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Vol. LXIV, No. 6
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
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Airplanes and Playgrounds: Looking for Mozart in the Here and Now

Stuart Mitchner

All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing, lively dream.


Until the transatlantic flight last fall that led to this column — originally intended for January 27, Mozart’s 254th birthday — I had no wish to look beyond the music to the life. Now that I know more than I did about the individual responsible for “all this inventing,” the music I heard at 33,000 feet and have been listening to for weeks seems all the more uncanny and improbable. Up there I never imagined a human source, only something out of nature comparable to the cloudscape the plane was flying through when the andante from Symphony No. 40 came to me by way of those flimsy little complimentary Continental ear pods.

To people moving up and down the aisle I must have looked like someone having a beautiful dream. What was happening was a full-scale assault, a sneak attack, on my emotional equilibrium. Yet the tears being squeezed out of my tightly closed eyes toward the end of the second movement — really as if the music were tying a tourniquet around my head and pulling it as tight as it would go — had no such easily definable source. It was less emotional than blissfully physical, like breaking into a sweat from the trauma of heavenly ascension. “Andante” is the present participle of andare, to walk, meaning, it’s said, that the music should be played “at a walking pace.” The andante that was having its way with me never touched the ground. It had begun unpromisingly enough with a harmless, casual little lilting flourish or two or three, a sort of beckoning, come, come, come, gentle at first, then gradually more urgent until converging orchestral forces transformed the casual sequence into something grand and ennobling. Now each time it came around, I was waiting for it in a state of happy apprehension, thinking, “It can’t do this again, it can’t keep doing this.” The humming of the engines compounded the impact; we were one moving mass of sound. I was ascending to music heaven on Air Mozart.

It’s safe to say that when most people tell you they love Mozart they’re talking about what I just tried to describe, not the human entity inventing wonders within his “pleasing, lively dream.” Read the correspondence and you find a likeable enough fellow scuffling to make ends meet and writing loving, playful, very human letters to his “dearest best little wife.” See Milos Forman’s amazing Amadeus (1984) and you may sympathize at least a little with Salieri at the crushing irony of the thought that God (or the god of music) would choose to speak through the giddy, antic, whinneying character played so brilliantly by Tom Hulce (thankfully, Forman realized that an American accent would best express such callow, brazen childishness). But the more I think of it, the disparity between the fool and his genius is fascinatingly, perversely right, another demolishing of the biographical fallacy that sooner or later comes down to a “So what?” shrug.

Helping Parent

Until the end of his life, Mozart preserved his capacity for enjoying word distortions, childish nicknames, exuberant nonsense, and humorous obscenity. He was a child and always remained one.

Alfred Einstein

If the distinguished musicologist is right (and the consensus seems to favor his view), then there’s a certain poetic justice in the fact that I found Mozart at a long-ago nursery school parents’ potluck where I had the good fortune to sit next to a music professor at Princeton who was politely listening to my ravings about Schubert. Toward the end of our talk he gave me the word. “Listen to Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola,” he told me in hushed tones, as if he were revealing a hallowed mantra or the location of a secret passage to other worlds. Actually, his words were more down to earth — “It’ll blow your mind.”

What it did was even better. I lived for days in the Neville Marriner recording on Argo and the music was still haunting me when I did my turn as helping parent on the playground one blustery day. I spent much of the morning tending to an older child, a doomed six-year-old boy (brain cancer) of whom the others were afraid. He needed a lot of attention. He would curl in a foetal position at the bottom of the slide, as if he were paralysed, and I had to half-carry him back around to the ladder so he could slide down and curl up at the bottom again. He kept talking a lot of joyless nonsense and was upset when I was called away to do my turn at the swings where I kept five kids going at once, Masako, Toby, Jonah, ShanShan, and Louise, names still clear in my mind all these years later, perhaps because of the intensity of the morning — the doomed boy’s incoherent agony, the tears for stubbed fingers and bruised knees, the mutilated baby mice Jonah found near the sandbox, the devious movement of the wind, and then the way the screech of the swings and the shrieks and yelps of the kids made a sound like a nursery school band tuning up. Thinking of Quasimodo naming his bells, I named the swings for them: Masako, Toby, Jonah, ShanShan, Louise. And all the while Mozart was a presence because the rich, somber tones of the andante were with me, making the morning glow. In the shrill music of the swings I could hear the violin and viola climbing, winding around one another and then unwinding amid a symphonic crescendo of heartache so beautiful it hurt. Later I could still hear those five untuned violins, soaring in and out of unison as I pushed the swings up and up and up, in awe of the way music written 200 years ago by someone with the manner of a child and the spirit of a master seemed to understand, encompass, and express everything that was happening on that playground.

Conjuring Mozart

In Bertrand Blier’s 1978 film Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (Prenez vos mouchoirs), the adagio from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major inspires a passionate monologue from Gérard Depardieu. Dinner has been eaten, a fire is in the fireplace, Mozart is on the stereo, Gérard’s seemingly incurably depressed wife Solange (Carole Laure) is in bed knitting, while he and his pal Patrick Dewaere sit on the floor with their backs against the bed. As the slow, achingly lovely second movement of the concerto fills the room, Depardieu is so moved by a sudden desire to know the composer (“Voilà un type, Mozart!”) that he jumps to his feet and paces back and forth possessed by the notion that Mozart himself is down on the street at that very moment looking up and listening to the music, his music, coming from the third-floor window. Depardieu conjures Mozart with such energy that Dewaere is beside himself with delight and even Solange looks faintly amused as he keeps pacing and talking, walking the vision to life (“He’s at the door below … he’s opening the door … he’s coming up the stairs … first floor … second floor … this floor … he’s outside in the hall … he’s knocking at the door!”). Of course at that moment there’s a pounding on the door — an angry neighbor who says they’re making too much noise. After being given a drink and a crash course in Mozart appreciation, the man stops fulminating and says, after some prompting, “Merci, Mozart!”

If Jim Jarmusch had been filming the scene, he might have had Mozart actually walk in, rumpled but resplendent, with a nocturnal aura, like the ghost of Elvis in Mystery Train singing “Blue Moon” in a rundown Memphis Hotel.

A Mozart Valentine

If you want a taste of Mozart in the here and now, you can see his face every day at Bon Appetit on those individual balls of chocolate (Mozartkugeln) displayed near the cash register. Mozart candy can be had online in containers shaped like violins or even hearts, for Valentine’s Day, which will soon be upon us.

The quote at the top is from the introduction to the Dover paperback of Mozart’s letters edited by Hans Mersmann. The Clarinet Concerto in A major, performed by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music with Antony Pay on basset clarinet, is available on CD at the Princeton Public Library. I don’t know which version of the G-minor symphony I heard on Continental. The music professor who gave me the word about the Sinfonia Concertante was Paul Lansky.

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