Meeting Mozart

The Bloomsbury critic, Lytton Strachey, was the father of the modern practice of biography-as-assassination. Writing amidst the cynicism caused by the First World War, Strachey's Eminent Victorians set the model for pathography by taking down four hitherto-beloved 19th century heroes: Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Thomas Arnold, and General Charles ("Chinese"") Gordon. Strachey's victims' posthumous reputations have fared rather better than his, in the decades since Eminent Victorians was published in 1921. Still, the Strachean instinct to dissect (and then deride)  men and women widely regarded as admirable and noble continues to this day, as do Strachey's characteristic emphases on emotion, personal relationships, and modernist "authenticity" over talent, a sense of duty, and religious faith.

This literary plague may, in fact, be receding, at least in the United States: think of the admiring biographies of Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and Lincoln published in recent years. One remaining victim of Stracheyism, however, is the man who was arguably the greatest musical talent in history, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. How many people have read his story through the psychoanalytic fog of the 1984 Peter Schaffer/Milos Forman film, Amadeus, in which Mozart is portrayed as a flatulent, borish, man-child genius stalked by a jealous fellow-composer of lesser gifts, Antonio Salieri? It's all twaddle, and often vulgar twaddle, but at least you can close your eyes and listen to the music.

Which is, as always, sublime. Whenever I've visited the slough of despond, Mozart has been an unfailing restorative — as he is a welcome companion in life's moments of unrelieved joy, and at every point in between. So, as we close this year marking the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, let's just forget Amadeus and its imitation of Lytton Strachey by way of Sigmund Freud, and concentrate on the music. Herewith, then, a very brief Mozart Sampler, for those interested in meeting a genius on his own terms.

 The Operas: They're time-consuming, but it's permitted to cheat a little by getting the highlights of the main Mozart operas in the Teldec CD Opera Collection, directed by Nikolaus Harnancourt. Complement that with one of my favorite recordings, the Mozart opera Overtures CD on the EMI label, with Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

The Symphonies: Mozart took the symphonic form as far as it could go before Beethoven dramatically recast it in his Third. So I'd suggest starting towards the end of Mozart's symphonic production, with #31 (the "Paris" symphony), #35 (the "Haffner"), and #36 (the "Linz"); then move on to #38 (the "Prague" symphony) and #41 and (the "Jupiter").

The Concerti: Once again, Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields do a brilliant job in two double-CD collections on the Philips label, Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos. Then try Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music performing the flute and harp concerto, the flute concerto #1, and the bassoon concerto on a L'Oiseau-Lyre CD, before turning to Hogwood again for the clarinet and oboe concerti on another L'Oiseau-Lyre disc. Those less inclined to authentic instrument recordings can find most of the Mozart wind concerti on a two-disc Decca CD entitled Mozart Wind Concertos.

Sacred Music: Whatever biographers say about Mozart's connections to Freemasonry, I defy anyone to listen to his motet, "Ave, Verum," and draw any conclusion other than that he was a sincere (if sometimes confused ) Catholic believer. Try the "Ave, Verum" on the Philips CD, Exsultate Jubilate, with Sir Colin Davis, the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and Kiri Te Kanawa, which also gets you the "Vesperae Solennes de Confessore" and the "Kyrie in D-Minor." As for the many Mozart Masses, the "Coronation Mass" is probably the best start for the neophyte, before tackling the unfinished "Great Mass" and "Requiem."

It's often said that the angels play Bach on holy days, and Mozart for the sheer joy of it. I couldn't agree more. One more thing, if I may. Query to Richard (The God Delusion) Dawkins: Do you really think Mozart is the accidental, if fortuitous, product of galactic biochemistry?

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • Guest

    Mozart is my favorite composer. I treasure Mozart recordings by Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

    I agree with George Weigel, Whenever I’ve visited the slough of despond, Mozart has been an unfailing restorative — as he is a welcome companion in life’s moments of unrelieved joy, and at every point in between.

    For me, well-selected classical music leaves no room for despondency.


  • Guest

    I LOVE Mozart’s music — I love to listen to, and perform it. George Weigel is right on the money about the effect of the master’s glorious works on the human psyche. It’s quite remarkable to consider that when Mozart wrote some of his greatest works, his own personal circumstances were less than ideal. For me, it’s a testimony to his own resilience and the force of his own creativity. BTW, one of my favourite Christmas gifts this year is a special set of Mozart’s works in a 250th anniversary collection. I look forward to spending many wonderful hours in Mozart’s company. I hope and pray that he is conducting the angel choir whenever they sing for the “sheer joy of it”! Viva Mozart!

  • Guest

    Mozart may have had Mason connections, and even composed music for them, but I think he pulled a fast one on them. I listen to the piece Masonic Funeral Musik on one of the tapes I have and I always get the Final Resurrection out of it by the end. It starts out rather plaintive, but ends in such hope that I don’t think anyone could miss the point. If you have that theology in your soul, it comes in everything you do, especially that which you are truly passionate about.

  • Guest

    Of Mozart – not knowing of any Masonic connection was just fine with me. The allusion to the Resurrection in his funeral music for Masons probably reflects that he needed the income, rather than his most profound underpinnings.

    His music has a declarative value as if some secular temporal Mass. Of the great classic composers, he is richly top-drawer –

    Though, compared to modern music, even of some the ‘better quality’ jazz and blues – the top-drawer in composers has been moved steadily upward, that current fare have its ‘lowest-drawer’ position. What drek we now have touted about!

    BTW, having read of the Bloomsbury crowd, what with Lytton Strachey and Virginia Wolff, etc. – I have never actually read any of their work. Why waste my time?

    I remain your obedient servant, but God’s first,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …

  • Guest

    I’ve read that the Holy Father is a terrific fan of Mozart!

    By the way, what’s wrong with flatulence? It’s perfectly natural as well as a source of great mirth in our seven (soon to be eight) children household.

  • Guest

    “Here – pull my finger”

    “Okay, now, in memory of the flatulence of Mozart – what key was that in?”

    I remain your obedient servant, but God’s first,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …