Not so many years ago the general public's impression of Mozart was the musical equivalent of Dresden china - ornate, refined and as delicately fashioned as a piece of 18th-century porcelain.
Then came "Amadeus," the play and the movie, and we saw him for what he really was - boorish, juvenile and, in the person of actor Tom Hulce, possessed of an asinine laugh. And possibly the greatest composer who ever lived.Of course that wasn't any more accurate than the first. But you won't get any quarrel from me on No. 4. Not when it comes to the creator of "Don Giovanni" and the Symphony No. 40 in G minor - arguably the supreme achievements of all time in their respective genres - not to mention the late string quartets and piano concertos. Or presumably from the folks who are responsible for making this The Mozart Year.
It's not the first. Thirty-five years ago the music world celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth with performances and special editions of his music. But that was as nothing compared to what the remainder of 1991 promises, this time in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of his death.
Lincoln Center alone plans over a 19-month period to offer every note he ever wrote - currently estimated at some 835 works - including Metropolitan Opera stagings of seven of the operas. Salzburg, the city of his birth, likewise plans performances of seven of the operas, all in one week, Aug. 10-16. And Vienna, the city where he died, has scheduled a 40-day Mozart Festival May 10-June 14, in addition to myriad performances the rest of the year.
Nor are Utahns being left out. Earlier this year Utah Opera kicked things off with its production of "Cosi Fan Tutte." Performances of the choral works (particularly the "Coronation" Mass) have begun to proliferate. Last weekend Temple Square launched its nine-concert survey of the piano concertos, stretching over as many months. And this week the Utah Symphony finally gets into the act, following a "Mostly Mozart" chamber concert last January that coincided with Utah Opera's unveiling of its "Cosi."
This time, by contrast, there is no "mostly" about it, with music director Joseph Silverstein presiding over performances of the Adagio and Fugue in C minor for Strings and two of the early divertimenti, the K. 205 for Two Horns, Strings and Bassoon and the K. 287 for Two Horns and Strings. The program will be presented twice - Thursday, April 11, at Utah State University's Chase Fine Arts Center and Saturday, April 13, at Symphony Hall. Starting time for each is 8 p.m. (A previously announced performance at Brigham Young University will not take place.)
Then, in May, Silverstein returns as soloist in three of the Mozart violin concertos - Nos. 3, 4 and 5 - with at least three of the piano concertos to follow in 1991-92. (He is also scheduled to take part in an all-Mozart Nova chamber program April 22.)
That may not rival the plunge New Yorkers are taking, or even such diverse locales as San Francisco and, reportedly, Bartlesville, Okla. But it's still a fair amount of Mozart, considering the quantity of his music we hear on a regular basis anyway.
That, of course, is as it should be. For all its pseudo-history, there were a few things "Amadeus" got right and one of them was his genius. Haydn, to his credit, recognized it almost immediately. "Before God and as an honest man," he proclaimed to Leopold Mozart, "I tell you that your son is the greatest composer I know." That praise was echoed, moreover, by no less than Rossini, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss.
For me one of the most memorable scenes in "Amadeus" (and one of the few more effective on screen than on the stage) is that in which Mozart's wife, Constanze, brings Salieri some of her husband's manuscripts and we not only see but hear the finished glory that regularly poured from the latter's brain. (He appears to have written music faster than most people could even copy it.)
For the rest, he was undoubtedly fond of coarse language, peppering not only his letters but in somecases his manuscripts with the occasional salty epithet. He also tended to live on the brink financially, not because he never made money but because he tended to let it slip through his fingers, often at the gaming table. (He was notoriously fond of billiards.) Indeed, his average income the last eight years of his life has been estimated at 3,000 to 4,000 florins - between $80,000 and $100,000 a year.
Even the assertion about him being buried in a "pauper's grave" is open to question, sack burial in a common gravesite having been the norm for all but the nobility in late-18th-century Vienna - and that by imperial decree.
Nonetheless Vienna might have treated him more kindly. Even "Amadeus" does not claim that Mozart was actually poisoned, a point often missed. Rather what we see is Salieri poisoning his life, emblematic of the comparative indifference with which much of his music was received. ("Too many notes," the emperor is supposed to have said on one occasion.)
That was not true elsewhere. Both "Figaro" and "Don Giovanni," for instance, were rapturously received in Prague. (The latter, by contrast, received only 15 performances in Vienna.) And at the time of his death it was a German newspaper that reported, "His body has gone from us, his soul has soared upwards to higher harmonies, and for our comfort he leaves the beautiful products of his mind."
A remarkably romantic tribute that. But, again, note the emphasis on the "beautiful" as opposed to the darker undercurrents that later endeared him to the more romantically inclined Beethoven (whose cadenzas for the D minor Piano Concerto are still pretty much de rigueur) and Mahler. At the same time this is the same composer whose imagination could be aroused by the song of a pet starling and the fanciful character of the bird-catcher in "The Magic Flute."
"This true, best friend of mankind," Mozart called death in a letter to his father in 1787, claiming that "I never lie down in bed without thinking that perhaps I, young as I am, will not survive another day - and yet nobody who knows me could say that in company I was morose or sad."
For many that is the quality that gives Mozart's music its real stature - not just its perfection of form but its ability to embrace the joy and exuberance of life as well as its element of tragedy. Even in the Requiem, that final, uncompleted masterwork, one senses not only the sorrow death brings but also its majesty.
Historically, in fact, that may be what ends up being "Amadeus' " chief contribution to society - not its questionable, if dramatically effective, postulates about Mozart's life but its unstinting celebration of his music. (The film in particular was saturated with it.) Clearly for many not only the man himself but his creations became living, breathing things.
I still remember a call I got from a man just after the film opened. What, he wanted to know, was the music that opened the picture? Since I hadn't yet seen the movie, he even tried to sing it over the telephone. It turned out to be the Symphony No. 25, comparatively neglected in our concert halls over the years. But if just hearing it, in or out of a concert hall, can whet someone's appetite to that degree, one wonders what the intensive exposure of the next few months might bring.
In short, it isn't Mozart's death we're celebrating but his life. And that is as abundant in his music as it has ever been. Only this year, it seems, a lot more people are going to have a chance to hear it.