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Mozart's Genius, by C. von Sternberg

There is a serious doubt in my mind whether our imagination, so ready to conjecture and to depict the future, is equally capable of grasping and representing the past to our intelligence. The histories of the world, of science, or of art, furnish a superabundance of data, to be sure, to assist our imagination; but, to the majority of minds, these data are just data, and nothing more; they do not unveil the picture of the world as it looked before some great mind impressed it with its stamp.

Difficulty of estimating genius.

mozarts-genius.jpgAnd yet such a retroactive imagination is indispensable to all who wish to fully recognize and correctly esti­mate that mysterious quality called Genius. Flippant philosophers may say that this is quite unnecessary; the fruit of Genius is here; we can feed on it; what matters the condition of things before it grew? Such flippancy ought to be told that it stands on the same plane as the ass who feeds on clover, with never a thought how it came to be there, nor—and that is the other side of the medal—how it will come there again next year. All the progress of the world has been achieved by delving into the past; by observing phenomena, tracing them back to their origin, deduc­ing first principles and exploring them more thor­oughly. It is not a philosophical somersault to say, for instance, that the improved health and extended longevity of our present generation are primarily due to those who, like Darwin, went farthest into the past of the human race to ascertain its conditions of ex­istence. That the average mind does not possess this necessary strength of imagination to understand the past is beyond dispute, and it is at the same time the reason why the meaning of the word Genius has never been satisfactorily defined. We cannot define what we cannot fully appreciate, and as one notices one attribute of Genius, and the next one another, each one defines only that fraction of Genius which has revealed itself to him. Hence, Schumann, himself a genius, was not far wrong when he said that “per­haps only a genius can fully understand another genius.” One sees this in Genius, the other that, as said before, and it needs time till the one and the other and the third and the hundred thousandth have proved to each other that all they saw was true and was contained in one and the same genius.

Genius admits not of comparison.

Herein lies the explanation of the circumstance that the present ever subjects its great masters to disputes, while those of the past are unanimously revered. The world, in the latter case, has had time to settle the disputes and to grow up to the prophetic truths uttered by the masters of the past.

The man who originated the saying “Comparisons are odious” must himself have been a genius, for it is undeniable that Genius and its works are exempt from comparison, because each genius is perfect in his own way. Still, the human heart, in contem­plating Genius, is apt to aply (sic) its own individual measurement to it, and—well—it will compare, it will judge subjectively, forgetting that the work of Genius outlasts the short life of an individual, and should therefore be judged by the broader, if chillier, meas­ure of objectivity. Are we to blame, though, if we love Mozart for what he is to us? Surely not! Only we ought to remember how many have said the same thing before “us,” and that to every generation he said more the more material for comparison it pos­sessed. One generation loved Mozart, though it had already risen to Beethoven; another loved him as well as Schubert; we love him in spite of Wagner, Brahms, and Tschaikowsky, and that, of course, proves the lasting quality of Mozart’s art more and ever more. Viewing Mozart’s genius in this light, he assumes an aspect so gigantic, so luminous, so lovable as to bring one to the verge of injustice toward the rest of mu­sical history.

Whence comes Mozart’s melody?

Reverting again to the opening lines, depicting to our minds  the status of music before the advent of Mozart and contem­plating the newness, genuineness, and richness of his melody, we see something that is very little short of a miracle. We must remember that in Mozart’s day the Bach cult was almost totally in abeyance. It was much later that Mendelssohn and Liszt rescued Bach from oblivion. Bach’s  broadly-flowing cantilena, his truly “endless melody” (for which many give Wagner undue credit), can therefore not be considered as the real progenitor of Mozart’s melody. Where, then, did it come from? Ah, that is one of those questions that baffle philosophy, and cannot be an­swered without a large apparatus of biology and sociology, only to remain hypothetical after all.

Mozart’s melody was a free and independent step from Haydn into the future of music. Beautiful as Haydn’s melody is, Anachreontic in its type, it has also the brevity of breath, and not quite the organic unity of the Greek poet’s verses. Mozart’s melody came like a breeze of spring, of wider waft, fragrance-laden, luscious, of exquisite sensuous (not sensual) charm, and of a purity in its underlying feeling which is unequaled to this day. The word “unequaled” must, however, not be misconstrued; it should be re­membered that no great mind ever gives so much as a thought to “equal” anybody. This “equaling” busi­ness is a modern product of commercialism, that brought us the bane of competition, which in its turn has led the present age to regard the vice of ambition as a virtue, just as if aspiration and ambition were synonymous.

Quality of Mozart’s melody.

The chastity and purity of Mozart’s melody is what has caused his art to be called “Hellenic,” and not altogether unjustly so. As in Greek art, beauty for its own sake superseded all considerations of emotion, as the Milesian Aphrodite charms the eye without solving the mystery it offers to the heart, so does Mozart’s melody lift us either into Olympian serenity or into a mood of passion or even wrath such as a Greek god would feel, but never into such suffering or resig­nation as might fall to the sad lot of you and me.

Even in his religious music the intimate touch of the human heart in search of its Creator, that touch with which every measure of Bach is quivering, is not as strong as the elements of—I might call it in an Hellenic sense—god-like beauty. Mozart expresses the glory of God, the radiance of the heavens, but not the relation between divinity and the soul that craves forgiveness for its erring. His art is bound to outlast all others, because of the very absence of the personal element, an absence which looks like a fault to lower criticism, but which, in the view of the higher critic, rises to sublimity because it makes Mozart’s art the loftiest of all.

There! again—“the loftiest!” As if challenging comparison! Let us remember that the dwellers on the mountains live on a higher situation than those in the valley, but are not any better people on that account. All great minds differ from each other in type, but this difference is not one of value or merit. A fish is not better than a squirrel because he can live under water. Each creature must find its own plane of life, and, if on this plane it becomes the most useful of its species and generation, it is called “great,” but it cannot enter into comparisons with other species, generations, types, or life-planes. Not in the world of thought, at any rate.

Rubinstein held that Mozart and Schubert, if cast out of musical history, would take all sunshine with them, and he was eminently right. While Schubert’s sunshine warms us perhaps more, Mozart’s sun is the great light! Who will say which is the more im­portant?


The element of “impersonality”—to label it thus for the moment—does not pre­clude the dramatic ingredient in Mozart’s art; on the contrary, Mozart is highly dramatic, and not only in his operas. Look at his “Fantasia in C-minor,” and behold a thrilling tragedy with every attribute: a tragedy of events if you will, a tragedy that has occurred from time’s beginning, that will recur for­ever, but—perhaps—not to you and me.

In his operas his characters are strongly designed; they are types, not persons. Don Giovanni is joy of life carried to the extreme, and means sensuality, sin, crime, etc., emanating from a source which in itself is pure and God-given, but abused. Leporello is not a flunkey or valet or servant, he is the flunkey, valet, servant. Anna, Elvira, and Zerlina are not three fool­ish maidens, but the maidenly foolishness of three social strata, a foolishness ever true, ever the same to the world’s end, and thank heaven for it! The only art—besides that of Hellas—to which Mozart’s could be likened is perhaps that of Raphael. As his two great Madonnas (the San Sisto and della Sedia) despite their total difference will never strike anyone as portraits of some particular women, but rather as the embodiments of the sum-total of the type, we might say of maternal chastity, of the “eternal womanly,” of the purest possible love, so does Mo­zart’s art rise above the personal, and it will therefore be eternal, or what we mean by it in a human way.

* * *

To its full sublimity Mozart’s art will not open up but to those who themselves can rise above their own personal selves and affairs, because a quart cannot be poured into a pint vessel; but whatever your portion of appreciation may be, however little of its total sublimity you may be able to “take in,” that much of it will be an undisguised blessing. From the view­point of workmanship—an important one in art—every line of Mozart’s writing will show a consum­mate contrapuntal mastery, perfection of form, beauty of design, gracefulness, and sensuous charm; but, be­yond all this, his art will purify your mind, it will illumine your soul, it will clear your heart, and lift you up to a higher plane of thought, of life. And whenever you think, later on, that your life has reached this higher plane, just take up Mozart again to find that he shows you a still higher one, and so on until you reach the very foot-stool of Divinity, whence you may gaze into its glory, as he must have clone, the master of masters in music—Mozart.

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You are reading Mozart's Genius, by C. von Sternberg from the December, 1901 issue of The Etude Magazine.

The Impress of Mozart on Musical History. is the previous story in The Etude

A Newly-Discovered Portrait of Mozart. is the next entry in The Etude.

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