos “lie midway between what is too difficult and too easy – they are very brilliant and fall agreeably on the ear.” Talented amateurs could enjoy these reduced versions without being frustrated by technical demands.

Both Mozart and history profited. The new versions introduced his music to a wider public and let potential soloists test “concertos” without having to pull an orchestra together.

More importantly, he kick-started a genre. Luigi Boccherini knocked out 12 piano quintets after Mozart died. Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who wrote elaborate cadenzas for four Mozart piano concertos – including 11, 12, and 13, where the composer left no instructions – produced two piano quintets with a double-bass in place of the second violin.

Schubert used that lineup in the Trout Quintet, the first piano quintet masterpiece. After that, the floodgates opened, usually with the original scoring. Schumann, Dvorak, Brahms, Franck, Faure, Bartok, Shostakovich and others explored the form with terrific results.

We virtually never hear Mozart’s shrunken concertos now. The closest things we get are his piano quartets, which omit the second violin. He wrote the first of those two masterpieces about the time he transcribed the last of his concertos. You can hear that G Minor quartet March 10 in a concert at Davidson College, with pianist Phillip Bush leading it, Frank Bridge’s Phantasy Quartet and Brahms’ First Quartet.

What if Mozart had lived to be a Grandpa?

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra has announced its 2019-2020 season, which includes six masterpieces by Beethoven – reasonably enough, as we’ll celebrate his 250th birthday in December 2020. He was 56 when liver damage and related ailments ended his tumultuous life.

Beethoven admired the piano music of Mozart; he especially liked to play the minor-key concertos, numbers 20 and 24, in keyboard-thundering style. The teenaged Beethoven apparently met Mozart in 1787 in Vienna and may even have taken a few lessons from him.

That got me thinking: What if Mozart had lived to be as old as Papa Haydn, his inspiration (and an unsuccessful teacher of Beethoven)? Had Mozart reached 77, dying in 1833, he’d have outlived every great figure of the Classical Era: Haydn, Beethoven, Weber, Schubert and all three significant sons of Bach (Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christoph Friedrich, Wilhelm Friedemann).

Mozart could then have heard the early works of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. He might, had he been fit to travel to Paris in 1830, have enjoyed the Symphonie Fantastique of Hector Berlioz, a work as game-changing in its way as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.

Mozart would certainly have kept composing, had health permitted. Would his operas and symphonies have anticipated Romanticism and influenced the radical younger generation? Would he have learned new instrumentation and techniques from them?

The evidence says yes. For one thing, he liked fresh sounds: Trombones weren’t common in the orchestras of his day, but Mozart stuck them in operas and sacred music and would eventually have been the first major composer to use them in a symphony. (Beethoven gets that credit.)

For another, Mozart could interweave dark drama and light-hearted buoyancy better than anyone before Berlioz. The Fantastique does that, following a gentle love scene in the fields with a march to the scaffold and a witches’ Sabbath. Mozart showed him the way with “Don Giovanni,” where a bucolic chorus celebrates young lovers before the title character gets dragged off to Hell at last.

Mozart didn’t write musical manifestos or repudiate his predecessors. But he was a revolutionary, and that fire would have burned to the end of his days – even if that came in 1833.