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My Mozart Top Ten

For a time I have been considering my “top ten” Mozart and Beethoven compositions.  They are lists which were both easy and difficult to create because both masters composed so many brilliant masterpieces.  Below are my top ten Mozart compositions.  While it was not easy to compose this list in order of “greatness,” I have tried to assemble a list which as closely as possible, reflects what I believe to be the ten greatest masterpieces in order of greatness ever composed by Mozart.  In some cases, as in the last three compositions on this list, it was difficult for me to assign a specific order.  In the end, they are all remarkable and amazing works of art.  There are also several other worthy compositions by Mozart which could have easily made this list.  This just so happens to be my personal top ten Mozart masterworks.

1.  Divertimento In E-flat major, K. 563

2.  Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major, K. 364

3.  Le Nozze di Figaro, K. 492

4.  Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581

5.  String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat major, K. 458

6.  Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466

7.  Piano concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488

8.  Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550

9.  String Quintet No. 6 in E-flat major. K. 614

10.  Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491

All but one of these masterpieces were composed during Mozart’s “Vienna” years between 1781 and 1791.  The “Sinfonia Concertante” K. 364, was composed in Salzburg in 1779, and reflects a new found compositional maturity and overall depth in Mozart’s work after his failed trips to find a suitable post in Mannheim and Paris between 1777-1778, the death of his mother in Paris on July 3, 1778, and the loss of his first love, Aloysia Weber, the sister of the woman who would become his wife – Constanze Weber.

What is so fascinating about Mozart in general is how his music does not necessarily reflect his personal feelings or commentary on the events of his life, as it so often does for Beethoven.  It has sometimes been said of Mozart’s “Piano Sonata in A Minor,” K. 310, composed during the summer of 1778, that it reflects his personal feelings and agitation over the recent events of his mother’s death and his inability to secure a viable post.  The choice of the key of A minor – when minor keys were considered at the time to be generally “unstable,” and the rhythmic intensity of this piece are sometimes said to supposedly reflect his personal agitation and emotional instability at the time he composed this sonata.  While in this remarkably ingenious work there is a very new and almost breathless intensity to the outer movements and a calm serenity and depth in the second movement in F major, with its darker middle “B” section in the minor, this does not necessarily mean these aspects of the music reflect his personal feelings.  His bright colored E-flat major “Symphony No. 39,” K. 543 and the triumphant C Major “Symphony No. 41,” K. 551, the “Jupiter,” were written during a time in which Mozart wrote pitiful begging letters for money to his friend and fellow Freemason Michael Puchberg.  In one of these letters, Mozart spoke of “black thoughts which could only be banished with great difficulty,” yet no sign of this turmoil exists in these works he composed during this time.

While it is true Mozart’s life events almost certainly influenced his creative life, these influences appear to have affected his compositional approach and/or technical preoccupations instead of a personal emotional reaction expressed in a work itself.  The “Sinfonia Concertante” does indeed reflect a new found maturity and depth, but it is a growth in his compositional approach and an expansion of the range of the creative possibilities along with an increased intellectual complexity of his music.  Mozart’s music transcends the personal and reaches us on a deeper and more universal level than music which strives primarily for personal emotional self-expression.

1.  I have already reviewed why I find Mozart’s “Divertimento in E-Flat Major,” K. 563 such a profoundly exceptional Mozart masterpiece.  I give this composition the top placement because I don’t think Mozart ever equaled and certainly never surpassed the transcendent beauty of the second movement of this work.  While all of the movements are masterful and the entire work arguably the greatest string trio ever composed, it is this second movement which is for me, its crowning jewel.

2.  The “Sinfonia Concertante in E-Flat Major,” for violin, viola and orchestra K. 364 is a staggering accomplishment for a 23-year old composer, who composed this work in 1779 and with it made a profound advance from the already exceptional beauty and mastery of his five violin concertos from 1775.  The compositional range is greater, and the tone colors more rich, with Mozart utilizing a divided viola section in the orchestra. Mozart even makes use of the very rarely used technique of scordatura tuning for the viola, tuning it up a half-step, and writing the viola part in the key signature of D major so it would sound in the concert key of E-flat major.  He did this to improve the sound quality of the viola whose timbre does not carry as well as that of the violin.  The lovely duets written for the violin and the viola throughout this work show Mozart’s superb awareness of the capabilities of both instruments, as he could play each of them masterfully. He also exploits the large range of both string instruments beautifully and naturally within the context of the musical line.  The depth of the second movement is the most profound utterance Mozart composed in his life at this time, and would rarely surpass in the future.

3.  On May 1, 1786, Mozart’s great comic opera, “Le Nozze di Figaro” received its premiere at the Burgtheater in Vienna.  The overture to this work is among the most brilliant and famous overtures ever written, and the opera is one of several Mozart operas in the core operatic repertory, and is certainly among his most beloved.  The mere nine performances it received during its first run in Vienna had to have been deeply disappointing to Mozart, who put his whole heart and soul into this work about love, forgiveness, humor, the joys and conflicts between men and women, and the struggle for human dignity and happiness amidst an often unfair aristocratic system.  In this opera, DaPonte and Mozart’s characters are real flesh-and-blood people who are realistically human, instead of being archetypical cardboard characters almost always found in opera at the time. On top of this realistic representation of humanity, the subject matter of commoners in conflict with the aristocracy hit a little too close to home at a time very close to the French Revolution, giving the Emperor Joseph II pause before finally agreeing to have it staged after much convincing by Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, and not Mozart himself as was fictionalized in the film “Amadeus.”  The music is of a transcendent beauty and has a flow from one aria and recitative to the next in a seamless whole.  It features some of the most beautiful orchestral and vocal music ever composed, especially for the soprano voice in the parts of Susanna and the Countess.  The tour de force of the finale of the second act with several of the main characters joining the singing one by one in a delightful comedy of errors ending in a fantastic close is an extraordinary compositional and dramatic feat in the greatest finale to any act Mozart ever composed.

4.  The “Clarinet Quintet in A Major,” K. 581 is a favorite of many, and the reasons are not hard to find.  The combination of a string quartet with the clarinet in the endearing key of A major with its graceful, elegant melodies are only some of the reasons for its enduring popularity.  As in his “Clarinet Concerto in A Major,” K. 622, Mozart masterfully exploits the entire range of the clarinet, even going beyond the lowest range of the modern clarinet since this work was actually written for a kind of “basset” clarinet owned by the man for whom this work and the concerto were composed – Anton Stadler.  Since both the quintet and the concerto were composed for an extended range clarinet, and the autograph of both works are missing, there exists very well-done reconstructions of the original clarinet part to include the lower-register passages which appear to be “displaced” in the melodic continuity of both works in their originally published versions.  The quintet features yet another transcendentally beautiful slow movement – this time in D major in which the clarinet is made to sing with the power of the human voice, and was clearly one of Mozart’s favorite instruments.  He exploited the varieties of tone color of the clarinet, its range, and its varied articulation capabilities to create a work of extraordinary depth and beauty.

5.  In his lifetime, Mozart composed 26 string quartets, including the three “quartet divertimenti” I reviewed in my last post.  His “String Quartet No. 17 in B-Flat Major,” K. 458 is the third in a set of six string quartets he dedicated to his friend and mentor Joseph Haydn, who is considered the “father of the string quartet.”  He heard the quartets Mozart dedicated to him in Mozart’s home on January 15 and February 12, 1785.  Mozart’s father Leopold traveled from Salzburg to Vienna to visit his son, arriving on February 10, 1785, and was able to hear the premiere of three of the quartets performed in Mozart’s home on February 12, including K. 458.  After hearing them Haydn said to Leopold, “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.  He has taste, and what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.” Haydn understood the value of Mozart’s music, and knew it surpassed all he had heard, including his own outstanding compositions.  It is not surprising after hearing what is regarded the pinnacle of Mozart’s achievements in string quartet writing, as well as the pinnacle of the Classical Era string quartet, Haydn would express such unbounded praise to Mozart’s proud father.  I would concur with Haydn these works demonstrate Mozart’s unparalleled genius, and in this K. 458 quartet, Mozart made what he called a “long and laborious effort” sound effortless as he so often did.  The fun 6/8 time “hunting” rhythm of the first movement, by which this quartet gets it nickname, “the hunt,” the beautiful minuet, the brilliant rondo finale and most of all, the glorious adagio third movement sets it apart in Mozart’s output.  Indeed all six quartets are rare and exceptional masterpieces, but like the “Divertimento,” K. 563, it is the slow movement of K. 458 that puts it in a class by itself.  It is difficult to describe how this miracle of sound achieves its effect.  The warm and rich tone colors in the key of E-flat major, the silent pauses, the yearning of the first violin and the beautifully unexpected harmonic transformations after crescendos in the exposition and again in the recapitulation all combine to make this work a true rarity in Mozart’s output let alone in all of chamber music.

6.  Immediately after Mozart completed the last of his “Haydn” quartets, K. 465 in C major, also known as the “Dissonance,”  he completed what is perhaps his greatest piano concerto, the “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor,” K. 466.  Mozart’s father Leopold probably could not have picked a better time to visit his son in Vienna than in early 1785.  He arrived on the very day Mozart completed this concerto – February 10, 1785.  During Leopold’s visit he heard the premiere of three of the six “Haydn” quartets, as well as the “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor,” K. 466 among other new works by Wolfgang.  This may be not only Mozart’s greatest piano concerto, but the greatest piano concerto ever written, as digitaldreamdoor.com gives this work the top ranking for all piano concertos.  The quiet and syncopated dramatic D minor opening is so original and the entire work so profound in its scope and conception, it must have been shocking to its first audiences.  Leopold called the work a “new and very fine concerto by Wolfgang” in a letter to his daughter Nannerl.  It would be fascinating to hear a more in-depth description of the impact this work had on Mozart’s father, as being an excellent and well traveled musician himself, he must have appreciated the work’s astounding originality, dramatic tension, and virtuosic piano writing,  It is a work which was highly influential on the young Beethoven.  He greatly admired this concerto and kept it in his performance repertoire.  He even composed cadenzas for the first and third movements, which are widely performed today.  The dramatic minor key and sweeping scope of this concerto was a natural favorite of the Romantics of the 19th century, along with Mozart’s other minor key “Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor,” K. 491, also among my “Mozart top ten.”

7.  Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major,” K. 488 is another undisputed masterpiece for piano and orchestra, completed on March 2, 1786 while finishing work on Figaro.  This work, at least in the outer movements, epitomizes the “sunny side” of Mozart’s pianistic genius, and like a carefree summer day from the opening bar of the first movement, inhabits an entirely different sound and dramatic world than the dark K. 466 D minor concerto completed just over a year before.  Evidence from Mozart’s handwriting and the paper types he used in the autograph score of his “Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major,” reveals Mozart began work on this piece in 1784 – the year he would complete no less than six piano concertos for subscription concerts.  It is difficult to reconcile why he would not have completed work on it then, since the melodic material is even more beautiful, inspired, and profound than any of the six he completed in 1784.  Nevertheless, when he picked up his quill two years later to complete the work in 1786, he decided to omit his original scoring for oboes and instead added a pair of clarinets – an ingenious choice Mozart exploits to the fullest in this beautifully composed work of art. Mozart’s orchestration utilizing softer tone colors in this lovely work is most definitely reminiscent of the tone color palette of Figaro, and the second movement written in the key of F sharp minor – the only movement Mozart ever wrote in this key, is essentially a beautiful tragic aria for piano and orchestra.  The affect is of deep dramatic impact, especially after the brilliant and sunny tone colors of the first movement.  The depth and originality of this second movement must have made quite an impression on its first audiences, and was likely appreciated by them as well since the slow movement to Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat Major,” K. 482 – also a deeply moving piece written in a minor key was so wonderfully received it had to be repeated. The last movement is a brilliant and virtuosic rondo finale which restores the sunny tone colors and bright key of A major from the first movement.

8.  In the summer of 1788, over an extraordinary six-week period, Mozart composed his last and three greatest symphonies. They are all staples of the orchestral repertoire, and perhaps the most famous of the three is the “Symphony No. 40 in G Minor,” K. 550.  While the tone of this work is darker than that of any of the other two symphonies in the trio, it could not be said to be necessarily “tragic,” but urgent and intense.  What makes the opening of the first movement in particular so remarkable is how it begins as if “in the middle of something” – very unusual for Mozart. There is not an emphatic chord to start the work as found in so many symphonies, but a restless eighth-note figure in the violas under the main driving theme in the violins in octaves which begins immediately during the first bar.  Throughout this work, there is a kind of restlessness and urgency rarely heard in Mozart’s music which is part of what makes it so unique.  We only have a chance to catch our breaths in the lovely second movement, but even there, the persistent thirty-second note motif which pervades the entire movement – sometimes dark, and sometimes light, gives the piece a driving motion amidst an otherwise lilting, calm, and serene background. It may be said Mozart was always writing opera, even when not technically working on one. His sense of drama and color, contrast and texture are most evident in this lovely second movement, and the relentless intensity carries through in the minuet and then the rondo finale, in which Mozart utilizes an ascending “rocket motif” Beethoven would later use to begin his “Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor” Op. 2, No. 1.  In this last movement, Mozart even looks ahead to 120 years or so in the future by starting the development section with a startlingly original melodic progression in unison which is essentially a 12-tone row as utilized by Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg in the 20th century.

9.  The “String Quintet No. 6 in E-Flat Major,” K. 614 is the last masterpiece Mozart composed for the string quintet genre.  It is in the string quintet, and not the string quartet where Mozart can be said to have reached his pinnacle in chamber music writing.  All six are undisputed masterpieces of exceptional craftsmanship.  The addition of a second viola, Mozart’s favorite string instrument, enriches the texture and the sonorous possibilities of the ensemble – one which Mozart was masterful in exploiting in all of his string quintets.  Mozart completed K. 614 on April 12, 1791, just eight months shy of his death.  It is a jovial work, with a cheerful 6/8 “hunting” theme in the first movement, and a dancelike theme and variations in the second movement, followed by a light and rhythmically diverse minuet, and an exceptional rondo finale – the crowning jewel of this work. In the development section of the finale, Mozart launches into a truly amazing contrapuntal section equal to Bach in its seamless and effortless execution with each instrument joining in imitation of the instrument before it, with harmonic turns all working together with a feeling of inevitable rightness so characteristic of Mozart’s music. Even when writing the most complex music with extreme demands of formal balance, the use of multiple motifs in contrapuntal imitation, and harmonic coherency, Mozart manages to make everything sound inevitable and obvious, as if it could not possibly be any other way than how it is.

10.  Of his 21 original concertos for one piano and orchestra, Mozart used clarinets in only three of them – K. 482, K. 488, and K. 491 – bearing witness to the fact clarinets were not yet in everyday use in Mozart’s time for all ensembles, unlike during the time of Beethoven, just one generation later in which clarinets were a staple of virtually every orchestra.  Of those three concertos, Mozart only wrote one with both oboes and clarinets in the orchestra – the “Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor,” K. 491.  It can be said Mozart never went further in his exploration of the possibilities of the piano concerto after this work, with his last three piano concertos more or less representing different versions of techniques and textures he already explored in the concertos before them.  In this work, another favorite of Beethoven, which was the model for his own “Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor,” Op. 37, Mozart returns again to the minor – the only other minor key piano concerto he composed.  Outside of the vast symphonic scope of this work and the brilliant and ingeniously virtuosic pianistic writing, the woodwind writing in this work is the most intricate and complex he ever wrote for a piano concerto.  While much thematic material is given to the woodwinds in K. 482, Mozart in this work goes beyond his previous effort, especially in the second movement of this work in which the woodwinds carry almost all of the thematic material. The use of woodwinds to carry much of the thematic material in a piano concerto is an innovation Mozart began as early as 1784 with his “Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-Flat Major,” K. 450 in which the opening of the first movement begins with the main theme in oboes and bassoons.  It is the huge scope of K. 491, the dramatic power, the large orchestra, and the rhythmic intensity of this concerto which so impressed the Romantics, and especially Beethoven who after hearing this work remarked excitedly to a friend, “We will never write anything like that!”  Like the “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor,” K. 466, this piece in its sheer power and innovation must have been a shock to its first audiences.

Mozart’s top ten compositions is only the tip of the iceberg of what is an almost superhuman body of ingenious work by the greatest musical genius of all time.  The fact this list represents eight separate genres bear witness to the scope of Mozart’s diverse genius.  He was an unparalleled master of all forms, all genres, and all techniques.  And while we may sometimes feel we have in a sense been “robbed” of even more masterpieces due to his very short life of only 35 years, what he accomplished in that time is more than double what many have produced in twice the time. It was for Beethoven to receive “the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn” to continue the legacy of the Viennese Classical tradition into the stormy Romantic period of the 19th century.





Mozart’s Early Masterpieces

I recently read an article which said that Felix Mendelssohn was an even greater compositional child prodigy than Mozart, and George Grove, the founding editor of “Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians” has called Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” overture, Op. 21 “the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music.” This work was completed by Mendelssohn on August 6, 1826 when Mendelssohn was 17 years and 6 months old. While it is true Mendelssohn was a remarkable and most gifted compositional child prodigy, producing mature masterpieces in his teen years, it is not quite accurate in my estimation to say he was a greater compositional child prodigy than Mozart, who also produced several mature masterpieces in his teen years. Given the weight, scope, and influence of Mozart’s mature compositional output, it may seem easy to ignore or overlook his early masterpieces, but there are several early works he created which give no hint of his chronological age, and are composed with an assuredness, mastery, and quality which often equal and occasionally surpass works Mozart composed during his mature Vienna years.

1) The three string “Quartet Divertimenti,” K. 136, 137, and 138, composed in Salzburg in 1772, when Mozart was 16 years old have always impressed me as works of exceptionally rare beauty and Classical-style elegance. Whether performed by a string quartet, as they apparently were intended, or by a full string ensemble, which also comes off with beautiful effect, they are remarkable works, which show Mozart in full command of the Classical style, and the depth of the slow movements of these works are especially profound. The autograph manuscripts of these works resemble fair copies with clear handwriting and few corrections, reflecting the perfect and carefree nature of this music, while not being shallow. There is truly no difference between the mastery and maturity of these slow movements especially, and almost anything Mozart wrote during his mature Vienna years. While these three divertimenti are much different than the Divertimento in E-Flat Major,” K. 563 for string trio Mozart composed in 1788, this music is still beyond mere “light entertainment” Mozart often composed during his Salzburg years as a teenager.

2) The “String Quintet in B-Flat Major, K. 174, composed in 1773 at the age of 17, was a watershed in string ensemble writing for Mozart, especially when compared to the set of six “Viennese” string quartets he completed immediately before this work. This set of six “Viennese” string quartets, drawing at least in part from the influence of Haydn’s Op. 20 set, with fugal finales in the first and the sixth quartet,  and the addition of minuets, are a definite advance from Mozart’s earlier six “Milanese” string quartets, which featured three movements in the “Italian” style. Still, Mozart’s finales in these “Viennese” quartets tend to be quite short, and while I myself consider all of them masterpieces except for the second of the set in A major, they are still fairly “lightweight” in content and are still some distance away from the maturity and mastery found in his six string quartets dedicated to his friend and mentor, Joseph Haydn.  Nevertheless they are still quite lovely, elegant, and gracefully epitomizing the Classical style.   In the “Haydn” quartets, Mozart achieved the pinnacle of his string quartet writing, composed between 1782 and 1785 when Mozart had settled in Vienna, and after he had been exposed to Haydn’s latest and highly influential Op. 33 set of six string quartets of 1781. What is most striking about the “String Quintet in B-Flat Major,” K. 174 is the overall scope of the work in comparison to the “Viennese” quartets. As if literally overnight, Mozart jumped to full maturity in his string writing, with this work lasting nearly twice as long – almost 30 minutes compared to the last of the “Viennese” quartets, K. 173 in D minor, which lasts some 15 minutes with a short 3-minute fugal finale. In the “String Quintet” K. 174, Mozart wrote a long and fully developed sonata-form first movement replete with amazing contrapuntal execution in the development section, followed by a moving and transcendentally beautiful adagio. The minuet has an energy and a vitality beyond that of some of the minuets found in the “Viennese” quartets, and Mozart even composed a very interesting and lovely second trio of this minuet he discarded from the final version. But the crowning jewel of this work which really makes it stand out above all of his string writing to date is the finale. Mozart must have placed great value on this work, trying to make it more and more perfect, as evidenced by the composition of the second trio in the minuet, and even going so far as to compose an entire second finale for it. Both finales last approximately five and a half minutes – almost twice as long as the K. 173 string quartet finale written immediately before this work. Mozart decided on the version which utilizes the main motific eighth-note theme to start the movement, instead of the other discarded version which begins with the running sixteenth-note figure. The two finales reveal an insightful look into Mozart’s compositional process, how he would rework themes and motifs, and rearrange them to achieve what he considered the best version of those combined ideas. It is fascinating in both finales, how Mozart handled the same musical ideas in very different ways in two equally perfect finales. It is one of many testaments to his amazingly ingenious compositional ability. The finales of this quintet are extended rondos which display a staggering contrapuntal mastery and complexity in conception which was unprecedented for Mozart’s string writing at the time, and is at least the equal in skill and execution of any finale Mozart wrote for the “Haydn” quartets several years later, not to mention in his late string quintets of 1787, and 1790-91.

3) “Symphonies No. 25 in G Minor, K. 183, and No. 29 in A Major,” K. 201. Mozart wrote literally dozens of symphonies in his youth, starting with his first at the age of eight. However, while some are more interesting and convincing than others, none can compare to the maturity and mastery of these two symphonies, epitomizing the elegance, balance, and contrast of the Classical style – one reflecting the dark side, and in the other, the light. Once again, we have a watershed moment in Mozart’s development as a composer at the age of 17 when on October 5, 1773 he completed the “Symphony No. 25 in G Minor,” K. 183, the “little G-minor,” and at the age of 18, in 1774, when he composed the “Symphony No. 29 in A Major,” K. 201. Both are undisputed masterpieces lasting almost a half hour in duration, and featuring four movements which include minuets and trios, brilliant rondo-finales, and a seriousness and maturity in their conception unequalled in all of his symphonies preceding them.

4) The five violin concertos by Mozart, K. 207, 211, 216, 218, and 219 are said to have been composed within a span of just eight months – between April and December of 1775 – an amazing achievement by any composer of any age, let alone a young composer coming into his own at 19 years old while working on other compositions at the same time. While some research has revealed the first of these concertos in B-flat major, K. 207 may have been written as early as 1773 at age 17, it is still remarkable to hear the maturity and progressive growth revealed in these five violin concertos over such a short period of time, even if we assume Mozart composed only numbers 2-5 during that eight month time frame in 1775. While not all of these works may be considered masterpieces by everyone, at least the third, in G Major, K. 216 and the fifth in A Major, K. 219, also known as the “Turkish” for its exotic “Turkish” style in the fast section of the rondo finale, are undisputed masterpieces. The slow movements of all of these works are extremely beautiful arias for violin and orchestra. They demonstrate Mozart’s inexhaustible and ingenious melodic gift, and in these concertos in general, his gift for subtle yet perfect contrasting harmonic and tonal color. It is remarkable in the last movements of the “Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major,” K. 219, and the “Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major,” K. 216, how much contrast he achieves with tone color and orchestral texture with such a small orchestra featuring only pairs of oboes and horns, strings, and solo violin, and in the K. 219 “Turkish” concerto, he uses none of the traditional “Turkish” instruments of bass drum, cymbal, piccolo, and triangle to achieve this “Turkish” atmosphere. In both concertos, the last movements feature lots of interesting contrast achieved from the use of pizzicato in the string section, tempo changes, contrasting articulations, and masterful melodic exploitation of the high and low registers of the solo violin.

5) The “Piano Concerto No. 5 in D Major,” K. 175 was also another remarkable advance for Mozart, who wrote his first original piano concerto at the age of 17, in December of 1773. His four previous numbered piano concertos were written as arrangements of works by other composers such as Raupach, Honauer, and Schobert, and his next three unnumbered piano concertos, K. 107 were arrangements of works by Johann Christian Bach, so for all intents and purposes, this is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 1. However, his mastery of the concerto form already at the age of 17 shows little signs of a novice learning his way, but a mature composer in full command of the virtuosic and melodic effects he wanted to achieve in the concerto form on the instrument for which he would write the vast majority of his concertos – the pianoforte. What’s more, this work was only the beginning of what was to come in his great Viennese piano concertos he composed for subscription concerts in the 1780s – arguably Mozart’s most impressive body of work. Mozart himself thought highly of it, taking it with him on his tours to Munich in 1774, and to Mannheim and Paris in 1777-1778, and adding a new finale for it, the “Rondo in D Major,” K. 382, in 1782 while preparing it for performance just after arriving in Vienna the year before. This piano concerto is a work I was late to discover in my Mozart studies, having purchased only a couple years ago, a box set of all the piano concertos on period instruments, performed by Malcolm Bilson and the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. My personal feeling is Mozart should have left the original finale as it was – a brilliant and virtuosic rondo, and not changed it because stylistically, the new rondo does not fit the first two movements, and was likely written to suit Viennese taste at the time. While Mozart said the new rondo was quite enthusiastically received by its first audiences, its content and execution is not as inspired or as masterful as that of the original rondo, and serves as an example of Mozart’s earlier Salzburg work surpassing a work from his mature Vienna years. The original rondo is a perfect finale to an amazing composition.

It is easy to underestimate Mozart at any age, because his work sounds so inevitable, so easy, and so perfect, we tend to take it for granted. Even so, it is clear when Mozart wrote music primarily to satisfy his listeners, and when he was truly stepping out into worlds and sounds never before heard, yet still within the elegance and style of the Classical era. Even in his teens, Mozart stepped out and went beyond the conventions of his time far more often than he is usually given credit for. There are other works I could include in this category of early masterpieces, such as the lovely motet, “Exsultate Jubilate,” K. 165, written just shy of Mozart’s 17th birthday, and the “Divertimento in D Major,” K. 131, written in Salzburg during the summer of 1772 when Mozart was 16 years old, in which Mozart displays ingenious writing for four horns and imaginative concertante writing for woodwinds throughout this work, which essentially amounts to an ambitious, six-movement serenade in everything but name. The second movement is an exquisitely beautiful adagio for strings alone, which again is as masterful and moving as almost any slow movement Mozart composed during his mature Vienna years.

While it is true much of Mozart’s early music falls into the category of “pleasant light entertainment,” there are many early Mozart masterpieces, some more or less known, which definitely deserve to be heard and appreciated for the mature and beautiful masterpieces they are.

Mozart’s Violin Sonata in A Major, K. 526

On August 24, 1787, just fourteen days after completing what is perhaps Mozart’s most famous composition, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” K. 525, Mozart entered a new composition into his personal catalog of works which has come be be known as his “Violin Sonata in A Major,” K. 526.  This piece was completed just before the completion of his opera “Don Giovanni,” K. 527.  Like the “Divertimento” in E-flat major, K. 563, it might seem easy to dismiss a mere violin sonata as only a “trivial” work, but also like the “Divertimento,” this is a true little-known masterpiece.  It was completed in between two much more famous masterpieces by Mozart, and therefore receives little attention, yet the treasures which lie within this remarkable work are well worth discovering for all who care to listen.

I have never heard anyone refer to any of Mozart’s violin sonatas as a truly “great” Mozart work in the same way we consider the great “Kreutzer” Sonata, Op. 47  of Beethoven.  This is understandable to a point because of all of the great operas, symphonies, and concertos of Mozart which tend to outshine so many of his “smaller” works.  I do however feel it is too easy to dismiss or take for granted what Mozart accomplished in this A major sonata.  It is true this sonata does not have the same emotional turmoil as Beethoven’s sonata, but Mozart’s music never does since it is never about emotion, even if able to evoke emotion.  Mozart’s sonata also does not make the degree of technical demands Beethoven’s does, and Mozart’s music in general does not always “grab” us the way Beethoven’s music tends to, but draws us in with its unparalleled perfection of structural beauty, melody, and elegance.

The opening movement is written in sonata form in 6/8 time.  It begins with an immediate duet in harmony between the violin and piano, and alerts us from the very beginning this is a sonata for the equally important violin and the piano.  There is a true integration of the instruments in this work , and is not merely a piano sonata with violin accompaniment, although that is the way Mozart entitled his violin sonatas – as sonatas for piano with violin.  The violin and piano are given equal melodic and motific, virtuosic treatment, trading melodies and eighth-note, sixteenth-note figurations in a playful dance of assured mastery.  Since Mozart was a master performer on both instruments, he was able in this work to perfectly exploit the strengths of both the piano and violin.

In the second movement, Mozart again turns to the sonata form, opening with the piano in an unaccompanied melody in octaves which will later be picked up by the violin.  There is continual interplay and trading of melody and accompaniment between the piano and violin, and beyond the notes there is a depth in this movement which touches on the dark side as well as the light, but is never personal as in Beethoven’s work.  If emotion is evoked in Mozart, it is on the deepest levels of those extremely rare “ah-ha” moments we have when we can see the oneness and beauty of the universe in all things – the good as well as the bad – the darkness as well as the light.  It reflects both sides while itself transcending duality.  It is more than any other music, the sound of now… the present moment.

The final movement has to be one of the most remarkable rondos Mozart even composed. It is difficult to know exactly where we are rhythmically as the piece opens breathlessly with rapid eighth notes in the piano running underneath the violin melody which is playfully syncopated and fun. It is a tour de force for both the piano and violin, making great technical demands on both players in a way quite different than Beethoven makes in his “Kreutzer Sonata.” There is a beautiful melody marking the “B” section of the rondo, first played by the piano and later picked up by the violin to slow down the perpetual motion just a bit to allow us to catch our breath, but then it is off again to the races as Mozart returns to the “A” theme of the rondo.  He continues to return to the “A” theme throughout the movement each time after visiting “new” colors of sound – sometimes in the minor, sometimes in the major, eventually ending with a breathless coda, in a joyous and triumphant ending in the spirit somewhat reminiscent of the “Rondo Alla Turka” movement of Mozart’s “Piano Sonata in A Major,” K. 331.

It is so easy – perhaps too easy to take Mozart for granted.  His music sounds so inevitable, so “easy,” so perfect, we cannot imagine it any differently than it is.  That is why it is often difficult to appreciate the incredible skill and hard work Mozart had to put in to his creations.  Perhaps that is one reason why some would call Mozart “less serious” and “less deep” than other composers like Beethoven, where the compositional struggle tends to more readily be heard in the music itself, and often bears itself out in Beethoven’s working manuscripts which frequently do not resemble fair copies, but elaborately worked-out and almost illegible sketches.  While it is true Mozart’s music lacks the element of personal emotional reflection in the way of the romantics, Mozart’s approach to composition and his dedication to the perfection and integrity of his craft are no less serious and committed than any other composer in history.  However, unlike many composers, Mozart did not take life or himself quite as seriously, leaving us with a strange sense of wonder at how he was able to accomplish the miraculous seemingly as easily and as naturally as taking a breath… That ease, purity, and inevitability is Mozart.

Beethoven’s Royal Patrons

It is remarkably ironic how Beethoven, no respector of persons, nor status, nor aristocratic ideals, managed to be befriended by so many aristocratic patrons who were perhaps drawn to him by his audacity in not conforming to either authority or tradition. Beethoven knew he needed the patronage of the aristocracy, even while criticising their old-world, non-democratic ruling structure, “enlightened despots” or no.  One of Beethoven’s most important aristocratic patrons – perhaps the most important was Archduke Rudolph (pictured above), the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II.  Rudolph began to study piano and composition with Beethoven in 1804, and Beethoven dedicated 14 compositions to him, including the famous “Piano Trio in B-flat major,” Op. 97, also known as the “Archduke Trio,” and the “Missa Solemnis,” Op. 123.  Rudolph returned the favor by dedicating one of his own compositions to Beethoven.  Count Andreas Razumovsky was also a patron of Beethoven, who commissioned the Op. 59, Nos. 1-3 “Razumovsky Quartets,”  as I discussed in my last post.

In the fall of 1808, the year of Beethoven’s famous grand concert on December 22nd, he received an offer from Napoleon’s brother Jerome Bonaparte, who was then the king of Westphalia, for a position as Kapellmeister at the court in Cassel. Beethoven initially accepted the offer to the surprise of at least three of his patrons.  In a move unprecedented in the history of music, these three aristocratic patrons persuaded Beethoven to remain in Vienna at a pension of 4,000 florins per year, equal to about 2,240 US dollars. While that sum may seem small by today’s standards, we have to remember this was 1808.  For some perspective, Mozart averaged about 2,500 florins per year, and that was from working – opera commissions, fees from publications, piano and composition students, etc. – not simply staying in Vienna.  Mozart’s income in 1989 dollars from data provided by Moore (1989, p. 21) amounted a real wage equivalent of about $120,000 – a handsome sum even in today’s dollars.

The three patrons who agreed to pay Beethoven were the Archduke Rudolph, Prince Kinsky, and Prince Lobkowitz, who had commissioned Beethoven’s Op. 18 string quartets, and to whom Beethoven dedicated his third, fifth, and sixth symphonies.  Only Archduke Rudolph paid his share of the pension, while Kinsky died soon afterwards after falling from his horse, and Lobkowitz stopped paying in September of 1811, leaving Beethoven to rely on publishing his compositions along with his small remaining pension to make ends meet.

The fact three royal patrons would have agreed to pay Beethoven a pension on the sole condition he simply stay in Vienna speaks volumes to what a powerful figure Beethoven was.  The aristocracy did not generally “serve” the people they ruled over, and most certainly not in the extraordinary way they assisted Beethoven, who truly lived out this role reversal of the aristocracy requesting something so remarkable of a commoner, whom they clearly believed was not just an “ordinary commoner.” Indeed he was not.

Mozart never found this kind of support from royal patrons that Beethoven did, although he was commissioned by Emperor Joseph II to compose the singspiel opera, “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail,” K. 384.  He was also commissioned to compose the opera, “La Clemenza di Tito,” K. 621 for the coronation of Joseph’s brother Leopold II in 1791.  He composed his three “Prussian Quartets,” K. 575, K. 589, K. 590, for the cellist King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, as well as a piano sonata (K. 576) for the king’s daughter Princess Friederike.  Mozart had intended to compose six string quartets for the king, but only completed three, and only one of what was supposed to be a set of six piano sonatas for the princess. He was paid for the sonata, but received no more of his promised fees, which is probably why he stopped work on the project.  In the end, in a letter to Michael Puchberg, he said he had to sell his quartets to a publisher – those “difficult works for a mere song” as he put it, to meet his financial circumstances.

In a letter dated September 30, 1786, Mozart tried to offer exclusive works for Prince Joseph Maria Benedikt of Furstenberg, who published three of Mozart’s symphonies, K. 319, K. 338, and K. 425, and the piano concertos K. 451, K. 459, and K. 488.  Mozart had also proposed to compose exclusive works for the prince on a regular basis for a fee, but on this offer, Mozart was turned down.  An incomplete letter dated May of 1790 reveals that Mozart was at least contemplating a petition to the Archduke Franz of Austria for the post of second Kapellmeister.  Interestingly, Mozart in this letter states he is more qualified for the position than Salieri as stated in his letter, “…especially as Salieri, although very well qualified as a Kapellmeister, has never devoted himself to church music, whereas I have made this style entirely my own from my youth onwards.” In the end, even if Mozart did petition the Archduke eventually or Leopold II himself, it did not come to fruition.

It may have been Mozart was simply too early in the historical timeline for the kind of support Beethoven would later enjoy from aristocratic patrons as a freelance composer.  It may be Mozart was simply ahead of his time in trying to do what Beethoven was eventually able to do.  Haydn beautifully and poetically expressed his feelings on Mozart’s value in being patronized as Beethoven was with the following words.. “If only I could impress Mozart’s inimitable works on the soul of every friend of music, and the soul of high personages in particular, as deeply, with the same musical understanding and with the same deep feeling, as I understand and feel them, the nations would vie with each other to possess such a jewel.”  Had Mozart lived just a little longer, he would have become the next paid Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and may well have enjoyed a similar kind of patronage Beethoven enjoyed, but it was not to be.  The elderly Leopold Hoffman, the then current Kapellmeister of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, was quite ill at the time Mozart was taken on as an unpaid assistant at St. Stephen’s, but Hoffman ended up outliving Mozart by two years.

It is also possible Mozart may not have been as good at marketing himself as was Beethoven.  For whatever reason, Mozart never made the kind of lasting connections he needed for sustained financial success, and even Beethoven eventually had his pension cut due to recession and war with the French.  Such is the life of a freelance composer – their income is up one day and down the next. While Mozart made large sums, he also had times he was very short on cash, as his numerous begging letters to his fellow Freemason friend Michael Puchberg bear witness to.  As a freelance musician, there is no steady stream of consistent income. It is as true today as much as it was true in Beethoven and Mozart’s time, although composers are much better protected today by copyright laws and paid royalties for the performance, sale, and recordings of their works.  Had Beethoven and Mozart had these kinds of financial opportunities, combined with their incredible production, especially Mozart with his operatic production, they may well have been if not rich men, extremely well off.  While Haydn did well financially, he worked almost his entire lifetime as a court musician for the wealthy Esterhazy family – an entirely different situation than being a freelance musician seeking royal patronage from the outside as Mozart and Beethoven did.

The time was perfect for Beethoven, who found a way to obtain sustained patronage from the aristocracy throughout his career.  His overpowering personality, defiance of authority, and his undeniable compositional genius and pianistic ability combined with the spirit of liberty, fraternity, and equality of the French Revolution which swept through European society at the time in which Beethoven was coming into his own, just after Mozart died, created a perfect storm for Beethoven to take the musical world, and indeed the entire social structure – by storm.



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”….

There is no “I” in Mozart

In my last post, I discussed some of the main differences between Classicism and Romanticism, and in the post before that, we discovered through the analysis of different composers’ mastery of various genres of music, that in my opinion, Mozart is the greatest composer of all time, and why I ranked other composers as I did. While discussing music this weekend with my best friend from college, we discovered what it is that truly makes Classical era music different from music of other eras, and especially why Mozart’s music stands out among all other music across all eras. Classicism is the ideal of perfect balance, harmony, and symmetry of line, form, and expression through contrast. It is an ideal which is not about emotion, but about the expression of different “shades” or “colors.” In the Classical ideal, it is never about “me,” about “I.” It is not about how the composer “feels” about something, but about manifesting what is. While the Romantic writes about how the sunset makes them feel, the Classicist writes the beauty of the sunset itself. To do this, one’s emotions cannot overshadow or cloud the pristine beauty of what it is one is expressing. Everything must have clarity, and emotions do not clarify, but cloud.

This is why personal emotional expression was not desired in the Classical era. It clouded the realization of the Classical ideal during the Age of the Enlightenment in which reason, logic, clarity, and structure were of supreme importance. It is precisely this ideal Beethoven rebelled against because his ideal was that of a Romantic – of personalized self-expression. This may be one reason for his lack of contentment with his teacher Haydn, whom Beethoven likely found to be too “rigorous” and “old fashioned” in his Classical ideals Beethoven would ultimately reject. I can remember while thinking of Mozart not too long ago, realizing there was “something missing” in his music which I can hear in all other music. This struck me as odd since Mozart’s music is often lauded as some of the most “divine” and beautiful music ever written. You would think there would be nothing missing in it. However there is something missing, and that something is the “I.” There is no “I” in Mozart. As I said in my last post, with Mozart there seems to be a kind of “detached” quality in his music which is not present in any other music, not even Bach. While I feel Bach is very much like Mozart in that you cannot know the man through the music, Bach’s music is about emotional expression, as he was a Baroque composer during an era in which emotion was desired, but not personal expression of emotion. While this makes his music not “about Bach” specifically, it is or at least can be about emotion, which is necessarily centered on the concept of the self, the “I,” because without the “I,” emotion does not exist.

This lack of “I” in Mozart’s music can be heard in the absence of any “personal” interjection as we hear in Haydn and Beethoven. Mozart remains without personal “comment” and simply reveals perfect clarity of line, structure, and balance time and time again in one masterpiece after another. It is precisely this quality which makes people call his music “divine,” as it is without humanity because it is without emotion. It is just pristine, uncluttered beauty, devoid of all which would cloud its beauty, which makes his music the pinnacle of the Classical ideal. This is also why Mozart’s music, while often considered “divine,” can at the same time be disturbing for some people, even on occasion called “insane,” and sometimes “superficial.” It is generally not a lack of depth in Mozart’s music which bothers some people, as much of Mozart’s music is quite profound, but its absence of humanity and its pristine perfection which is so unlike who we are as flawed, imperfect people. However for me, when I want purity of sound and to “remember” the oneness and perfect balance of the universe, I listen to Mozart. The sound of his music is the sound of perfection, the sound of the perfect unity of oneness. This is ultimately why Mozart is the greatest of all composers for all time – not only because of his mastery of all forms, but also because his music is the perfect reflection of the perfect order, beauty, and oneness of the universe. The truth of oneness is egolessness, and it is only in Mozart’s music where the “I,” the ego is absent. Where there is no “I,” there is no perception of time, and only the bliss of now. Without the “I,” there is also no judgment. Mozart’s music is without judgment because the “I,” the ego is not present in it. He only reveals what is in his music, without personal comment or judgment. Unlike the music of any other composer, Mozart’s music perfectly reflects this selfless, egoless perfection, which is why it is rightly called “divine.”

Interestingly enough, this was not the man Mozart himself, who could be proud, arrogant, rude, judgmental, and very critical of others. While Mozart also had positive qualities such as being kind, loving, generous, and loyal to his friends, his character flaws resemble the mirror opposite of his music, and may be the best proof of all how for Mozart, the music was not the man. While the film “Amadeus” was largely fictional, this fact of the disconnect between Mozart the man and Mozart’s music was perhaps the most accurate part of the film. It was this aspect of Mozart which most confounded Salieri, and was perfectly reflected in a line from the film in which Mozart says to the Emperor Joseph II, “Forgive me majesty. I’m a vulgar man. But I assure you my music is not.” The fact he could compose opera from the age of twelve while being able to create music perfectly appropriate for complex emotional situations in storylines prove his music was not about “personal experience” or emotion. If it was, he would not have had the emotional maturity to compose opera, because at twelve years old he had not yet reached puberty and had not experienced the complex hardships, joys and trials of adulthood. Throughout Mozart’s life, even in adulthood, his letters reveal himself to be sometimes immature and emotionally needy and underdeveloped. If this was the man who created profound messages musically and dramatically in opera, then he could not be ranked as one of the top three opera composers of all time if writing opera demanded it reflect his own personal and emotional experience.

While the film “Amadeus” was largely fictional and exaggerated some of Mozart’s compositional techniques, the fact is Mozart did behold the entire structure of complex concertos, symphonies, and arias, and most of the details. There were only some details he had to “work out” on paper, as revealed in his working manuscripts. These “working manuscripts” were essentially “fair copies,” or copies one would give to a publisher to engrave, but Mozart did not make separate copies for publishers because his working manuscript, even if it had a few minor corrections, was perfectly clear enough. Even though Mozart was writing essentially “formulaic music” in that the structure and harmonic language was predetermined, the fact he wrote so many compositions within such formal and harmonic limitations, while creating such enduring and beloved undisputed masterpieces makes his accomplishment all the more astounding. He used no tricks, no gimmicks, just the pure and pristine beauty of expression in sound.

Contrast this with Beethoven, whose music is all about the “I.” It is all about Beethoven, how he thinks and feels about things, personal, political, romantic, or otherwise. Since Beethoven is about personal feeling and expression, it is likely another reason why he is the “world’s favorite” composer as I discussed in my last post. We can relate to Beethoven better than we can Mozart because Beethoven’s music is personal, emotional, and beautifully human in its imperfections, just like us, which does not mean Beethoven’s music is not great. It is phenomenal. He just had a different philosophy than Mozart and the Classicists. Beethoven embodied and championed the Romantic ideal based on personal expression. The art music world has never been the same since Beethoven, who is by far the most influential composer of all time. Now when we hear performances of music, we hear almost all music, even Bach, played through the filter of Romanticism, which was not Bach’s intention. While he definitely desired to express emotion, it was never personal. We have become “romantic junkies” as it were, desiring to hear everything through a romantic filter because we have become addicted to the warm, rich sound of Romanticism with heavy vibrato in the strings, and exaggerated dynamic and tempo changes. With Mozart, these romanticized performances of his music are even less forgivable because Mozart’s music is the complete antithesis of Romanticism. His music was never about emotion, nor was it ever about “me.” This does not mean his music cannot evoke emotion, but rather it is not about emotion. It is about the elegance, beauty, and purity of absolute music itself, regardless of whether he was expressing “darker” shades in minor keys, or “lighter” shades in major keys. Like different colors, different “shades” of music are neither “good” nor “bad,” and neither “happy” nor “sad.” These notions are romantic notions, and have nothing to do with Classicism, even though we sometimes tend to play Mozart through a romantic filter. If we bring these emotions on our own to the music, and “hear” this in the music, then so be it. It is not “wrong” to hear Mozart’s music romantically, as we all have our personal tastes and preferences, but music written from the Classical era was never personal. Beautiful and clear, yes, but never personal.

To hear Mozart’s music through a romantic filter is to compromise the pristine clarity and beauty revealed in his music since emotions, while not “good” or “bad,” inhibits clarity. This is something my best friend from college and I discussed this weekend while listening to some amazing period instrument recordings of Mozart’s symphonies by the Academy of Ancient Music under the direction of Christopher Hogwood, as well as Mozart’s piano concertos from a period instrument recording by the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of John Elliot Gardiner and played by Malcolm Bilson. In these recordings, my friend was stunned by the incredible clarity of line and balance with the period instruments, and how he could hear each individual instrument with unprecedented clarity. It was a revelation for him. It was as if he had never truly heard Mozart before. Prior to my friend’s visit to see me, he did not particularly like Mozart’s music because he had never heard it performed properly. He could now appreciate Mozart’s music and Classical era music in general far more with the discovery of period instrument performances. I recognize I had subconsciously forgiven the “romanticized” performances of Mozart’s music because of my own love of Romantic style playing. Still, my friend was correct to point out the fact Mozart’s music cannot be fully appreciated without being played as it was intended to be played.

Why Do We Listen?

As I said in my last post, subjective tastes from person to person as well as who we are as individuals moment to moment will determine what music we choose to listen to at a given time. Sometimes we want to hear something fun and lighthearted. Other times we want to hear something which will reach the core of our pain and suffering. Still other times, we want to listen to be intellectually stimulated – for music to challenge us and bring us out of ourselves. This is why no single composer or genre of music can give us everything – because the depth and vastness of human experience is far too great to be limited to only one personality.

Differences in Mozart and Beethoven

In looking at the difference between Mozart and Beethoven, I have been especially asking myself what the difference is between how they handle their slower movements which often tend to be the “heart” of their large-scale works. There is quite a difference between them, but until now I have not yet tried to express just what this difference is. It has often been said that in Mozart’s music, even when he is displaying a more “serious” tone in his minor key works, there is a kind of “detached” quality in his work, unlike that of Beethoven. I believe this is one of the reasons Mozart’s music is often described by some as “divine,” or “otherworldly.” While there is a kind of “transcendence” in Mozart’s music because of its exceptional and extraordinarily rare beauty, it does seem to come from the perspective of an “observer” instead of one who is actually living in the mood which is being expressed. This is why I think his music is often perceived to have a kind of “detached” quality. With Beethoven, I almost never feel this “detachment.” I feel as if I am truly hearing Beethoven himself, and am almost eves dropping on his most private thoughts, fears, hopes, and joys. Beethoven brings us into his private world, gathering us to himself, and has a kind of “heart on his sleeve” quality in his music, as does Mahler, while Mozart seems able to somehow not ever truly reveal himself – the man, through his music.

I feel this way about Bach as well. His slow movements in his violin concertos are extraordinary, and contain some of the most expressively passionate and beautifully heartfelt music I have ever heard. However, I still don’t feel as if I am hearing Bach himself, but rather Bach’s truthful conveyance of the emotions of passion itself, or any other given emotion or aspect of life. With Mozart and Bach, we cannot know the man behind the music. In that regard, Mozart and Bach are very similar. There is a lack of ownership in what they are expressing. It is never really personal. It feels like a non-personal third-party observation of human experience, but it is not necessarily about their experience. While they express through their unique personalities, resulting in a different “sound” in their music, it is never really about them, but about the music itself and what mood they are trying to express. The difference between the two is with Bach, he is expressing emotion, although not his emotion, while Mozart, while capable of evoking emotion, is not about emotion, but the beauty of the perfect balance of the universe. This difference was due to the different ideals of the Baroque and Classical eras. This lack of personal expression is as the patrons and public Mozart and Bach were writing for wanted it. Personal expression was not the concern of those patrons in a culture under aristocratic rule in which composers were mere servants. Beethoven did not see himself as a servant, but as an individual artist, bringing forth the Romantic era with full force like a thunderbolt clap. Personal, individual expression is what the Romantic era was all about, and it all began with Beethoven.

Beethoven could be said to be the first true “romantic” composer, whose goal was personal expression of the individual, which was further emphasized with the rise of the virtuosic concerto form which symbolically displayed this clear delineation between the individual and the mass – the soloist against the orchestra. In Beethoven’s concertos, there is a more clear separation between the soloist and the orchestra, unlike in Mozart, where the soloist and orchestra are a more unified whole, and even less like Bach in which the soloist and orchestra are more integrated still. However, Mozart clearly paved the way for Beethoven in his piano concertos in D Minor, K. 466 and C Minor, K. 491, both works which Beethoven greatly admired. He modeled his own C Minor Piano Concerto, Op. 37 after Mozart’s K. 491 C minor concerto. Beethoven also composed his very famous and often performed set of cadenzas for Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto, K. 466. The darker tone of these two famous minor key concertos by Mozart naturally had an appeal to 19th century composers, especially Beethoven. On a more subtle level though, this separation between the individual and the mass is perfectly symbolized by the entrance of the solo piano part in each of these Mozart concertos with new melodic material not stated in the orchestral exposition. Mozart had begun this separation in several of his late piano concertos, and Beethoven expanded the concept, made it his own, and put his personality in his music in a way which had never been done before him. This is what separated Beethoven from every other composer. He truly served notice to the end of the aristocratic “old world” and marked the beginning of the democratic “new world” which saw the rise of the middle class, and the weakening and ultimate demise of the aristocracy. Beethoven’s music perfectly personified the social change of his world. This more “democratic” ideology reflected in Beethoven’s music speaks to us to this very day. That, combined with his highly personal self-expression is what I think makes Beethoven the “world’s favorite” composer. Mozart’s music is highly popular and I feel easier to listen to than Beethoven’s on the whole, but Beethoven speaks to the individual struggle and triumph over hardship we all can identify with in a way no other music did before him, and in many ways, after him. Beethoven took his personal story – his struggles and triumphs in dealing with his deafness, and put it in his music, telling the world the story of his life in his compositions. Mahler can be said to have done the same. In that regard, Beethoven and Mahler are very much alike, even if not alike stylistically.

Beethoven’s individual works also seem to have had more ultimate significance to his career than any one piece had on Mozart’s career. Perhaps this was partially due to Beethoven’s comparatively smaller output, and also due to the lofty status major works had come to attain in the 19th century. In Mozart’s day, new compositions were to be enjoyed, and then replaced by newer works. Music was “here today and gone tomorrow,” and was a means of entertainment, a part of the social climate in which musical works were not necessarily considered or recognized in the 18th century as “masterpieces” in the romantic sense as we think of works after Beethoven. This again links back to the fact that in Mozart’s day composers were considered servants, and not artists. Beethoven’s insistence on being considered an artist and taken seriously as one helped him establish a solid reputation and created genuine anticipation for his new works. In that sense, Beethoven may have “marketed” himself better than Mozart ever did, who had great success for a time in Vienna as a much sought-after pianist and composer in the early 1780s, but could not sustain his success with the rise of recession and war, and eventually the death of Joseph II in 1790.

When we think of Beethoven, we think of the Ninth Symphony “Ode to Joy” melody and the extremely famous opening of his Fifth Symphony. The only work of Mozart which has this kind of presence in the consciousness of the global culture is his “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” for strings. Given this snippet of music samples from each of these composers in the public awareness, it is no wonder Beethoven is often generalized as “more serious” and “deeper” than Mozart, while Mozart is often thought of as being “less serious,” and more “light,” whose music is best suited for pleasant entertainment at cocktail parties. On the contrary, Beethoven can often be quite light, as in the third movement of his Seventh Symphony, and the playful second movement of his Eighth Symphony, while Mozart can also be quite serious and “deep.” Even the second movement to “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” K. 525 has more depth than it appears to have. There is a disturbing quality to this music behind the beautiful façade, in much the same way this is present in the famous beautiful slow movement to the 21st Piano Concerto in C major, K. 467. Mozart’s “depth” may appear less obvious, but in other works, such as the “Kyrie” of the unfinished “Mass in C Minor,” K. 427, and the slow movement of his “Sinfonia Concertante,” K. 364 for Violin and Viola, there is a real depth and a dimension to Mozart well beyond the superficial. The slow movements to his violin concertos, especially those of his third and fifth concertos are more examples of the depth of Mozart. Even so, Mozart still manages to maintain a kind of “detached” quality, even in his “deeper” pieces, which makes him all the more mysterious and enigmatic.

Classicism and Romanticism

Another thing which gives Beethoven perhaps the broadest appeal over any other composer is the fact he composed in essentially two different styles in two different eras. His earlier works recall the compositions of his teacher Haydn and also Mozart, while his later works, possibly beginning as early as the “Pathetique” Sonata for piano in C minor, Op. 13, and certainly with the “Moonlight” Sonata for piano in C# minor, Op. 27, No. 2, reflect a new style which came to be broadly known as “Romanticism.” This new “Romantic” era lasted just over a century, ending with Mahler’s symphonies of the early 20th century, and was extended by Rachmaninoff into the first half of the 20th century, while at the same time several other composers like Prokofiev, Bartok, and Stravinsky were composing in a more “neo-classical” style, rejecting the “excesses of romanticism” which they felt had run its course.

Classicism and Romanticism in a sense, embody two opposite ideologies. Classicism is about balance, clarity and precision of formal structures, purity and beauty of tone, and generally contains limited if any personal emotional expression. While various moods and tempi are explored, there is always a kind of “discipline” to music of the Classical era which is never really about emotion even if it can evoke emotion. This is the exact opposite of Romanticism, which is all about emotion and personal expression. The Baroque era was also about emotion, unlike Classicism, but unlike Romanticism, it was never personal. It was not about personal emotion, but about emotion itself. Romanticism, while still adhering to formal structures, generally embodies an expanded view of form not as apparently “precise” or as “tight” as Classical music structures. Romanticism is also about personal, emotional expression, which thrived especially in late 19th century opera by Wagner, Verdi, and Strauss, and the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. Restrictions of form and personal emotional expression were much relaxed in the Romantic era. “Program music,” in which composers attempted to tell a “story” either generally and implicitly as in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony, or specifically and explicitly as in Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique,” came to the fore in symphonies like Mahler’s Second and Third Symphonies, and the new “tone poem” form made especially famous by Richard Strauss in works such as the very famous, “Also sprach Zarathustra,” Op. 30.

In general, Romanticism embodies a greater “fluidity” in form and expression than does comparably rigorous Classicism. The works of the Romantic era were generally longer in duration, and in some cases, much longer in duration than the works of the Classical and Baroque eras, and generally tended to employ much larger forces than those used in works of the Classical and Baroque eras. The rise of the prominence of the brass section of the orchestra in the 19th century helped bring about this expansion. Berlioz, with his “Symphonie Fantastique” almost single-handedly revolutionized the orchestra and its size overnight, employing a large brass and percussion section. Romanticism could be said to be the most popular style of “art music,” as exemplified by the fact it is the foundation for much of the film scores we hear today.

There are times I need the purity, clarity, and certainty of music of the Classical era. When I feel this way, I listen to Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven. When I want to experience the openness and vastness of looser formal structures and personal emotional expression, I listen to Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and middle-to-late period Beethoven. When I want a kind of balance between Classicism and Romanticism, I listen to Brahms and Mendelssohn. A child prodigy like Mozart, Mendelssohn was truly a classicist at heart while composing during the early Romantic era. His formal structures are tight and clear, as are his orchestrations, as epitomized in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Op. 61, and his “Italian” Symphony in A Major, Op. 90. He was capable of writing very warm, beautifully romantic music, as found in the second movement of his very famous Violin Concerto, Op. 64. Johannes Brahms was among the most conservative of the romantics. A huge admirer of Mozart, even once owning Mozart’s autograph score of his Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, he embraced tighter formal structures while maintaining a distinctive and very passionate Romantic feel in his works, especially in his piano works.

I once studied with a piano teacher in New York who was also an author named Seymour Bernstein. He once told me Beethoven is the world’s favorite composer. As I said in my last post, it is my opinion Mozart is the greatest composer of all time due his mastery of all forms of music in a way unmatched by any other composer in history. However, Beethoven’s mastery across styles is also unmatched by any other composer in history. Since Beethoven’s music embodies both the Classical and Romantic styles in a way and with an assuredness and quality other composers’ music generally do not, it is no wonder he is the “world’s favorite” composer, as he can appeal to “classicists” and “romantics” at the same time. I can now today better understand what Seymour Bernstein meant when he said this of Beethoven. On top of Beethoven’s stylistic diversity, his story is our story of struggle, hope, fear, triumph, and joy. We can identify with him because he wears his “heart on his sleeve,” because he reveals himself in his music, unlike Mozart. For my general tastes and personality, I have always preferred Mozart over any other composers overall. The reason for this may be due to the fact I am an OCD perfectionist who prefers clarity of thought, structure, and line, all qualities epitomized in Mozart’s music. Ironically enough, the reason I likely desire this clarity is because I am truly a romantic at heart, and tend to be less disciplined. Therefore it is precisely structure and discipline I need to balance my Romantic, less structured nature. This is because we often need what we are not. This could even be said for Mozart himself, who led a generally otherwise undisciplined life outside of music, and seemed to “need” the discipline of Classicism to balance his less structured nature. This need for balance is true for everyone, which is why one’s “favorite” composer or composers is very personal.

I must confess in the past I never quite gave Beethoven his due, but after revisiting his earlier symphonies and piano concertos, I could not help but be incredibly impressed with his amazing mastery of the Classical style while still making it his own. It makes his achievements in his later style all the more astounding because whether in his earlier style of Classicism or in his later style of Romanticism, Beethoven always was comfortably and assuredly himself. This is the mark of a truly great composer. Beethoven is certainly one of the greatest.

The Greatest Composer of All Time?


I have lately been thinking about composers and their contributions to music, especially comparisons between Mozart and Beethoven, as well as the question of who is overall, the greatest composer of all time.  To be clear, when I refer to “the greatest composer of all time,” I am referring to the one with the greatest overall mastery of compositional techniques, musical forms (sonata form, rondo, theme and variations, fugue, etc.), and genres (symphony, concerto, opera, etc.) – not necessarily the one whom one might find their own personal favorite.  There are several composers I enjoy for various reasons, and when it comes to contemplating which composer is the greatest overall, I decided to do some research on how composers were ranked within various genres of music. When coming up with my ranking process, I reasoned that logically speaking, the more genres a composer has mastered, the greater their mastery and overall ranking as a composer.

The Rankings

For composer rankings, I have followed a process like the scoring used in bodybuilding competitions in which physiques are judged in “rounds,” which represent different aspects of physique assessment such as symmetry, muscularity, and presentation. Each round is individually judged and scored numerically with the number 1 representing the top placement, and each subsequent larger number representing the placing from best to least best. The placement number of each “round,” or in this case, musical genre for each composer, are added together to create a “total score.”   The overall placements are ranked from lowest to highest total score numbers, with the lowest number representing the best to the highest number representing the least best. I have chosen ten classical music composers to rank and have noted the ranking for each of them in the seven genres of music as listed on the digitaldreamdoor.com website. Eight of my top ten composers are listed in the top ten on the digitaldreamdoor.com website, although not in the exact order as they appear on my list. As with all subjective art forms, opinions about these rankings will inevitably vary among different people. However, I find the rankings at digitaldreamdoor.com to be reasonably fair and accurate. While I do not entirely agree with their overall rankings of “greatest” to “least great” composers, I agree for the most part with their rankings of the composers by genre.

Below is a list of my rankings showing each individual score in each major genre of music as listed on the digitaldreamdoor.com website. The overall combined total score for each composer is listed under the “total score” column. This list should serve as a helpful visual representation of why I consider Mozart the greatest composer, and why I ranked the others in the order I did. There are some notable exceptions however, in which I do not consider only the “total score” when placing composers in order of ranking. For example, despite the identical total score of Beethoven and Brahms, I ranked Beethoven over Brahms because of Beethoven’s enormous influence on music, as well as on Brahms himself, along with Beethoven’s unprecedented influential innovations in music, his nine symphonies and their groundbreaking achievement in instrumental music. Also, despite the higher score of Brahms over Bach, I ranked Bach over Brahms because of Bach’s achievements in counterpoint, harmony, and form which were foundational for all of Western music as we have come to know it in the modern era. That alone could have potentially made me place Bach at the top of the list, but there are other considerations I made for why I did not give him the top ranking. Bach composed during an era in which the string quartet and symphony had not yet been invented. He did, however write during an era in which opera was written, and produced none. Even Handel, a contemporary of Bach who wrote several operas, did not rank in the top 15 composers for opera, while Mozart is ranked among the top three composers in the history of music for opera. He is the only pre-19th century composer to hold the distinction of being among the top ten composers of opera in the history of music. He is also the only pre-19th century composer whose operas are staples in the core operatic repertoire today. This is one reason I rank Mozart over Bach. Also, when we compare all forms both Mozart and Bach either did write, or could have written – namely concertos, choral, opera, and organ music, Mozart still outscores Bach with a score of 11 to Bach’s 21. For those composers who were not ranked in a given genre, I have indicated the number for their ranking in that category exactly one numerical value after the largest ranked number for the last composer listed on the digitaldreamdoor.com website. In other words, if the digitaldreamdoor.com website listed only the top 15 composers in a given category, and a composer was not ranked for that category, I gave them a 16 automatically, with the letters “nr.”

Ranking  Composer   Concertos   Symphonies   Chamber   Choral  

1.             MOZART              1                          5                      2                2

Opera     Piano   Organ     Total Score

3                 9           5                    27

Ranking   Composer    Concertos     Symphonies     Chamber   Choral

2.               BEETHOVEN      2                          1                          1               14

Opera     Piano    Organ       Total Score

16 (nr)     2             11 (nr)          47

Ranking     Composer   Concertos        Symphonies      Chamber   Choral

3.                  BACH                   3                             16 (nr)             16 (nr)       1

Opera      Piano        Organ    Total Score

16 (nr)     16 (nr)        1                 69

Ranking    Composer     Concertos        Symphonies       Chamber     Choral

4.                    BRAHMS          4                             3                            5                  8

Opera       Piano     Organ     Total Score

16 (nr)       5               6                 47

Ranking    Composer    Concertos       Symphonies       Chamber     Choral

5.                   HAYDN              14                        6                            4                   4

Opera     Piano         Organ         Total Score

16 (nr)      16 (nr)      11(nr)             71

Ranking    Composer    Concertos       Symphonies     Chamber      Choral

6.                SCHUBERT       16 (nr)                  9                      10                16 (nr)

Opera      Piano           Organ          Total Score

16 (nr)       3                    11 (nr)              81

Ranking         Composer      Concertos     Symphonies       Chamber       Choral

7.             SCHUMANN             11                    14                          10             16 (nr)

Opera     Piano    Organ     Total Score

16 (nr)      16 (nr)   11 (nr)       82

Ranking           Composer          Concertos       Symphonies   Chamber  Choral

8.              TCHAIKOVSKY          7                             4               16 (nr)  16(nr)

Opera      Piano          Organ    Total Score

16 (nr)      16 (nr)       11 (nr)      86

Ranking        Composer            Concertos      Symphonies    Chamber   Choral

9.            HANDEL                            9                          16 (nr)        16 (nr)          3

Opera      Piano          Organ         Total Score

16 (nr)    16 (nr)          11 (nr)          87

Ranking        Composer            Concertos      Symphonies    Chamber   Choral

10.   MENDELSSOHN               12                          13                   8                   11

Opera      Piano         Organ     Total Score

16 (nr)    16 (nr)       11 (nr)        87

As we can see from the chart above, Mozart is ranked highest when considering the overall “total score.” He is the only composer among the top ten composers listed above who is ranked in every major genre of music in the categories of opera, chamber music, symphonies, concertos, choral music, piano, and organ music. Not only is Mozart the only composer to be ranked in all of the above listed seven major genres, he is also the only major composer who wrote in every major genre while also ranking as a top composer of opera. To be ranked among the top three composers of opera in the history of music without being an essentially “opera-only” composer, as the top two opera composers Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi were, is extraordinary, especially in light of the fact Mozart also excelled in every other major genre of his day. The Kochel catalogue of Mozart’s music reveal a total number of 626 compositions, many of them multi-movement works for many different combinations of instruments often lasting between 20 to 30 minutes, and sometimes longer. This list also includes several operas lasting over two and a half hours. While the Kochel catalogue has been revised and become more comprehensive over the years, it still does not account for all of his works, so the number 626 is not entirely accurate, and actually understates his unbelievable production.

On top of this extraordinary quantity is the even more extraordinarily exceptional high quality of so much of his music. These amazing and unprecedented compositional achievements in the history of music by Mozart, not to mention the almost unbelievable fact he did it all within a lifespan of just 35 short years, beginning at the age of five, are the basis for my opinion he is the greatest composer of all time. I consider Mozart the greatest composer of all time simply because he had no weaknesses in music. Just as bodybuilders are judged as the “best” being the one with the fewest weaknesses, Mozart had none.  His formidable combination of both musical range and mastery is without parallel. There was no form, technique, or genre he did not master as a composer, and in most cases, he mastered them better than anyone else. This cannot be said for any other major composer in history. He was a master of all genres, techniques, and forms – not merely a “jack of some trades,” and master of some or none as several composers were.

Not only was Mozart a master of all genres, but of all techniques, not the least of which was melody. Mozart is widely regarded as the supreme master of melody, as many composers after him aspired to his melodic greatness, including Schubert, Chopin, and especially Tchaikovsky, who idolized Mozart. While Mozart was not a “tunesmith” as composers like Schubert, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky were, he was still an amazing melodist. Is it this feature in his music which makes him immediately stand out from Haydn and Beethoven, both of whom dealt more with gesture and motif than with melody on the whole. With Mozart, melody reigns supreme, even though he too used gesture and motifs. This distinction between Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven is for me, most evident in their string quartets. With Beethoven especially, his secondary themes are typically motific, very rhythmic, and often utilizes silence as much as sound. Haydn also has this same tendency as Beethoven, but to a lesser degree than Beethoven. With Mozart, his secondary themes are always essentially melodious, even if they can be more rhythmic than the principle theme, and are often even more striking and more beautiful than the principle theme. This is why the essence of Mozart is melody.

He was also a master of counterpoint, brilliantly exemplified in his string quartets and quintets, the last movement of his Symphony No. 41, the “Jupiter,” the “Great” Mass in C Minor, and the Requiem. He is unsurpassed in the history of music as a master of formal perfection, who brilliantly mastered the formal structures of the sonata, rondo, theme and variations, and fugue among others.  Mozart often imaginatively expanded the formal structure of his works with delayed cadences, extended phrases, and unexpected resolutions which could have been much more conventional and less interesting in the hands of lesser composers. What is amazing is he did this without compromising the overall structure and balance of the phrase, the entire movement, and indeed the entire work.  His choices are perfect – with never too much or too little.  Even as he attains a level of beauty and perfection in an idea which takes your breath away, he is at once off again to the next idea, even more beautiful than the one before. This is most especially evident in the transcendentally beautiful second movement of his only completed string trio, the “Divertimento” as Mozart titled it, in E-flat major, K. 563.   While it is true that compared to Haydn and Beethoven, Mozart is the most harmonically conservative, his modulations and progressions often surprise and delight, especially in his chamber music.  Mozart was not so much an innovator as was Beethoven, but rather a perfecter of the Classical style.

Mozart not only excelled in all genres and techniques of music as a composer – a colossal feat in and of itself, but was an extraordinary performer and improviser as well. He would spontaneously improvise entire compositions at the piano during his subscription concerts, sometimes writing them down later, and played at a concert level on the piano as well as the violin, performing both his own piano concertos and violin concertos at concerts.  Of the major composers, only Bach and Mozart can be said to have been able to play more than one instrument at a concert level. While Paganini was the best violinist of his day, he was not a major composer nor did he play at a concert level on more than one instrument. Beethoven, as great as a composer and accomplished pianist he was, could also not play more than one instrument at a concert level. Franz Liszt was also the most extraordinary pianist of his day, and while he was a respectable composer, he was not among the greatest, and like Paganini, could not play more than one instrument at a concert level. Mozart also performed as a child prodigy from the age of 6 on, dazzling royalty and clergy by playing the harpsichord and violin blindfolded, transposing complicated pieces at the keyboard on request, and had an extraordinary memory, able to write down entire pieces after just one hearing. All of these facts put Mozart in a class all by himself as the greatest overall musician in history.

Subjective Considerations

As I have mentioned above, to simply take the rankings of composers in each major genre and rank them in order does not take into account other more subjective considerations when assessing the greatness of composers, such as historical influence, innovative musical thought, etc. Also, some composers, such as Bach were not writing during a time in which the symphony and string quartet had been technically invented, and other composers, such as Stravinsky, were not always focusing on “traditional” formal structures, and/or were writing during a time in which the traditional forms of symphonies, concertos, and quartets were not always written with the same frequency they were written in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Some composers seem to embody a real sea change in music, such as Beethoven whose career was truly the embodiment of the end of Classicism and the birth of Romanticism. This makes sense given the fact he lived almost exactly half his life in the 18th century, and half of his life in the 19th century. Hector Berlioz, almost exclusively known for his “Symphonie Fantastique,” was an amazing trailblazer in orchestration, creating sounds in the orchestra and exploring possibilities which had never been known before him. Frederic Chopin did for the piano what Berlioz did for the orchestra, although Chopin has far more music in the repertoire than does Berlioz. Chopin wrote almost exclusively for the piano, and explored sounds and possibilities of the piano which had never been heard before, much as Debussy did this for the piano in the late 19th, early 20th century, embodying Impressionism. However, unlike Chopin, Debussy was a skilled and brilliant orchestral composer as well. His pieces “La Mer,” and “Prelude to the Afternoon of the Fawn” are just two of his numerous examples of shimmering orchestral beauty the likes of which had not been heard before. Stravinsky was also a brilliant trailblazer in orchestral composition in the early 20th century with “The Firebird” and “The Rite of Spring” ballets, who like Berlioz in the early 19th century, created orchestral sounds and explored exotic sonorities never before heard. Wagner took harmony in new and highly influential directions with his opera “Tristan und Isola,”ultimately paving the way for atonal music as championed by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern in the 20th century. Wagner also took opera and the “total art work” concept to unprecedented heights, while Mahler did the same for the symphony, employing enormous orchestral forces, solo voices, and sometimes choruses in his works.

In Conclusion

We all have subjective tastes, and ultimately the music which moves us most will depend on our personalities, our tastes, our moods, and myriad other variables. No single composer or genre embodies the whole of music. Music is larger than all of the greatest composers and musicians combined, so in a sense, the question of who is the “greatest composer” is not even the point. All composers and musicians are ultimately vehicles for the larger purpose of expressing through music. How wonderful it is we have such an incredible variety of music to listen to across generations, genres, styles, composers, etc. One could focus on only one small part of music and spend a lifetime on that alone. Such is the vast expansiveness and limitlessness of this wonderful world of music.

Listen to the audio version of “The Greatest Composer of All Time.”