The centenary of Franklin Roosevelt’s birth passed in 1982 with very little notice; few if any even know what year Napoleon was born, and even fewer when such business icons as John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie first drew breath. Yet an odd milestone, the 250th birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, has caused extraordinary notice all over the world. All this is happening in an era when “classical” music is supposed to be in decline. The world, however, does still recognize artistic genius, and genius in music becomes reality as the compositions are played. Though many of us revere musicians from Claudio Monteverdi through Beethoven to Ravi Shankar, almost everyone agrees that there was never a musical genius to equal Mozart.
In what did he have his greatest successes? As an opera person, I think it was in the four operas for which he is the most famous: Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte (all with a brilliant librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte) and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). But pianists might say one of the sonatas or perhaps one of the 27 concertos. Those who revere symphonic form will praise the familiar 40th Symphony or the shockingly revolutionary “Jupiter” Symphony, his last. Others may find in his chamber music the greatest spark. Wherever one looks Mozart composed not only works that have won equal praise from audiences and critics but works that highlight almost every instrument. Is there a greater clarinet concerto? Is there a richer and more rewarding piece for violin and viola than the Symphony Concertante? And so on. His virtuosity as an artist was unlimited.
There are many who deplore his death at the age of 35. I for one don’t. I feel that no matter how great the genius there is only so much that a human can do, and Mozart was a comet that crossed the musical sky, changing the world as it passed. His Requiem, sadly not completed, is fitting as his last work. But the treasure of what he did for us will never completely be exhausted.
This month Seattle Opera celebrates his 250th with Così fan tutte, his last opera with Lorenzo da Ponte as librettist, a work that was completed in the next-to-last year of his life. It is to me fitting because Così illustrates better than most other works the composer’s timelessness. Composed in the late 18th century, unappreciated in the 19th and half of the 20th century, Così is as modern in its thinking as the most outrageous new play on Broadway and as real as relations in a dormitory at a Seattle university or college. The young people in Così do not belong to Naples (where the opera is supposed to take place) or to Vienna or anywhere else precisely. They are simply young people in their 20s, consumed with their own desires, thinking of the moment and not imagining that the world can teach them anything. Mozart understood human nature, and nowhere does he portray the foibles, fun, and weaknesses of young people better than in Così. He even is so clever as not to specify the real lesson. Così does not end with a solution; Mozart and Da Ponte leave it up to those who present the work to determine how it ends, almost unbelievable in the theater of the time. But then he was Mozart.