Finding MOZART

Austria celebrates the life of its famous native son


MOZART WAS NOT A NATURE lover. On all his youthful travels by horse-drawn coach throughout Europe as a prodigy, he rarely commented on the landscape that he passed through in letters to family and friends. He loved cosmopolitan cities such as Paris, London and Vienna.

Yet the closest I felt to Mozart on a recent trip to Austria came in a bucolic setting, the Monchsberg, a forested ridge above his hometown of Salzburg.

I had spent the previous day and a half wandering around churches, cemeteries, a mansion and a fortress, all with connections to the composer. I had been to Mozart exhibits in museums, including one in the apartment where he was born in 1756. I attended a performance of his early opera La Finta Giardiniera in an old theater just a stone's throw from another Mozart residence. I had my morning coffee and apple strudel at a sidewalk cafe just off Mozartplatz, where a statue of the man presides over the provincial town he loathed. Mozart chocolates were placed on my hotel pillow at night.

This is the year of Mozart in Austria, which is celebrating the 250th anniversary of his birth with all manner of events, especially in Salzburg and Vienna, where he lived from 1781 until his death in 1791 and wrote many of his greatest works.

As a performing arts critic, I have plenty of Mozart in my life, but I sometimes resist the sublime perfection of his music; his personality and character seem elusive, apart from the rambunctious savant depicted by Tom Hulce in Amadeus. So my Austrian trip in May was a pilgrimage of sorts to understand the composer and his music.

Maybe it was just the consequence of Mozart overload, but a wave of emotion overtook me that afternoon as I made my way down a footpath in the Monchsberg. There was a sun-dappled meadow to my left, Salzburg's baroque church spires peeking through the trees on my right, snow-capped mountains off in the distance, birds chirping and greenery rustling in the breeze.

All of a sudden it struck me that Mozart must have tramped these hills as a boy, and in a way, I was sharing a sensory experience that surely made a contribution to his musical development on some basic level. Listeners at a loss for anything original to say often describe Mozart's music as heavenly - alas, I've said it myself in reviews - but that's all I could think of at that moment. The Austrian countryside was so beautiful that I felt as if I'd died and gone to heaven, not the kind of sentimentality I usually indulge in, but there it was. Being able to imagine Mozart in this place was an epiphany I'll never forget, and it will inform the way I listen to his music from now on.

Salzburg's son

My first morning in Salzburg, I met with a woman in charge of publicity for Mozart 2006 Salzburg, a huge cultural tourism campaign, at the Mozart Info Lounge, a futuristic glass-walled booth plunked down in the shadow of the Mozart statue. The centerpiece of the year is the venerable Salzburg Festival, today to Aug. 31, during which all 22 Mozart operas will be performed.

The year's events fill a 208-page program book, and the publicist stressed that they encompass more than Mozart. Many concerts, exhibits and panel discussions seek to relate him to contemporary society, such as an academic conference on the marketing of Mozart, a perennial topic in Salzburg.

Images of the composer are everywhere. One thought to ponder while strolling the cobblestone streets is Mozart as brand name. Sections of the city rival Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue in the critical mass of luxury stores, but for all their allure, the likes of Prada, Hugo Boss, Hermes and Bally don't stand a chance against the boy wonder.

Mozart's omnipresence in Salzburg is ironic, of course, since he was desperate to get out of the place. "You know, my dear friend, how I hate Salzburg," he wrote in a 1778 letter, collected in the indispensable Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life, edited and translated by Robert Spaethling. Like many young artists, he struggled to break free of his hometown, not leaving for good until three years later, when the archbishop fired him as court organist and he landed in Vienna.

Efforts to put a modern spin on Mozart are rife this year in Salzburg. The production of La Finta Giardiniera, which I saw at the Salzburg Landestheater and will also be performed during the festival, was typical, transplanting the opera set in a garden to the gardening department of Austria's answer to Home Depot.

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