|Tom Hulce in a scene from the 1984 movie Amadeus|
By Geoffrey Dean
[Adapted from “Orphic Artistry”]
We idolize Mozart. We may not be sure what constitutes musical genius, but we know Mozart had all the necessary qualities, including a talent that emerged at a prodigiously young age, incredible improvisational skill, and the ability to compose—as he put it—“as if in a dream.” We also know what he looked like, what he acted like, about his racy jokes and tittering laughter, his awkward frankness when it came to assessing the inferior ability of lesser composers such as Salieri, who in spite of persistent rumors to the contrary did not poison Mozart. But in recalling these “facts,” are we describing Mozart himself, or his reinvention in the 1984 Milos Forman movie Amadeus, based on Peter Schaffer’s play and starring Tom Hulce?
Idols are often martyred. The real Mozart, it has been suggested, was one of the first victims of the kind of market liberalization that would later expand, thanks to the industrial revolution, into capitalism. When he moved to Vienna in 1784, the monarch had just introduced liberal reforms that would however soon be revoked. In Vienna Mozart tried—and was at first successful—to make his way as a free lance musician, finding paying subscribers to the concerts of his music that he himself organized and performed rather than working as a court musician as was still the custom in Europe. Eero Tarasti summaries a theory by Norbert Elias (from Elias’s Mozart, Portrait of a Genius, 1993) and posits that Mozart’s premature demise was due to social processes in the life of high arts and culture,
whose victim he became. This macrohistorical crisis, as reflected in the microhistory of Mozart’s life and creative output, embodied a shift from artisanry or handicrafts, to the art of professional artists. In handicraft art, the court nobility of Mozart’s time dictated the norms of taste—the creative imagination of the artist was channeled strictly according to the aesthetics of the class in power. By contrast, the next phase saw artists becoming more independent, at the least the equals of their audiences, and in a sense determining the latter’s tastes and needs by their innovations, which the general public tries to follow. The general transition from hired artisan to independent artist appeared also in music and in the “structural” quality of art works. Mozart’s fate shows the kinds of problems encountered by an exceptionally gifted artist in the swirl of such a revolutionary development. He left his employer, the Bishop of Salzburg, broke off his relationship with his father, and tried to live as an independent artist, trusting in the favour of Viennese court circles. [Musically, Mozart]… now had the freedom to pursue an independent and original tonal language. But, as is known, this effort failed in the social sense, and the court people turned their backs on him. [–from Eero Tarasti, "Mozart or the Idea of a Continuous Avantgarde,” 2007]In Amadeus, Mozart’s ill-fated musical independence is dramatized in exchanges such as the following:
Emperor Joseph II:For me, the Forman film perpetuates a mythology that goes back to the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, the prototypical artist genius. The concept of genius in art has surged in its importance for us following the Enlightenment, thanks to Kant’s treatment of it in his Critique of Judgment, and it is likely that the Orphic qualities of artistic genius are as much a part of a post-Enlightenment construct as our “packaged and ready for use” understanding of Mozart. But I have been struck by how much “my” reading of the Orpheus myth has informed my recent thoughts on Mozart, which include rereading the Amadeus moment quoted above.
My dear young man, don't take it too hard.
Your work is ingenious. It's quality work.
And there are simply too many notes, that's all.
Just cut a few and it will be perfect.
Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?
[–from Peter Shaffer’s screenplay]
Like Orpheus, Mozart represents the alienated outsider. Just as the Greeks considered Orpheus a Thracian “foreigner,” the Viennese saw Salzburg-born Mozart as an intruding upstart from elsewhere. Mozart’s relocation to Vienna, like Orpheus’s descent into the underworld, was a personal choice—an affirmation of independence, a non-conformist statement. When Orpheus looked back at Eurydice, he didn’t just ignore the established order; he also created his own order (see "The Gaze of Orpheus" from The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Essays, by Maurice Blanchot, 1981). Like Mozart in Vienna, Orpheus literally sings “his own song,” even during and after his dismemberment by the Macean women, who could be transposed to represent the unfavorable social forces that hastened Mozart’s demise.
Mozart’s eccentricity and earthy humor also seem to fit the Orphic narrative as examples of non-conformist behavior. If we interpret them further, we are left with an image of an artist who is morally compromised and emotionally unstable (which describes a lot of artists we think we “know,” regardless of when they lived, or live). Like Orpheus, who used his song subversively to gain entrance to the underworld, Mozart is using it to “court” favor in the Viennese court, yet seems to think he can simply “be himself” and assert his musical independence without dire consequences.
Like the traditionally blind bard who “sees” in metaphorical ways, Orpheus is a visionary artist. He sees beyond the second loss of Eurydice and sings beyond his own physical death. His art is both ahead of its time and immortal. This seeing/singing beyond can be likened to the creative imagination in Kant’s concepts of genius and the sublime: it goes beyond what others can imagine to be possible. The genius of Mozart’s music is that it reaches beyond the finite existence of its creator and opens to us a world that we would otherwise not know existed.
Copyright © 2013 by Geoffrey Dean