Soave il vento ... Maybe the wind be gentle, the waves calm ...
To understand the genius and ineffable artistry of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, this week's 250th birthday boy, you need only hear about three minutes -- the time it takes to listen to the Trio from Cosi fan tutte, his mostly comic opera about love, fidelity, expectations (realistic and unrealistic), sex and the sexes.
The Trio is sung in the first act by the somewhat silly, but ever-so-charming ladies Dorabella and Fiordiligi and the worldly-wise Don Alfonso. He has just convinced their grooms-to-be to play a dirty trick on the women, pretending to go off to war, but returning in disguise, each to try seducing the other's supposedly fidelity-hardened fiancee.
Up to this point in the opera, Dorabella and Fiordiligi come off as one-dimensional, 18th-century Valley Girls, but when they see their intended ones sailing off, they are moved to offer a prayer for safe journey, with the cynical Don Alfonso chiming in, however insincerely, to make it a trio.
Suddenly, the women don't seem so superficial. The Trio opens up a little window into the genuine warmth of their hearts.
We probably shouldn't believe a note of Don Alfonso's contribution, since we already know his low opinion of female constancy, but there's nothing snide in the melodic line he sings. Maybe it's just Mozart's way of helping Don Alfonso keep up the pretense and a straight face, but, just maybe, it's also a way to let us see a little sentiment in his heart, too.
As the strings in the orchestra set up a serene rolling pattern for accompaniment, the vocal lines rise and fall, blending seamlessly into an aural fabric that is as elegant as it is eloquent. The effect is time-stopping, timeless. All that insight, all that musical perfection in a mere three minutes.
With music like this, the word "beautiful" becomes a pathetically inadequate description.
Such music easily explains why Mozart holds the highest place in the pantheon of classical composers, and why the 250th anniversary of his birth -- Jan. 27, 1756 -- deserves all the attention it is getting worldwide.
Are we making too much of the guy? The inevitably (in this case, possibly insanely) provocative author Norman Lebrecht thinks so. In an article last month for the Web site of La Scena Musicale, a nonprofit organization avowedly in the business of promoting classical music, Lebrecht wrote:
"Beyond a superficial beauty and structural certainty, Mozart has nothing to give to mind or spirit in the 21st century. Let him rest. Ignore the commercial onslaught ... Mozart wrote a little night music for the ancien regime. He was not so much reactionary as regressive, a composer content to keep music in a state of servility so long as it kept him well supplied with frilled cuffs and fancy quills. Little in such a mediocre life gives cause for celebration."
Lebrecht isn't the first to take leave of his senses. Glenn Gould, the stunningly original pianist, once declared: "Mozart was a bad composer who died too late rather than too early."
It's always good to consider second opinions, of course, to challenge one's core beliefs and values. But what do we ignore of all the evidence? Not just the fact that Mozart continues to be so incredibly popular, but that his music invariably repays attention by revealing fresh details and expressive possibilities.
To dismiss this music because it came out of the bewigged, minuet-propelled ambience of 18th-century society or because of its unflappable classicism, restraint, symmetry and comfortableness is as absurd as declaring Vermeer a bore because he painted such pretty, perfectly organized pictures and wasn't as groundbreaking as Rembrandt.
Within the stylistic conventions of Mozart's day, which he didn't push against the way Beethoven would, there is nonetheless an astonishing degree of variety and inventiveness. And something more -- soul.
The best moment in Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus, which is full of fictional and factual silliness (Mozart really did have a curious fixation on scatological functions and could act pretty childishly), may be when the exalted composer Antonio Salieri comes ear to ear with the truth that he won't be exalted for long.
Listening half-heartedly to Mozart's Serenade for Winds, K. 361, something in the slow movement gives him pause.
"On the page it looked nothing," Salieri says. "The beginning simple, almost comic ... Then suddenly -- high above it -- an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight. This was no composition by a performing monkey. This was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing a voice of God."
'The divine instinct'
That might be poetic license, but other musicians really did express such sentiments.