I’m currently reading a wonderful book, Lewis Lockwood’s Beethoven: The Music and the Life. While he gives the reader a short biographical sketch of Beethoven’s life and times, Lockwood concentrates primarily on the music, analyzing nearly every work Beethoven produced. For the major works these analysis’ can be four, five, six pages or more. Lockwood’s great gift is the ability to explain these mostly instrumental works in language the general reader can understand and appreciate. His analysis always adds to one’s listening pleasure, even with works I’ve been listening to for years and know by heart. After reading Lockwood, one approaches the piece with a fresh ears and a new perspective.
Of course, it’s taking me forever to get through the book. Once Lockwood starts discussion of a work it does not do to simply continue reading. I have to listen to the work, often twice, once while reading Lockwood’s analysis, the second time without. Yesterday, for instance, I read Lockwood’s takes on the 4th, 6th, and 8th symphonies, works I am not as familiar with as the 3rd, 5th, and 7th. I then listened to each while reading Lockwood’s breakdown of each. I then re-listened to the 4th and 6th, before I’d had enough music for the day. Three hours later and I had covered about twelve pages. At this rate, I’ll finish the book by June.
Which is fine. I am enjoying my foray into classical music immensely. I love this stuff. My goal at the start of the year was to learn, really learn, one new piece of classical music per week. I shortly thereafter modified the goal to learn 50 new works this year, as I could not listen to simply a single piece of music during a week. I’m mixing it up, listening to what I want when I want. I may listen to fifteen or twenty works in a given week. Eventually, I’ll winnow down what I like the most, re-listening over and over until I’ve got it down, and the work will be added to my list of favorites, i.e. it will become part of my life, a piece of music I’ll listen to for the rest of my days.
One of the most interesting parts of Lockwood’s analysis is when he explains devices Beethoven used that had been used earlier by other composers, usually Mozart and Haydn, who both had great influence over Beethoven’s development (Haydn was actually Beethoven’s teacher in 1792, though it was a disappointing relationship for them both.) That Mozart and Haydn influenced each other is without doubt. Though Haydn was 24 years senior to Mozart, they became great friends and admirers once Mozart arrived in Vienna at the age of 25 in 1781. It can be argued that Mozart, child prodigy that he was, did not become a truly great composer until he came under the influence of Haydn. Almost all of the works considered Mozart’s greatest came after he arrived in Vienna and his friendship with Haydn. Was Haydn the deciding factor in Mozart’s musical maturity? It can also be argued that Haydn, prolific as he had been for the previous twenty years, did not achieve his full greatness until his association with Mozart - Haydn’s most admired works were written during the 1780s and 1790s, when he was in his fifties and sixties. Like Bird and Magic, and Evert and Navratilova, they pushed each other to greater and greater heights, heights they never would have achieved otherwise, and in the process they defined the classical style. When we talk about the “classical style” we are really talking about the music of Haydn and Mozart and what they achieved: the development of the symphony, the concerto, and the string quartet; the organization of the orchestra; the sonata allegro form, especially, but also the formalization of minuet and trio, rondo, and theme and variations. But we mean something more when we invoke the term “classical style” than simply form and structure. It has to do with order, rationality, taste, and a particular emotional restraint, i.e. Enlightenment ideals brought to the musical world. Haydn and Mozart were children of the Enlightenment and their music reflects those ideals.
So here is my question, the one this blog post was originally supposed to be about. Mozart died at the age of 35 in 1791. Beethoven arrived in Vienna as a 21 year old a year later, brimming with talent and ideas. Had Mozart lived until the age of 70, he would have died in 1826, a year before Beethoven. If this were the case, how would Mozart’s music have been affected by Beethoven’s? The title of this blog post comes from an early score of Beethoven’s in which he wrote, “This entire passage has been stolen from the Mozart Symphony in C.” Can we conceive of a time in our hypothetical world when a fifty-some year old Mozart would have written on one of his own scores, “This passage has been stolen from Beethoven”?
Certainly Mozart, genius that he was, would have recognized Beethoven’s own genius. But would have have approved of Beethoven’s music? Would he have been dismayed at the direction Beethoven took the music and the forms that Mozart helped to create? Beethoven, after all, was not a child of the Enlightenment. That world was dying fast during his adolescence. The French Revolution would put a nail in its coffin, and Napoleon would shovel the dirt on top of it. Beethoven was a man born of the heroic age, a great admirer of Napoleon (until he declared himself emperor) and of himself. Indeed, Beethoven thought of himself and his music as heroic, an opinion that likely would have baffled Haydn and Mozart. Certainly Beethoven used the forms and structures defined by his predecessors, but he used them for his own expressive purposes, playing with them here, distorting them until they were almost unrecognizable there. But what is more is the emotional extremes that is often present in Beethoven’s music. What would Mozart have thought?
On page 170 of his book, Lockwood excerpts this from a letter Mozart wrote to his father in 1781:
[P]assions, violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of disgust, and music must never offend the ear, even in the most horrendous situations, but must always be pleasing…in other words, always remain music.
Lockwood then goes on to explain:
Clearly enough [Mozart’s] music, in all its facility, formal perfection, and wide range of expression, conveys the sense that its emotional life is contained within well-defined boundaries. Raising the notion of emotional moderation, balance, and restraint to the level of an aesthetic category, we can argue that it is a primary factor in Mozart’s aesthetic philosophy.
There, in a nutshell, is the essence of the classical style. Many considered Beethoven’s music vulgar. Would Mozart have? Would he have rebelled? Or adapted? Would the man with such a philosophy as described above accept Beethoven’s innovations and extremes?
I say, yes. Mozart was no dogmatist. He was always open to new ideas, or old ones (Mozart was greatly influenced by Bach, declaring upon hearing a Bach motet during a visit to Leipzig in 1789, “This is something to learn from!”) He took the style of his day and transformed it, perfected it, made it more beautiful. He also was an innovator in his own right, particularly with his operas and piano concertos, where he more or less defined double-exposition form. And, as the quote about Bach above shows, Mozart was always ready to learn. Within months of Haydn’s groundbreaking Op. 33 string quartets, Mozart had produced his own batch of six quartets in the same style, dedicating them to Haydn (the six “Haydn Quartets”). He had an ear for greatness and he no doubt would have recognized Beethoven’s greatness. He would have learned from Beethoven and used Beethoven’s own innovations for his own purposes. As for emotional expressiveness, Mozart did after all compose both the G Minor symphony and the D Minor piano concerto. While most of us think of lightness and beauty when regarding Mozart’s music, he was not afraid to express emotional turmoil in his music. So my own answer to the question of whether Mozart would have been influenced by Beethoven is an emphatic yes, making Mozart’s early death even more sorrowful. Below, in two parts, is the first movement of the D Minor piano concerto, perhaps Mozart’s most passionate work in a minor key, and a perfect example of his ability to adhere to structural form while expressing emotional turmoil. The wonder of Mozart is that is remains perfectly beautiful at the same time: