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A genius shaped by political and social upheavals
Mozart's music in revolutionary times

By Nicole Colson | April 14, 2006 | Page 9

THIS year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Today, the image of Mozart that many people are familiar with is the juvenile prodigy highlighted in the film of Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus. It's true that Mozart's letters to his family are filled with crude humor, sexual innuendo and irreverence for religious and social authority.

But the popular caricature of Mozart as an unruly schoolboy with some kind mystical genius ignores both how his work consciously broke ground in its technical achievement--and was shaped by and reflected the tremendous political and social upheavals of the time.

Mozart was born in 1756 in Salzburg, in what is now Austria. At the time, Austria was a feudal empire under the rule of the Hapsburgs, with the Catholic Church also wielding enormous power.

Beginning in 1765 with the rule of Joseph II, a series of sometimes radical reforms were implemented in an attempt to centralize the state. But increasing revolt led to the repeal of some of these reforms beginning in the late 1780s. When revolution broke out in France in 1789, and France's nobles--including Joseph's sister, Marie Antoinette--found themselves on the losing end, Joseph began suppressing newspapers, strengthening the police force and rounding up "subversives."

It's against this backdrop of reform, revolution and repression that Mozart's work should be considered.

Though Mozart is rightly hailed as a child prodigy, his real genius began to shine through when he came of age in the early 1770s--and his compositions began to challenge conventional forms. A series of five violin concertos written in 1775, when Mozart was 19, for example, marked the first use of a solo instrument leading an orchestra.

Likewise, Mozart's piano concertos draw heavily on vocal music forms to underline the interplay between the solo instrument and the orchestra. His Piano Concerto in D Minor challenged the idea that concertos were light entertainment by putting the composition in a minor key and playing up the stormy qualities of the piece.

Mozart's operas are no less groundbreaking in their achievements. While Mozart had written and conducted several quality operas beginning in his youth, his first great operatic work was Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), which premiered in May 1786.

For its subject, Mozart chose a radical French comedy by Beaumarchais--a tale of servants besting a corrupt aristocrat, who attempts to reclaim his feudal sexual claims on female servants.

Mozart himself felt more and more sympathy with such class sentiment. In 1781, he had been literally kicked out of his position as musician in the household of the Archbishop of Salzburg, for refusing to act as an errand boy. "The Archbishop is so kind to add to his luster by his household, robs them of their chance of earning and pays them nothing," he wrote to his father.

Figaro seethes with class conflict. The first example comes in the form of the aria "Se vuol ballare" ("If you would dance"), which Figaro sings after discovering that his employer, Count Almaviva, intends to sleep with his bride-to-be Susanna. "The art of stinging, the art of conniving...all of your schemes I'll turn inside out," Figaro challenges.

Musically, Figaro is striking for its emphasis on ensembles--they account for 14 of 28 listed musical "numbers"--which convey, in a way no previous opera had, complex social relations and allow for a real sense of drama to develop.

Mozart's greatest political work was one of his last--the opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Written in 1791, after the repeal of Joseph II's reforms, The Magic Flute reflects Mozart's sympathy with the more radical ideas of the Enlightenment--the philosophical and cultural movement of the 18th century that prized science and rationalism.

The opera uses the symbolism of the Freemasons--a radical political and philosophical organization that Mozart joined in December 1784 in Vienna. In Mozart's time, the Freemasons extolled republicanism and brotherly love, and questioned the accepted ideas that nobility and wealth make someone worthy of respect.

Mozart and his librettist Emmanuel Schikaneder set out to produce an opera that would be popular with a mass audience--a magical fairy tale--while also putting forward the political virtues of masonry. The opera tells the story of the quest of the young hero Tamino to pass a series of tests, win his true love Pamina and gain entrance to the "Brotherhood of Reason"--a just and literally "enlightened" society from which the Queen of the Night is banished.

Some critics of Mozart point to The Magic Flute as evidence of a strain of sexism in his work. Yet while it's true that the opera contains sexist statements--likely a nod to the Freemasons' own barring of women from the organization--in the end, it is the heroine Pamina who undergoes the most severe trials, and who ultimately guides Tamino into the Temple of Reason, when he is halted by fear.

Just two months after the premiere of The Magic Flute, Mozart died at the age of 36. But as music critic Anthony Arblaster wrote, this final work "belongs to its time, that moment of hope and optimism after 1789 that was shared so widely and so memorably expressed in literature as well as in music."

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