January 23, 2006

Gratuitous Mozart Posting


Fred Bauman has an interesting piece on Mozart in the Weekly Standard, examining the ways in which we hear Mozart in this day and age. His discussion of operatic characters caught my attention in particular:

[L]istening to Mozart calls to mind (and in some ways turns you into) a certain kind of person, a more complicated sort than we mostly go in for today. Not a redemptive Wagnerian hero or cynical slacker, not a high-minded virtuoso of compassion and/or righteous indignation, not a "realist" or an "idealist," but someone who both acknowledges, lives in, accepts the viewpoint of, and participates in, all human feelings--even the ugly ones, as we see in the marvelous revenge arias given to the Count, Dr. Bartolo, and Figaro--but who also, in the end, maintains as sovereign the viewpoint of rationality and order. (That is why, in their own ways, all three of those arias are come-dic, even the Count's, which is also partly genuinely scary.)

In invoking, and to some degree creating, such a person, Mozart implicitly makes a kind of moral case, a case for how we should live. It is not "aesthetic" in the sense of replacing the moral with formal beauty; it is much closer to what we find in Shakespeare's Tempest or Measure for Measure; i.e., models of a kind of control of the passions that gives them their due. Yet it is presented aesthetically, not through argument or exhortation.

In The Magic Flute, an opera whose Masonic libretto the Freemason Mozart took very seriously (as did Goethe, who wrote a sequel), Mozart made thematic the creation of such a person. He is the magus Sarastro, and he is what Tamino, the young hero-in-training (and, in her way, Pamina, the heroine), is supposed to become. Unlike the Queen of the Night, who gives way to her passion for justice to the extent of becoming monstrously unjust, and unlike the slave Monostatos, who chooses sides according to his odds of being able to force sex with Pamina, Tamino learns to be able to feel it all and still control it, to play the flute, in the image of the allegory, and not have it play him.

In the end, the romantic hero and the homo economicus turn out to be not basically different, but two sides of the same forged coin. The Mozartean hero, whom we approach, admire, and even learn to resemble, if only slightly, puts them to shame.

This isn't just music critic navel-gazing. I believe I've recommended before a book by Nicholas Till called Mozart and the Enlightenment. Till documents the fact that both Leopold and Wolfgang were enthusiastic students of the Enlightenment and kept fairly extensive libraries of both classical and the latest philosophical tracts and treatises, the better to take their place among the rising new class of educated bourgeioses. He notes (persuasively, to me) how each of Mozart's operas was informed by these ideas and describes the theme running through them of "the bourgeois vision of a well-regulated life steering a balanced path between the extremes of stoic self-denial or conformist obedience, and excessive license, pursuing the search for an ideal humanity combining morality and sensuous enjoyment."

Posted by Robert at January 23, 2006 05:55 PM | TrackBack

this makes me want to rewatch one of our two different tapes of performances of The Magic Flute [one's in German, one's in Swedish]

Posted by: amelie at January 25, 2006 10:20 AM

A guest lecture today by the chair of History and Sociology revealed to me Beethoven's love of Goethe. The Prof even recommended that we listen to Egmont and Leonora 1,2, and 3 while reading Goethe's Faust.

What say ye, Robbo?

And, Amelie, how funny that we should choose to comment on the same post :D

Posted by: Rae at January 26, 2006 12:29 AM