One of the greatest composers of Western music, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27, 1756 and died on December 5, 1791 at the age of 35.
Despite his short life, he left us with hundreds of pieces of great music, and has brought unending joy, sorrow, and entertainment ever since.
Indeed, it is hard to think of any man or woman who has contributed more to the joy of being alive. Writing about Mozart is an intensely personal undertaking as one hears different work at different times of one’s own life and the combination of this great music and the waves of joy, failure, fulfillment, and ecstasy of one’s own experience make the Mozart experience something lodged deep in one’s soul.
You remember the woman you were with the first time you heard “The Magic Flute” or the afternoons listening to the string quintets with your best friends in school. George Bernard Shaw, great playwright and music critic, once described Mozart as the “voice of God.”
If you think about it, all of our prophets have spoken in words -- but why would not God use music and send prophets who spoke to us through music. There is a good case Mozart was one.
Words of wisdom
There are some lessons to learn from his life. The first is simple enough. You can have all the talent but you have to do the work. Mozart did the work -- driven by his father, he learned and practiced music from early childhood.
This genius did not just appear, it emerged from a life of study, of practice, of endless hours playing and writing music. You climb the mountain on your own legs, not by a helicopter.
The second lesson is to live with courage to do what you have to do. Mozart refused to conform to the norms of 18th century Austria and lived his life all out, as he saw his own destiny. He rejected the path of making money by bowing down to the demands of the Austrian ruling elites. Of course, he wanted to make money but he was determined to do it his own way. His genius was no secret. Everyone in the music world in Europe understood what Mozart represented.
The greatness of Don Giovanni
To think about Mozart on his birthday, I turn to Don Giovanni
one of his greatest operas with music that stands atop the universe of human musical accomplish. This opera tells a story set in 16th century Spain about a man, the Don, who lives his life seducing women, persuading one girl after another to become his lover. His charm, money, and smooth-talking lead to a conquest after another.
Early on in the opera, he is confronted by the father of a woman he is busy seducing. In the ensuing uproar, the Don kills the father, probably accidentally. The opera then follows the Don from one amorous adventure to another. But chasing after him is Donna Anna, the daughter of the man he killed -- she is seeking revenge.
The Don lives the life of our time -- to party, drink, love women or men or both, avoiding any responsibility for either oneself or for others. Life is fun, the music carries along from one party or love scene to another. This is what modern women and men seek.
Work is to get hold of money to party, take drugs, drink, and get into bed seeking immediate gratification. Work is to achieve symbols of power and wealth to bring others to their knees before you. The Don is rich from the fortune left by his father and so can go about his games.
But Mozart does not let up.
Indeed, it is hard to think of any man or woman who has contributed more to the joy of being alive
The Don runs into the ghost of the man he killed and graciously invites him for dinner, (if you believe in ghosts as I do, I am not sure I would ask one home). A grand party is arranged and gets underway. The ghost knocks on the door, invited in by the Don, the ghost embraces the Don and drags him down to hell. You can feel yourself being dragged with the Don when you hear this music.
This sounds like a morality play, but I think Mozart was after something else. The Don is a character of great appeal and charm. As for the killing, what business does a father have in interfering in the life of a grown daughter? If you confront someone with a weapon you take your chances on the outcome.
What is wrong with having a good time partying and making love? Is there a greater purpose in life than enjoyment? What exactly is wrong with taking your money and having a good time?
Mozart celebrates this life with his music, he does not condemn it. And what music it is, song after song celebrating this joyous path we all seek. The simple life of the peasant is portrayed contrasted with the dark spirits of the rich woman seeking revenge. But Donna Anna is, perhaps, the one really responsible for her father’s death -- she certainly led the Don on, and when he got to the point she had been encouraging him to reach, she called out bringing her father to her rescue.
The Don tries to make peace but the father is going to protect the honour of his daughter who invited all this trouble. Where is guilt? The Don later encounters the ghost and the Don’s invitation to dine is clearly a kind of peace offering.
Mozart was a master at getting a group of people up on the stage singing together. His operas are full of these masterpieces; no one has ever been able to do this as well. As the Don is headed for hell, we are treated to a finale with all the characters singing different versions of what has happened. Mozart does not give us any answers. There are none.
What have our slogans of patriotism, loyalty, hard work, honesty, respect for the rich and famous gotten us? Wars, cruelty, exploitation. Put down this fake life, instead enjoy. Indeed, you will end up in hell. But down there in hell you will find the interesting people who lived their lives according to their own values not following the guidance of our teachers and leaders.
Mozart saw clearly what men and women are about. He gave us songs about ourselves that bury themselves deep into our hearts. In Don Giovanni, he told us the truth about ourselves and suggested we ease up and accept it. Men and women are not going to change.
Happy Birthday, Mozart.
Forrest Cookson is an American economist.