Beethoven – The Price of Genius

There is a wonderful painting of Beethoven composing I have cited at the top of this post which I find most fascinating.  It perfectly represents exactly what I envision it might have been like to watch Beethoven compose – lost in thought, papers scattered everywhere, seated at the piano trying to find the right notes for the next phrase or chord progression.  On the surface, it would appear Beethoven is the embodiment of total disorganization – unkempt, wild hair, piles of papers in no apparent order, yet in his music, and most especially his early works, I hear not disorganization, but a total mastery of form and very careful planning and organization, as he learned from the great Classical masters Haydn and Mozart before him.  In his first set of six string quartets, Op. 18, Beethoven demonstrates complete command of the Classical style, paying homage to Haydn and Mozart, while also making the Classical style his own, with his personality shining through in these relatively “behaved” pieces of music compared to his later works.  This is also clearly evident in his first two symphonies and piano concertos, not to mention his early cello sonatas, violin sonatas, piano sonatas, and other beautiful chamber works he composed with an assuredness of being the equal of Haydn and Mozart.  It is quite impressive how Beethoven, under what must have been the overpowering shadow of Haydn and Mozart forged ahead to establish himself as the next great Viennese composer.  It had to have taken an incredible amount of courage and self-confidence to pull this off, and he succeeded brilliantly.  It was a character trait that little did Beethoven know then, would be indispensable for him to survive the crushing trials that were ahead of him.

It is amazing how Beethoven could have found such beauty, coherence, and clarity in his music as his world and his own personal life was crumbling around him – with the French occupation of Vienna and Napoleon’s Army shelling the city, the gradual loss of his hearing, his eventual early retirement as a pianist after his last public performance on the concert stage at the age of 38 at his December 22, 1808 concert, and the breakdown of his relationship with his nephew Karl.  It is incredible how he had the ability to keep his sanity well enough to enable him to continue to compose some of his most beloved and enduring masterpieces such as the 9th Symphony, his last string quartets, and his Missa Solemnis.  Other people of a less courageous and a weaker constitution would have simply folded, gone insane, created nothing further, or committed suicide – an option Beethoven seriously considered more than once in his life, and especially at Heiligenstadt, where he wrote his famous testament reflecting his despair over his increasing deafness.

But Beethoven’s will was extraordinary.  With more defiance and determination than ever, he emerged from Heiligenstadt committed to live for his art, and to go in a new direction creatively.   He may well have been the most strong-willed and courageous artist in the history of music. It is one of the reasons we identify with him – because his struggles are our struggles.  He rises above his adverse circumstances and emerges triumphant. He is the underdog, the champion of the everyman.  He is an ordinary person who does extraordinary things.  In many ways, he is a hero.  It is no coincidence his middle creative period after Heiligenstadt is often referred to as the “heroic” period which saw the composition of his heroic, “Eroica” Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, the 4th and 5th Piano Concertos, the Razumovsky Quartets, the “Kreutzer” Sonata for Violin and Piano, and the 4th through 8th Symphonies to name only some of his middle period works.

It can be said that Beethoven took on every challenge life threw at him musically, and found a way to answer that challenge masterfully.  However, he was a continual failure in his personal life, never able to find lasting love in a lifelong mate, and was so overbearing to his adopted nephew Karl that he eventually attempted suicide.  Beethoven is the classic example of an extremely gifted, abused child.  Like most people who are abused, he ended up abusing others – most especially his nephew and lived to regret it.  In many ways, Beethoven’s story is a tragic story, and perhaps more than any other illustrates the incredibly high price of genius – a life lived in isolation, married to one’s work, socially inept, and producing creative riches which reflect the beauty of life in all its fullness and joy, sorrow, and longings, yet one which ironically makes the creator themselves unable to personally participate in that life to the fullest.  In a sense the creative genius is like a soldier who gives their life not so they may live a better life, but so others might.  The creative genius gives their life to their art.  It is those after them who enjoy the fruits of their incredible sacrifice and labor.  We see how composers like Brahms, Schubert,  and Tchaikovsky had to accept a life of general solitude in commitment to their work. Mahler’s marriage failed in part because of his single-minded and impassioned dedication to his work at the expense of his marriage, and because he forbade his wife Alma to compose.  He could never find a balance and his personal life suffered because of it.  In some ways, it seems there is not enough room for both – for total commitment to  one’s art and to living.  For the creative genius this is an impossible situation, because they cannot deny either side to them, but feel they must choose.

Mozart tried to find a middle ground between living and being committed to his art.  He knew he needed a marital partner, and found one in Constanze Weber.  Together they had six children, only two of which survived infancy.  While Mozart tried to have a “normal” domestic life, and his surviving letters to his wife reveal himself to be an affectionate, loving, protective, and sometimes jealous and possessive husband, it is hard to imagine exactly how involved as a father and husband he could have possibly been given his almost superhuman compositional production, not to mention the innumerable concerts, rehearsals, meetings with librettists, royalty, collegues and friends, billiard playing, and entertaining he did in his home.  It is no wonder his light burned out only too quickly.  He tried to do it all – to live fully and be an artist fully, but he could not keep up the pace.  He paid the price with his life, as Beethoven did, but in a different way.

I recognized this dilemma of the conflict between living and being an artist for myself when I was studying to be a composer while in college.  The film “Amadeus” inspired me to decide to become a composer at age 13. I naively thought if I worked hard enough I could “catch up” and become another Mozart.  It is with the deepest humility I can now say almost 30 years later, I never had any chance at that, because the likes of a talent like Mozart’s and Beethoven’s  has not been seen since, and may never be seen again.  While musically talented, I am nowhere close to either man in ability.  I thought it would be great to be a genius like Mozart.  How naive I was, as I did not then realize the incredibly high price of genius, and what it meant to be enslaved to one’s work in many ways, even if it is so often a joy.  I did very well in college, and wrote some very good music while in school, and especially after I graduated.  While I can say I have perhaps had some “ingenious” moments as a composer, I certainly never lived as one the way Beethoven and Mozart did, who dedicated their entire lifetime to music.  I have several other interests in addition to music, a desire to live life, to work on my relationships with others as passionately as I pursue my artistic endeavors, and so I can say now, in retrospect how glad I am not to be a genius as they were.  I can enjoy the fruits of their labors, admire them, appreciate them, and perhaps say a word or two which might at least somewhat reflect the incredible impact they have on those who sincerely appreciate what riches they have given us through their sacrifice…



Mozart’s Divertimento in E-Flat Major, K. 563

My first introduction to Mozart’s music was while watching the film “Amadeus” during music class in seventh grade. I was amazed by the very first notes of Mozart’s music at the start of the film with the opening chords to the overture of “Don Giovanni,” and most especially the first movement from his “Symphony No. 25 in G Minor,” K. 183 which dramatically accompanies the opening scene of Salieri’s servants discovering he has slit his throat in a botched suicide attempt. The intensity and breadth of this music, along with every other wonderful piece on this soundtrack lit a spark within me of a passion for music that has endured to this very day. After researching Mozart tirelessly upon seeing this film, I soon discovered that much of “Amadeus” was pure fiction. That did not however stop me from appreciating the music which was for me, what really made this movie. The true Mozart – the music itself was the most memorable “character” of the film – more memorable to me than any other character in this movie – the fictionalized version of Salieri and also Mozart, with the high-pitched giggle made famous by Tom Hulce, whom I nevertheless still think did an excellent job capturing amidst the fiction, much of the truthful Mozart – Mozart the brilliant performer and improviser, Mozart the sometimes arrogant and vulgar, and Mozart the driven and ingenious composer working late into the night on his scores.

One of the flaws of this otherwise remarkable “Amadeus” soundtrack is the almost total absence of any of Mozart’s chamber music. In this soundtrack, the only real chamber piece featured in the film is his wonderful “Gran Partita” for 13 wind instruments, K. 361. This is a worthy piece to be included, but the lack of his amazing string quartets, string quintets, the Clarinet Quintet, and so many other remarkable chamber works in the “Amadeus” soundtrack was I believe, a missed opportunity for the filmmakers. Since this soundtrack was my first introduction to Mozart’s music, I was therefore exposed to the kinds of works included on the soundtrack – namely his symphonies, piano concertos, operas, and more large-scale orchestral and sacred choral works, and did not really explore the wealth of riches to be found in his chamber works until many years later after my initial discovery of Mozart.

After spending countless hours listening to and researching music over the past 29 years, and particularly the music of Mozart, it is amazing to me I only recently discovered, just a couple months ago, what I believe to be his finest achievement in chamber music, if not in all of his music – namely, the “Divertimento” as Mozart entitled it, in E-flat major, K. 563 for string trio. Interestingly enough, I first learned of this Mozart work while doing research on the Beethoven string quartets, which referenced the amazing Mozart “Divertimento.” Most of mature Mozart, and also a good deal of the adolescent Mozart is of superior quality, but in this piece, Mozart reaches yet another level, even for him. When you get the very best of the best – the cream of the most perfect music, it is something so rare, it is hard to believe what you are hearing. I certainly feel that way every time I listen to the second movement of this piece especially – the glorious Adagio in A-flat major, whose perfection has moved me to tears.

When examining the amazing last nine bars of the exposition of this second movement, we can see how Mozart sets up these last nine bars with two bars preceding it with octave leaps in the violin under a chromatic harmonic rhythm changing every beat, suspensefully leading up to the violin dissolving into an unexpected and gorgeous 32nd-note run in bar 36. It makes everything after that moment – in all of its simplicity and purity all the more striking and breathtaking.

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After this stunningly beautiful 32nd-note run in the violin, he finishes the phrase on a trill in the violin which resolves in a deceptive cadence to a C minor chord in bar 38.  This alone is remarkable, as a lesser composer could have simply ended the exposition here in the dominant – E-flat major.

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But then, Mozart continues on to yet another lovely phrase beginning with the end of bar 38, which finally resolves – again to a C minor chord in bar 42.

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He does this only to continue on yet again to a third phrase, with an almost painful, poignant beauty, so moving as to outshine all of the beauty that had come before, if that were possible. finishing off this amazing exposition with another 32nd-note run to finally resolve in a lovely “sighing” cadence in the expected dominant – E-flat major.

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If that were not enough, Mozart, at the end of this movement, expands the formal structure again, at the end of the recapitulation with a 15-bar long coda, beginning after the resolution to C minor again, with a continuation of the phrase in bar 111.  In this coda, Mozart masterfully passes the expansive melody heard throughout the piece to each instrument, which beautifully exploits the lower to higher registers first in the viola at measure 114 (in yellow), then the cello at measure 116 (blue), and finally the violin at measure 118 (purple), finishing this exquisite movement with delicate grace notes before eighth notes, ending in a lovely high A-flat in the violin to complete 125 bars of pure elegance.

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This is vintage Mozart at his finest, and these are only two of several lovely examples of his ingenious  treatment of structure and musical content in this movement alone, not to mention the entire work.

Mozart’s autograph manuscript for this “Divertimento” is missing.  The piece was preserved in a set of parts in a first edition released in 1792, just months after Mozart’s death, by the music publisher Artaria and Company.  The only surviving source for this composition in the composer’s handwriting can be found in his Catalogue of Works he kept from 1784 to 1791. In it, he wrote a 6-bar incipit as illustrated in the picture at the top of this post, notating the opening of the piece as was his practice when cataloging his music. On the left-hand page of his catalogue, he indicated the title and date of completion of the piece, as he did in the picture below. He entitled it, “A Divertimento” for 1 violin, 1 viola, and violoncello, in six movements.

Mozart's Catalogue of Works autograph entry of the Divertimento in E-flat Major, K. 563
Mozart’s Catalogue of Works autograph entry of the Divertimento in E-flat Major, K. 563

The “Divertimento” capped a year of amazing creativity for Mozart which included some of his most enduring masterpieces, especially his last three symphonies, E-flat major, K. 543, the “Great” G minor Symphony, K. 550, and his final symphonic masterpiece, the C major “Jupiter” Symphony, K. 551, all three of which were composed over a staggering six-week period in the summer of 1788. Also composed in this amazing year was his poignant Adagio in B Minor for piano solo, K. 540, his famous C Major “Sonata Facile,” K. 545, his Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major, the “Coronation” K. 537, and his masterly Adagio and Fugue in C Minor for strings, K. 546.

Mozart completed his “Divertimento” on September 27, 1788, just over a month after completing his last, and perhaps his greatest symphony – the “Jupiter.” The “Divertimento” is often said to have been composed for his fellow freemason friend Michael Puchberg in gratitude for his continual financial assistance to Mozart in response to several begging letters. It is possible the “trio” which Mozart says he composed for Puchberg, referred to in a letter to his wife dated April 16, 1789, could have also been one of his three piano trios composed in 1788 – the K. 542 in E major, K. 548 in C major, or the K. 564 in G major. As no dedication exists in his Catalogue of Works, it is difficult to tell which exact trio he is referring to. It is understandable given the scope and monumentality of his symphonic achievement that summer in his last three symphonies, that a composition with the unassuming title of “Divertimento” written in the fall of that same year would be overlooked in being presumably “less important” than a symphony. Still, while the very best of his symphonies, concertos, and string quartets are undisputed masterpieces, this piece has to rank at least as their equal, and in my opinion, their superior. The musical title “divertimento” was one Mozart rarely used in his maturity, but used quite frequently in his earlier youth and Salzburg years. While some of these early divertimenti are quite polished and beautifully composed, others are exactly what this music was intended to be – a “diversion” if you will – light background music to please the aristocracy and the attendees of their social gatherings. That is hardly the case with this remarkable piece Mozart composed. It is anything but a “diversion,” but rather the pinnacle of his achievements in chamber music.

The string trio may be an even more difficult compositional medium than the string quartet – a medium even a composer as skilled as Mozart found rigorous, demanding, and extremely taxing. For his “Prussian” quartets, several sketches survive, bearing witness to the effort he had to put into these “difficult works” as Mozart described them in a letter to Puchberg. Mozart also referred to his six string quartets dedicated to Haydn as “the fruits of a long and laborious effort.” This contradicts the “Amadeus” myth composition always came easliy to Mozart, with everything already finished in his head before he wrote a note down on paper.  While Mozart had a superior memory and an unsurpassed awareness of musical structure, the details of his most difficult works had to be worked out through a more elaborate creative process.  With one less voice than the string quartet, the string trio is even more exposed than the string quartet in such a way which leaves no margin for error for the composer. Every single note is significant, and must perfectly fit the melody, motif, phrase, partwriting, the overall structure of the movement, and indeed the entire piece. Mozart managed to accomplish this staggering feat without redundancy or mundanity. He sustains interest with exceptional mastery of form, equal and ingenious treatment of the violin, viola, and cello, passing motifs and melodies to each instrument in three-part dialogue, beauty of sound, and a striking contrast of tonalities, texture, and rhythm in the longest chamber composition he ever composed – by some readings close to an hour long.

In this one work alone, Mozart composed in most of the formal structures of his day – sonata form (first and second movements), minuet and trio (third and fifth movements), theme and variations (fourth movement), and rondo form (sixth movement).  While no one work can contain everything, if I had to pick just one piece for a person to hear who had never heard Mozart’s music before, and wanted to know what his music is all about, I would pick this one.  This piece virtually encapsulates every compositional skill Mozart possessed – masterful execution of counterpoint, brilliant motific development, perfect harmony, sublime melody, formal mastery, and perhaps more so than in any other composition he composed, that intangible “Mozartean” quality of being moving without sentimentality, deep without being emotional, and original without being innovative, since the wellspring from which Mozart’s music came was not of the inevitable ups and downs of  his personal life, nor the desire to “outdo” his fellow composers by being innovative for innovation’s sake, but is instead the impeccable reflection of the perfect balance and oneness of the universe.

Opera – the Key to Unlocking the Heart of Mozart

I have recently found myself interested in studying the operas of Mozart more in depth than I have in the past.  I have now heard his operas, “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail,” “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” “Cosi fan tutte,” and “Die Zauberflote.”  I have only heard one in its entirety as a live performance – “Die Zauberflote,” in an English language translation performed by a two-piano team playing an orchestral reduction at the college I attended.  In each of these operas, certain specific themes continually resurface, even though Mozart worked with three different librettists between all of these operas – Johann Gottlieb Stephanie (the Younger) for “Die Entfuhrung,” Lorenzo da Ponte for his three great Viennese Italian operas, “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” and “Cosi fan tutte,” and Emanuel Schikaneder for his last German singspiel opera, “Die Zauberflote,” otherwise known in English as “The Magic Flute.” 

It is interesting to note this cross-section of his most famous and most performed operas cover both German singspiel (“Die Entfuhrung,” and “Die Zauberflote”), and Italian Opera buffa (comic opera) (“Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” and “Cosi fan tutte”), although “Don Giovanni” has sometimes been referred to as an Opera Seria (tragic opera).  In these operas, Mozart demostrates his complete command over the most important operatic styles of his day.  As I said in my post, “There is No “I” in Mozart,” there is not a “personal” element in Mozart’s music the same way it exists in the music of Beethoven and even Haydn to some degree.  However, in just beginning to again revisit opera, having just finished listening to and following the libretto of “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail,” I see it is in opera where Mozart most reveals himself to the extent he ever does regarding his personal feelings, beliefs, hopes, fears, and aspirations.  It is in opera where we can perhaps find the key to unlocking the heart of Mozart.

The themes which continually recur in these operatic masterpieces of Mozart are:

  • the faithfulness/unfaithfulness of woman and men in romantic relationships
  • forgiveness
  • selflessness/selfishness and their consequences
  • how love is more powerful than all hatred, malice, revenge, jealousy, and evil

I was quite moved as I read some of the concluding words from “Die Entfuhrung,” which shows the strong belief Mozart had in the power of forgiveness and love over revenge and bitterness, which would also come to be the essential message in “Figaro.” 

BELMONTE: Yes. Pasha.  Cool your wrath on me. I am prepared for anything.

SELIM:  You are mistaken.  I hold your father in too much detestation ever to be able to tread in his footsteps.  Take your freedom.  Take Constanze, sail home and tell your father that you were in my power and I set you free so that you could tell him it is a far greater pleasure to repay an injustice with a favor than an evil with an evil. 

BELMONTE:  My lord! – You astound me –

SELIM:  I can believe that.  Go away and at least be more humane than your father.”

If ever we can find a key to the man behind the music, it is here – in the librettos of Mozart’s operas.  It is fascinating it is in the words, and not the music where we encounter Mozart the man, especially since Mozart was not himself the actual librettist persay.  However, we do know from many letters to his father, especially regarding “Idomoneo,” “Die Entfuhrung,” and “Figaro,” Mozart had a definite hand in the shaping of a libretto to suit his needs, musically, dramatically, and otherwise, and most definitely had input in how the libretto ultimately came out.  Music is a an abstract art form, and is at its most subjective in instrumental music, sometimes called “absolute music.”  It can be said to be at its least abstract and subjective in song and opera, because the words tell us what is specifically behind the sound we hear.  While Mozart was obviously sensitive to having his music reflect the words, we again cannot necessarily say it is “personal” in the same way it is for the great Romantic masters of opera – Wagner and Verdi.  Even in his operas, Mozart’s music is never really “personal.” In music, Mozart is never about Mozart.  He is about music, which is why it can be said of Mozart perhaps more than any other composer, he is  music itself.  As quoted from a letter to his father Leopold dated September 26, 1781, “…because the passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of causing disgust, and because music, even in the most terrible situation, must never offend the ear but must give pleasure and, hence, always remain music…”  Yet in the words of his opera “Die Entfuhrung,” it is hard to imagine Mozart did not have his own beloved Constanze Weber in mind when the heroine for “Die Entfuhrung” was also named Constanze, whom Belmonte rescues from the harem of Pasha Salim in which she is captured.  Mozart too, in a letter to his sister dated February 13, 1782, while at work on his opera “Die Entfuhrung,” stated his need to “rescue” his Constanze from her overbearing mother, whose company Mozart found most unpleasant… “I then go to see my dear Constanze – where the pleasure of seeing each other is, however, generally spoilt by her mother’s embittered remarks – I’ll explain all this in my next letter to my father – hence my wish to free her and rescue her as soon as possible…”

It is in “Die Entfuhrung” where Mozart is perhaps his most “personal” in a most specific way, even with the heroine named after his own beloved.  His strong association with Freemasonry and its ideals, along with those of the Enlightenment is clearly evident in much of the themes of brotherhood, secrecy, fraternity, and love, as found in the libretto for “Die Zauberflote.”  This may seem more “general” than specific, and we cannot know just how direct these themes were related personally to both Schikaneder and Mozart.  His strong Catholic beliefs in the ultimate damnation of unrepentant sinners is blatantly clear in the moral tale of “Don Giovanni,” whose lack of repentence for his cruel womanizing, as well as the murder of the father of one of his would-be victims Donna Anna leads to his being consigned to the flames of Hell.  But again, it is in the words rather than the music where we see these beliefs, opinions, and feelings of Mozart, which are also corroborated by many invaluable letters, especially those to his father. That is why after his father’s death on May 28, 1787, we lose much potential valuable information regarding the depth of his feelings on his operatic work.

While Mozart does deal in his operas with issues of divisions over class, religion, and gender which were especially relevant to him personally – between the aristocracy and the middle class, religious divisions between Christians and Muslims, as expressed in “Die Entfuhrung,” class divisions as found in “Figaro” and “Don Giovanni,” and tensions and divisive attitudes between men and women as found in “Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” and “Cosi fan tutte,” he always ultimately shows reconciliation of all of these seeming irreconcilable differences, as long as one is willing to be reasonable – a significant ideal of the Enlightenment Era in which he lived.  The reason the Don is consigned to Hell at the end of “Don Giovanni” is because he refuses to be reasonable, to repent, to own up to his terrible behavior.  It shows, at least metaphorically that a lack of ownership and forgiveness leads to ultimate death and suffering. Being charitable, forgiving, and understanding leads to health and happiness.  It is a moving testament to these timeless truths which can so beautifully emody art, even if they so often allude us in our everyday lives.  As the Baron van Swieten said in “Amadeus,” “Opera is here to ignoble us Mozart.  You and me, just the same as His Majesty.” It is no wonder it is here – in opera, where we can find the key to the heart of Mozart the man.  It is in opera where Mozart reveals himself the most, as it is often said he aspired to writing opera more than anything else, as it embodies everything – a “total art work” as Wagner would later call it – music, drama, costumes, set design… the embodiment of Life Itself on a stage… as Shakespeare is quoted from his play, “As You Like it,”  “All the world’s a stage”….