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Mozart as Piano-Writer.



In order to understand the influence of Mozart in the world of music, and in the world of piano-music in particular, it is necessary, first of all, to take ac­count of his personality and the nature of his musical endowment, because everything relating to his pres­ent influence in the world of music turns upon these two elements, reacted upon by the current of musical progress since Mozart’s time.

The personality of Mozart.

The Mozart personality was a very charming one, full of grace, instinct for beauty, exquisite intuition for musical effects, out lacking in depth of temperament and the disposition to take a serious view of life. As a composer, he seems to me allied to Raphael as a painter, the prevailing characteristic of whose paint­ings is grace of composition, beauty of line and expression, and, on the whole, rather cheerful views of life; even the Madonnas, in which an element of sadness would not be inconceivable, illustrate this habit of his mind. If we compare his work with that of his great contemporary, Michael Angelo, we are struck, in the latter, by the strength of the conception. All the figures are in violent action or carry in their lines evi­dence that action and suffering have been their portion. Everywhere is strength, force, repressed feeling, action. Physically, there are great masses of muscle, faces much lined by mental history, and so on; in short, the exact opposite of the eternal peace which Raphael’s works seems to tell of.

Between Mozart and Beethoven a similar difference exists. In Beethoven there is al­most always the tale of struggle, life in earnest; and, even in those works or mo­ments when the beautiful is the main thing, there is still, almost always, an under-cur­rent of “has been” or “will be.” The sunny peace of the Greek divinities has been in­vaded by this breath of the strenuous.

The genius of Mozart.

The genius of Mozart was one of the most remarkable which the art of music con­tains. He was born at just the right time for him. The great Bach had been dead but a few years when Mozart was born. Yet during the child­hood of Mozart, his master, Haydn, had introduced that fascinating element for which we search in vain in the works of Bach: a symmetrical, lyric melody, other than a dance. Bach was probably the greatest master of music who has ever lived. He had the whole of the art, saving a capacity for the simply lyric. He had deep feeling and an irre­pressible musical fancy which adorned everything that it touched. But Haydn, of peasant stock, put into music something of the folk-song. Whatever his composition, he but rarely refrained from adding here and there a bit of a tune, symmetrical, musical, but with very little depth. He even developed a musical form permitting the introduction of a lyric repose into the very substance of a vigorous musical movement: the sonata-piece. In his sonatas Haydn advanced but a little way with his lyric melodies, but Mozart went farther and completed them fully.

Mozart seems to have had the whole compass of musical genius excepting the intuition of deep feeling. On the lyric side he enjoyed the spontaneous sym­metry of the folk-song, and he wrote hundreds of melodies of this type which are idealized in a most beautiful manner. As a good example take the melody in D-major in the second page of the “Fan­tasia in C,” or the melody in E-flat, in the slow movement of the sonata in the same work. These melodies could not have been written by Haydn, and the only time when he approached their sweetness was in the third part of his “Creation,” which was written some years after Mozart died. This lyric talent was one side of the Mozart genius. It is graceful, sweet, beautiful; what it lacks, what it might also have had, we may see by playing Beethoven’s “Adagio” in the “Sonate Pathètique,” the “Largo” in the second sonata, the “Larghetto” in the second symphony. Here we have the Mozart type of melody indescribably strengthened and deepened.

Mozart’s mastery of the technic of composition.

Most singular of all, Mozart seems to have had practically the whole technic of a composer, in a very high degree of potency, without ever having had to work for it. When he chose he could fugue it in his own manner or in the manner of any old master proposed as a pattern. He could imitate their counterpoint, their graces, their man­nerisms, without the slightest effort. When the Bologna Philharmonic Society proposed to elect to membership the boy of thirteen, Mozart completed their very trying test within a much shorter time than anyone ever before had been able. Hence, when Mo­zart contents himself with simple melody it is not from lack of other powers, but because this expresses his idea of the beautiful better. This masterful workmanship, and the Mozart personality and genius, come to their real expression in his operas and sym­phonies, and not in his pianoforte works. To know Mozart one should hear and play the overture to “Figaro” or “The Magic Flute”; one should hear his opera “Figaro” or “Cosi Fan Tutti.” One of the best examples of Mozart’s mastery I know of is the finale of the third act of the “Marriage of Figaro,” where for forty minutes or so a succession of incidents keep the stage in motion, the participants ranging in num­bers from two to seven, and the smallest part of all, that of the drunken gardener, is as indispensable as that of the leading soprano.

Take his orchestration. It is colored as brightly and changes as delicately as do the hues in a Raphael painting—or even in one by Titian—though the great Venetian has more of what we call still-life; he requires repose in his figures if the textures and tints are to be properly seen. Mozart is like Raphael; the figures live, move, are full of action, yet always with truly celes­tial tints, shadings, and suggestions of liv­ing, glowing color. It is the same in his symphonies. Mozart was full of music. His counterpoint was so easy that he hardly knew that he had any; yet it is irrepressible; something is always doing, and he never has to wait even a second for a suitable idea. Therefore it is not without hope for the musical world that in Munich they are having a Mozart revival, and even the musicians who think that Wagner was specially inspired discover that the twentieth century can learn from this ever-young master.

The genius of Mozart as shown in his piano-works.

I have mentioned these aspects of Mozart’s genius because they underlie the piano-music. Mozart’s piano-music suffers from two very serious handicaps. He prob­ably restricted himself to the smallest difficulties which would in any way answer, and his pianoforte was none of the best. Mozart seems to have written for his countesses and other aristocratic patron­esses, who were not seeking after epoch-marking things. Yet they got them in their way. If you go through the Mozart sonatas for piano what do you find? Everywhere melody, and plenty of it. For instance, take the sonata in F-major, a very good one (No. 7 in the Peters edition). He begins with one melody. It completes itself upon the tonic in twelve measures, the end having been postponed by a clever little imitation in the bass. What then happens? Another melody, more fascinating than the first, a melody which would have been delightful in an opera or orchestral work. After this, what? Here he becomes dramatic, and some modulations and passage-work intervene. But in a moment he is back again with his second subject in C: still a melody. In place of an elaboration in the middle of the movement, we have yet another melody—a middle piece. The slow movement is still a series of melodies, but slower and tenderer than those in the beginning. The finale, like all sonata finales, has very little to do with the case.

Melody-touch necessary in playing Mozart’s works.

This characteristic, melody,     is at the foundation of his influence upon pianoforte-technic and would be still more at the foundation if his works were studied more, as they ought to be. To play Mozart, whether upon the piano or in the orchestra, pure melody-touch is the first necessity. Theodore Thomas told me, years ago, that in his opinion the time would soon come when players could not play properly nor singers sing Mozart’s works. Violinists almost invariably make a tremolo with their left hand when playing sustained tones. Mozart did not wish this; he belonged to the generation when singers had diaphragms and knew how to hold them steady, to sustain a tone and swell it out, and to diminish it to a fabulous duration. A pure, even tone was a singer’s first grace. On the piano the same thing holds. While we cannot really sustain anything, we can so touch the key that the tone is prolonged to the powers of the instrument, and with just that de­gree of force which gives the impression of a gentle fullness without sounding like or suggesting an ac­cent. Therefore the Mozart technic turns upon mel­ody-playing. And since the Mozart type of melody is mainly that of a refined and idealized folk-song, the advance in musical progress has brought these works within reach of students in earlier parts of their train­ing. The most difficult places in the Mozart sonatas are scarcely, if at all, beyond the fifth grade; and most lie within the fourth. The esthetic, also, is child­like, if only we grant this intuition of song. Hence the study of Mozart tends to give the melody-playing a sweetness, evenness, and musical quality which no other material will give in equal degree.

Fluent finger-action.

The passage-work in Mozart, also, demands that same soft, fluent, sure finger-work, and all the modern effects of bravura, depending upon arm-work, are absent. Even in his concertos the passage-work is for the fingers, and it is impossible to conceive that the piano can ever have dominated in this passage-work as the modern piano dominates in a concerto by Rubinstein, Tschaikowsky, Liszt, or Brahms. Everything has grown larger since Mozart’s day: pianos, players, halls, and ideas; larger, but not more beautiful.

To play a Mozart concerto well requires a very sure technic; a very even and full finger-tone, which, how­ever, must be wholly free from pounding or an accent-effect; and great readiness of musical feeling. Dr. William Mason used to do this kind of an act of piety, once every year, with Theodore Thomas; Reinecke used to do it in Leipzig, and other artists have done it.

I am not one of those who believe that it would be possible to develop a piano-technic from Mozart alone. A pure, even finger-technic, yes! But for modern work we must have much more, and for these we must look elsewhere. Nor would I think it good economy to devote years to Mozart. To play a half-dozen sonatas, a concerto or two well—this will be enough. It prepares for Bach and everything since; it refines melody and makes the passage-work more song-like and satisfactory.

Mozart’s own playing.

With regard to his own playing, Mozart lived be­fore anybody had invented technic. He simply played as a musician, an artist. He had more ideas than all his contemporaries to­gether; he had unlimited faculty of treating a musical idea in any way he thought suitable; he was full of music—always thinking up new things; he did not have to think them up, they flowed in upon him as he walked, as he talked, when he tried to sleep.

His fingers belonged to his brain. They were un­doubtedly flexible, responsive, and expressive. What­ever the thought, those talking-fingers (which I can imagine from having watched Godowsky’s upon many and many an occasion) transformed it into sound. The result was an impression not of playing, but of music. Measured as to his speed or other qualities, he was certainly a virtuoso of his time. But, from his own stand-point, I doubt whether he did much with exercises. He was a divinely-endowed genius, whom it will be a disgrace and an irreparable loss for the musical world to forget.

Here also we have the key to a Mozart technic: it is such a control of the instrument as makes the music sound free, musical, spontaneous, and entirely without the effect of having been worked out by hard practice. Therefore to play Mozart well, it is first of all necessary to become musical.


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You are reading Mozart as Piano-Writer. from the December, 1901 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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