The Art of Coming from Behind — Mozart on the Streets of Princeton
When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer — say, traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, … it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.
—Mozart, from a letter
My ideas flow best when I’m driving a Honda CRV named Moby, preferably with music on the stereo. For more than a month now it’s been all Mozart, the piano concertos, with a loving emphasis on the slow second movements generally referred to as andantes. I try to keep the volume at a reasonable level, but Mozart will have none of it, and if you’ve been walking on Patton Avenue, or Ewing, or Mount Lucas Road, or Harrison Street, north or south, in recent days, you may have heard your friendly Mozart Mobile driving by, scattering fragments of Amadeus on the ambient air, all from the concertos I’ve been listening to, namely numbers 9 (“one of the wonders of the world,” says Alfred Brendel), 20 (Stalin’s favorite), 21 (remember Elvira Madigan?), and 27 (the last one). Imagine a Good Humor truck without the ice cream, that’s me.
Another recent event that has improved the flow of my ideas, such as they are, is that after coming from behind to win three games in a row, the St. Louis Cardinals have taken sole possession of first place in the Central Division of the National League for the first time this year. What has this got to do with Mozart, you may ask? Not a thing, except that I think were he given the opportunity, he would have liked watching baseball almost as much as he liked playing billiards.
There’s even a hint of the notion of “coming from behind” in the dynamic of the andantes. What would you rather have, an easy win, as clear cut as a 10-0 shut-out, or a hard-fought victory against odds? True, baseball, unlike billiards, is a team sport. But then so is the concerto, where one person sits at the piano surrounded and supported by a community of musicians. Keeping in mind that andante is the present participle of andare, to walk, meaning that the music should be played “at a walking pace,” this puts the pianist in the role of a single lonely thoughtful figure not unlike a pitcher working his way through a tough inning, his job being to allow no further scoring. Keep in mind as well what Mozart said in the letter, that the ideas “flow best” when he is “entirely alone.” Of course when the crisis comes, the lonely pitcher needs his teammates, and nothing, not even a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, can equal Mozart when the orchestra swoops down and takes full possession of the melody. Then it’s as if the lonely, onward-striding human bravely sustaining the melodic line, seeing it through to the end, looks up to behold a sky that is to all the skies ever seen as Mozart is to all the music ever heard and Shakespeare to all the words ever read.
Driving past our former residence on Patton Avenue with Stalin’s favorite piano concerto on the stereo, I thought of the spring morning when I was invited over by our musician neighbors Bill and Janis to meet little Olga, who was having a piano lesson with Janis. This was no ordinary kid, this was Svetlana’s Olga, Joseph Stalin’s granddaughter. At the time of my visit many Aprils ago, I didn’t know how strongly Olga’s grandfather’s felt about K. 466, Mozart’s no. 20. So this drive-by was my way of celebrating a memorable Princeton moment. While Svetlana seemed shy, quiet, and pleasant, her Olga was a six-year-old life force. I thought again of all the energy bouncing off the living room walls of that little house while watching Valentina Lisitsa play K. 466 on YouTube. As she attacked the keyboard, swaying her head, all but singing the andante to herself, did this Ukrainian pianist know how close Joseph Stalin was to the music she was giving herself to so passionately? Did she know that the man responsible for the deadly Ukrainian famine had a recording of the same concerto on a record player in his room the day he died?
A Mount Lucas Moment
Driving toward town on Mount Lucas Road one recent sunny summer day with another Mozart andante on the car stereo, I pass two people walking in the same direction, first a woman in her thirties, in untucked blouse, jeans, and sandals, her brown-gold hair tied back, and in the next block a teen-age girl in shorts, halter, and sandals, her blond hair in a ponytail. The woman walks thoughtfully, the girl lightly, carefree; both are smiling to themselves. Neither looks up as the Mozart Mobile passes, releasing the chillingly beautiful slow movement from Piano Concerto No. 21 into the morning air, the music merging with the moment, the day, the light, the woman and the girl, each walking in her own way, no longer visible, gone with the coda, the piano ending its own promenade, note by simple note.
Some Passing Impressions
After listening to Mozart’s String Quintet in G-minor, in June 1816, 19-year-old Franz Schubert tells his journal “The magic notes of Mozart’s music still gently haunt me …. Thus does our soul retain these fair impressions, which no time, no circumstances can efface, and they lighten our existence. They show us in the darkness of this life a bright, clear, lovely distance, for which we hope with confidence.”
In February 1903, 41-year-old Claude Debussy observes that Mozart’s E-flat symphony is “full of a luminous lightness, like a group of lovely children laughing joyfully in the sunshine!”
Michael Kelly (1762-1826), an Irish tenor who knew Mozart well when both men were in their twenties, says that though Wolfgang could be touchy, “like gunpowder,” he was “lovable,” and when his face was “lighted up with the glowing rays of genius,” it was as impossible to describe “as it would be to paint sunbeams.”
Billiards and Dancing
Of all the biographies, critical studies, and books of letters I’ve consulted in this spell of mid-to-late-summer Mozart madness, the most rewarding has been Paul Johnson’s short but densely informative Mozart: A Life (Viking 2013). It was thanks to Johnson that I found Michael Kelly and his first-hand account of playing billiards with Mozart, who spoke fluent English, picked up during 15 months spent in London when he was a boy. “Again and again I played with him at billiards,” Kelly recalls, “and I always came off second best.” As Johnson tells it, when Mozart entered a public billiards room, he had music paper in his pocket “and composed while waiting his turn. He calculated a long break as twenty or thirty bars. ‘Right! Three pots in a row! Now what key was I in?’ ‘Oh, come on, Wolfgang, it’s your turn!’” Once he moved to Vienna for good in 1781, he had a billiard table of his own in his apartment. According to Johnson, “He had a fetish about smooth, rolling objects. He liked to handle them while thinking and creating. Billiard balls were perfect for this purpose.”
It’s not clear how Johnson knows that Mozart actually rolled the balls in his hand while thinking, but if you don’t push it too hard, the compositional connection makes sense. What better discipline for a musician than playing a game that puts the harmonic dynamic in action as the chiming collision of one rolling object with another sends it spinning toward its sublime, shining alter ego?
At this point, after declaring that “God, music, and billiards were the main components of Mozart’s life,” Johnson adds a fourth — “dancing” — which “probably explained why he was so eager to make his home in Vienna,” at that time “the dance capital of the world.”
Johnson’s next line deserves a spot by itself:
“Mozart danced all his life, virtually to his deathbed.”
Phrases like that one are what make Johnson’s life of Mozart so engaging, You sense that rather than laboring, he’s enjoying his subject, even if it means spinning that sentence about a man who once called death “the best and truest friend of mankind, the key that unlocks the door to our true happiness.”
A man who can dance to his death bed can surely appreciate the emotional significance of coming from behind. A great composer with a fondness for handling smooth, rolling objects like billiard balls while thinking and creating, might also appreciate the brilliantly executed things players on a dusty diamond can do with a small shiny white ball.
The letter quoted at the top is from the introduction to Hans Mersmann’s edition of the letters (Dover). The letter was to “a certain baron” who had made him a present of wine. There is a more detailed account of my encounter with Stalin’s daughter and granddaughter in Town Topics, July 19, 2006.