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Mozart, Beethoven and the Classical Ideal

August 29, 2014

A weird thing has happened to me lately: I’ve started to appreciate Mozart. Over the years I’ve tried to get into his music on various occasions, but I’ve always been left rather baffled. Why was this guy considered such a towering genius? Sure, his music was pleasant – charming, even – but, aside from the odd flash of pathos or joyous cry, it just seemed to trot along. There has to be more to genius than a facile gift for melody, hasn’t there?

Of course, I realised that I was hampered by the fact that I cannot abide opera (I’ve tried, I’ve tried – but the classically trained voice is an abomination; it’s the sound of human beings turning themselves into machines not out of aesthetic choice but simply in order to be heard above the orchestra’s din). So a full half of his legacy was closed to me from the outset. All the same, there remained a wide sea of instrumental music to navigate, but the results of my explorations were always the same: this is the world’s biggest village pond. Calm, placid, a few ducks, the odd swan; nice enough but nothing to write home about.

Trots along…

It’s easy to see what I mean if you compare Mozart with Beethoven. Now there’s a man who deserves the title “genius” – in fact he’s almost a parody of the type: the precocious talent, the tragic deafness, the innovation, the untameable hair, the uncompromising dedication to a personal vision and, of course, the thrilling Sturm und Drang of the music as overwhelming waves of ecstasy and despair thunder against each other. The two men were barely a generation apart (Mozart was 14 years older than Beethoven), and yet they seem to come from different worlds. Mozart span his tunes amid the fatuous splendour of the rococo, while Beethoven was the beginning of musical modernity.

Yet oddly enough I think that’s the clue to appreciating Mozart. He is the last great representative of an age whose world-view is more alien to us than we might suppose. Specifically, his music represents a near-miraculous realisation of the Enlightenment’s neoclassical ideal. According to this ideal, life is not a desperate search for meaning or a flight from terror, but a complex, ordered and profoundly satisfying pattern. Of course there’s grief and loss, death and darkness, but these are merely elements woven into a bigger tapestry which pays them due regard while refusing to get bogged-down in morbid obsessiveness. Its watchwords are balance, proportion and, perhaps above all, health. The refusal to dwell on darkness is not (or ought not to be) a matter of hiding from the truth; rather, it is a sign of a healthy society which has attained a more generous, life-affirming vision than that available to the sick, benighted minds of the past.

There’s an irony here, of course, in that it’s hugely debatable whether the Enlightenment ever came close to living up to its own self-image. It saw itself as a flowering of the maturity of humanity; mankind had finally put away childish things and, by dint of reason, had broken through into a golden age. But it more often reminds me of a precocious teenager who thinks all old people are stupid because they don’t know which smartphones are cool. Its major achievements were in economics, politics, technology and science – all of which would subsequently combine to produce extreme amounts of suffering and poverty (for many), as well as inordinate riches and comfort (for some).

In the arts it was not an age of vigour and healthy-mindedness, but of puerile titillation and complacent self-congratulation. Its paintings and architecture were uninspired re-hashes of earlier styles, and its literature marks a profound falling-off from the previous century. If you want a feel for the Enlightenment’s smugness, just read Pope’s An Essay on Man (1734) and then compare it with Rochester’s A Satyr Against Mankind (c 1674). Even the novel, its great artistic innovation, is mostly caught between the tedious bawdiness of the picaresque and the equally tedious moralising of Samuel Richardson. It’s probably no accident that the two novels of the century which most speak to the modern reader – Gulliver’s Travels (1735) and Tristram Shandy (1759-67) – are both in their different ways biting criticisms of the age in which they were produced.

But, at its best, late 18th century music – and especially Mozart’s music – is the great exception to this trend. For the achievement of Mozart was to express the ideal of his age as if it were the reality. Crucially, this was not done ironically or cynically but as a sincere representation of the times in which he lived. Mozart was no prophet of doom, or voice crying in the wilderness; he was a product of his culture, and thus instinctively in tune with it. His assumptions were its assumptions. But at the same time his musical genius allowed him to transcend and purify that culture. He presented the Enlightenment as it assumed itself to be: not childish and decadent, but restrained, wise and serenely benign.

In this respect he was music’s answer to Kant, whose famous essay What is Enlightenment? was published in 1784. They both gave definitive expression to the age’s most cherished values – and they both did it at precisely the time when the whole Enlightenment project was collapsing about their ears. By the time of Kant’s essay the American revolution had already taken place; the British industrial revolution was in full swing; and the French revolution was only five years away. Mozart composed some of his most famous pieces, including Cosi fan tutti and The Magic Flute, after the storming of the Bastille (1789) and less than two years before the beheading of Louis XVI (January 1793).

These momentous events, and the wars which followed in their train, reshaped the western world-view. And you can see the changes they wrought written into almost every bar of Beethoven’s mature music. Whereas Mozart’s output seems to reflect a serene present, Beethoven’s work is haunted by the past and deeply anxious about the future. It is the sound of a battle being waged over the soul of mankind – a battle whose outcome is far from certain. His late quartets, for example, are littered with sections of courtly, civic music which suddenly give way to tortured, almost atonal passages. They sound remarkably like the cheerful certainties of a bygone age collapsing into doubt and anguish. And the rapturous joy that he conjures up in the 4th movement of his 9th symphony is not a celebration of the present but a fervent, scared prayer for tomorrow. Its very excess betrays the anxiety under which it was written; it’s as if Beethoven is trying, by sheer force of talent, to avert an impending catastrophe.

Untameable hair…

I think there’s little doubt that our own world-view seems more like Beethoven’s than Mozart’s. And I suppose that’s why Beethoven’s music more readily resonates with me on a personal level. The classical ideal is one that few can espouse today with a completely straight face. And yet, for all that, there is something great about it: its refusal either to give in to, or to hide from, life’s sorrows; its easy, good-natured confidence; its instinctive cleaving to the idea that come what may life is a blessing – these are important, restorative attitudes. We cannot, of course, simply will them back into being, but nor should we ignore them. And Mozart’s music remains one of the most coherent, boisterous expressions of this outlook that our culture has to offer.

So let’s end with Mozart’s horn concerto.


  1. Be interesting to know which particular pieces are helping/helped you change your mind!

  2. Hi Paul

    Oddly, it wasn’t so much the music itself that changed my mind as the realisation that I’d been listening to it in the wrong spirit – I’d been marking it down for not being something that it wasn’t even trying to be. I knew Mozart belonged to the classical tradition rather than the romantic one, yet I was still regarding it as superficial because it didn’t contain all those impressive gestures and violent mood swings that Beethoven uses so brilliantly.

    It’s like when you go to see a film which doesn’t turn out to be what you were hoping for and so it disappoints you – but then when you come back to it without the distortion of your expectation you realise that, on its own terms, it’s rather fine.

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