Lawrence Toppman

The instrument nobody loved – except Mozart

by Lawrence Toppman

“Why don’t violists play hide and seek? Because no one would look for them.”

“What’s the difference between a violist and a dog? A dog is able to stop scratching.”

These and 10 other snarky comments come from a Classic FM article about the much-maligned middle child of the string section, which hasn’t gotten the respect other instruments receive.

Maybe that’s because violas often go unheard by audiences. They have special difficulties projecting over a full orchestra, so no top-tier composer ever wrote a solo concerto for them. Hector Berlioz’ “Harold in Italy” comes closest; it’s a symphony with solo viola parts.

But Mozart loved the viola. His Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola remains the most beautiful piece written – well, half-written – for that instrument. The father-son team of David and Igor Oistrakh made my favorite recording, though Charlotte Symphony Orchestra music director Christopher Warren-Green also did a fine one; he played violin with his London Chamber Orchestra and violist Roger Chase.

Haydn’s the father of the string quartet, but Mozart created the string quintet. Instead of using two cellos, as Schubert did in his magnificent final chamber work, Mozart put in two violas. His most profound quintet, the dark and melancholic No. 4, inspired Brahms and Dvorak to write for the same lineup. Even when Mozart tackled a horn quintet, he doubled the violas, instead of grafting the horn onto a traditional quartet of two violins, one viola and one cello.

Why did he champion the instrument?

First, for the aural bridge it provides between the violin and cello; he, more than any other composer, believed in a balance of sounds and emotions.

Second, for the warmth of its tone, especially in small ensembles.

Third, he liked to play it and often filled the viola chair in his own chamber music.

His father claimed Wolfgang could have been Europe’s greatest violinist, had he stuck with that instrument. But he stopped composing violin concertos at 19 and highlighted the viola until eight months before his death at 35; his sixth string quintet is his last great chamber piece.

Mozart made dismissive remarks about his output for flute and horn – and the people for whom they were written – but history does not record that he cracked jokes about the viola.

Wolfgang Mozart, honorary Jew

By Lawrence Toppman

I never met Harry Golden, who died in Charlotte 18 months after I arrived in March 1980. But I have read and re-read his collections of essays, “Only in America” and “For 2¢ Plain.” He was the most important Jewish journalist in the Carolinas – perhaps the South – while publishing the socially conscious Carolina Israelite newspaper from his office on Elizabeth Avenue from 1942 through 1968.

“For 2¢ Plain” came out 60 years ago and collects the musings of a man in his late 50s. There he explains why Mozart and Shakespeare remain “the supreme artists of the human race.” They’re “super-reporters” who stand outside of daily life, noting every possible emotion and behavior and describing these with a profound wisdom that comes with detachment and compassion.

People raised in a synagogue, as Golden and I were, might consider that ability to be a virtue especially common among Jews. They’ve lived almost everywhere for 5,000 years, often as outsiders in societies that may have tolerated but not embraced them. They look on; they learn; they understand, from an outsider’s point of view, what the insider does not see. That’s why so many become amazing writers.

I started to make a list and quickly realized how many of my favorite conductors and performers of Mozart have been Jews. My preferred versions of the symphonies have been led by Bruno Walter, George Szell, Yehudi Menuhin and Daniel Barenboim (whom I don’t much care about otherwise). István Kertész provided the most sympathetic concerto support on records for multiple artists.

The choicest renditions of the complete violin concertos are by David Oistrakh and Itzhak Perlman. The “best” recording of the violin sonatas belongs to Joseph Szigeti, with Szell and Mieczysław Horszowski on piano. (To be fair, I should mention that Horszowski converted to Roman Catholicism.) My desert-island collections of the piano concertos come from Vladimir Ashkenazy and Murray Perahia, with additions from Annie Fischer and Clara Haskil. Not all Jewish musicians do well with Mozart: Pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubinstein played post-Beethoven composers with more panache and insight, while violinists Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein mostly ignored him. But there does seem to be a special bond between the composer, who was raised as a Roman Catholic and remained in that church all his life, and the children of Abraham.

King of the prodigies? It’s a four-way tie.

By Lawrence Toppman

Mozart wowed European monarchs and millionaires at the age of seven, embarking on a three-and-a-half-year trip around Europe with his family. He played keyboard compositions new and old, juvenilia by himself and masterpieces by others, and improvised dazzlingly. But was he the greatest young composer in history? Well…maybe.

Mozart wrote masterpieces before his 18th birthday: his first great symphony (No. 25), the motet “Exsultate Jubilate,” some well-crafted if overlong operas, the first of his revolutionary quintets for two violins, cello and two violas.

But Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who later became a Hollywood composer (“The Adventures of Robin Hood”) did more impressive work in Vienna between the two world wars. By his 18th birthday, his operas “Violanta” and “The Ring of Polykrates” earned wide acclaim, he wrote a stimulating Sinfonietta, and beloved pianist Artur Schnabel often played his Sonata No. 2.

What about Felix Mendelssohn? Great work shot out of his pen before he turned 18, from his Octet for Strings to his Beethoven-like Symphony No. 1 and the irresistible overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” (He wrote the rest of that amazing incidental music later.) He also knocked out 12 short but impressive symphonies for strings and a mature string quartet.

These three died in middle age: Mozart at 35, Korngold at 60, Mendelssohn at 38. So the title of Composing Prodigy Who Died Too Young goes to Basque composer Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga.

Not only does he share the first two names on Mozart’s birth certificate. Not only was he born 50 years to the day after WAM on January 27, 1806. In his teens, he wrote a Stabat Mater, two cantatas, short piano works, an octet, a nonet, an opera titled “The Happy Slaves,” three immaculate string quartets (I’ve heard those) and a lively, polished Symphony in D (ditto).

He had to do all that before turning 20, because he died (probably from tuberculosis) 10 days short of that birthday. Listen to his music, and you’ll always wonder if the man posthumously dubbed ”The Spanish Mozart” would have lived up to that nickname.

Johnny Mozart

By Lawrence Toppman

That’s what we might be calling him today, if he’d stuck with his birth name. I like it; he sounds like a gangster of above-average intelligence in a Warner Bros. movie of the 1940s. Names do make a difference. Giuseppe Verdi could write the most far-ranging body of work in opera history; Joe Green, as he’d slangily be known in Brooklyn, would run a fish market.

The guy we call Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart didn’t call himself that very often. In fact, almost nobody did, except after he died. He jokingly referred to himself in Latinized correspondence as “Wolfgangus Amadeus Mozartus.” (Of course, he also signed letters “Trazom.”) But his birth certificate read “Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart.”

Where did that come from? Catholics in the 18th century often named children for saints in the calendar pertaining to the time the kid was born. Mozart drew St. John Chrysostom, one of whose feast days was January 27. (This fourth-century ascetic spoke out against abuse of wealth and became Archbishop of Constantinople.)

“Wolfgang,” which means “wolf’s path,” came from WAM’s maternal grandfather. “Theophilus” is Greek for “beloved of God” or “lover of God” and came from Joannes Theophilus Pergmayr, Mozart’s godfather and a Salzburg merchant.

Over time, Mozart dropped the first two names. Sometimes he used “Gottlieb,” the German equivalent of what became his middle name. Sometimes he used “Amadeus,” the Latin version. Sometimes he Frenchified it as Amadè or made it Italianate as Amadeo.

“Amadeus” emerged as the posthumous winner. It sounded classy, and people such as E.T.A. Hoffman (who wrote “The Nutcracker”) added it to their names in tribute. Mozart’s widow Constanze – who took name confusion further by signing herself Konstantia – used “Amadeus” in official documents after his death. Maybe that’s best: I can’t imagine a movie called “Gottlieb” winning eight Oscars.

My Year with Mozart

By Lawrence Toppman

Mozart weighs exactly 17.6 pounds. That’s what “W.A. Mozart: The New Complete Edition” tallied when I heaved the box set onto a scale. And I am going to spend 2019 listening to every note of these 200 CDs, including fragments as short as half a minute.

I’ll blog weekly about my journey with history’s most versatile composer on the WDAV-FM website. You’ll find meditations about WAM, as college friends dubbed him for the stupefying effect he had on us, plus thoughts about other composers, classical music, culture in general and (if I have enough wine beforehand) even Life Itself.

Why? Because I want to explore every nook of one composer’s output, to fully examine his mind through his music. Friends know I’m mildly OCD (they might not say “mildly”), so this satisfies a deep need.

Why Mozart? Because only he did first-rate work in every genre: symphonies, concertos for strings, concertos for other instruments, choral music, songs, serious operas, comic operas, chamber music, solo sonatas, sacred music and so on.

I couldn’t plow through Beethoven’s huge catalog of second-rate songs. I’d drown in Bach’s vast sea of organ works. Brahms missed important genres (no operas), while Haydn wrote too many operas; I have stayed awake through exactly one of the four I’ve heard. Mozart did some hack work, but even third-rate WAM has charms for me.

Sadly, the New Complete Edition already doesn’t live up to its title: I’ve looked it over twice and can find just three of the six piano concertos he reworked for home use as piano quintets. Luckily, I own the others. (I warned you: OCD.)

I expect to discover new pieces, rediscover old friends, occasionally recommend recordings (some from this New Complete Edition, some not) and tell you about Mozart-related events. (For instance, the Charlotte Symphony will play movements from his Serenade No. 5 at its CSO On the Go concert in Ballantyne Jan. 30.) I expect to finish this voyage more deeply in love with Mozart and classical music in general than I have ever been. I’d be flattered to have your company along the way.