Home > Entertainment > Diversity, Dialogue – and a Prankster Bassoon: As Mozart Speaks for All of Us | Classical music

Diversity, Dialogue – and a Prankster Bassoon: As Mozart Speaks for All of Us | Classical music

When I was 12, my piano teacher gave me a great gift. For my first piano concerto, he attributed to Mozart his 23rd, A -Dur, one of the most perfect pieces ever written. “Kiddo,” he said, “you have to understand that this piece is a privilege.” I asked my dad to take me straight to the music store; on the way home I stumbled upon the happy yellow cover, decorated with laurels. For weeks my parents did not need to force me to exercise. I also like the first four bars – as they turned out, all intimate lyricism. And then the next bars, as they appeared, as if the first ones were laughing.

My teacher’s use of the word ‘privilege’ came back to me recently – he probably would not express it that way now. The word is hanging in the air these days. It lost what a positive connotations it had. But Privilege and Mozart have a fascinating, dangerous relationship. Just look at his two most famous operas: The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Both diagrams focus (not loosely, but obsessively) on the privilege of horrible people, and get most of their momentum from destroying their outdated senses of justice. Count Almaviva claims the right to relinquish his servants; the don claims the right to sleep with anyone and anything that moves, whether they agree or not.

Mozart was not only attracted to this dangerous plot, but cut to some of his most lively and iconic music for those moments in order to tear the privilege from its pedestal. You just have to think of the screaming little scales and wild chromatic intensities as the gift of demons is drawn into hell. And, on the other end of the spectrum, the beautiful pleading expressions – all the possibilities of music without sharpness or flatness, just the beauties hidden within the large scale – as the Count asks to forgive his endless cheats. These are the two possible endpoints of unjust privilege, Mozart seems to suggest: on the one hand defiance and total ruin; or genuine and heartfelt regret and acceptance of guilt. Both, of course, seem terribly familiar in our modern world. And it’s interesting how sexual abuse has surfaced in Mozart’s mind – his awareness of the connection between gender and power.

Jeremy Denk at Lammermuir Festival 2021
‘Mozart piano concerts make me free’ … Jeremy Denk plays at the Lammermuir Festival 2021. Photo: Robin Mitchell

This aspect of Mozart’s brilliance carries over into his non-opera music. Most listeners know without knowing (or caring) that music has built in a number of small hierarchies and “privileges”. Which key is the main key, for example, or which stroke is the downfall. Some notes feel right and fixed; others wrong and need resolution. These hidden assumptions, changing from style to style, make expression possible. Perhaps the most gripping of all is the general premise, at all times and places, of what music “should make” – the range of its acceptable behaviors.

It is here that Mozart’s particular personality’s historical moment meets in a profound way. It is worth comparing him to Beethoven, whose career depended on the adaptation of the neck, to do what should not be done. He assumed the persona of a revolutionary. But Mozart acted more like an informant – more dangerous, in a way and insane. He is often given at least the appearance of wanting to fit into the gorgeous style, be elegant and tidy, wear the wig and bow. Meanwhile, however, he slips his dissent everywhere, in corners between sentences, in a flat note here, or a missing beat, or an endless array of ingenious maneuvers. In the big C-Major Concerto, K503, for example, we start with all walks of pomp and circumstance: a fanfare, trumpets and drums, the grandmaster of the orchestra. Only 20 seconds and, however, the piece disinfects into a scattered, small keystroke. Where’s the beat? Are we a major or a minor? Even the most fundamental preconditions of a piece of music are in question – and only through the question do Mozart question his most important revelations.

Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, c1783, by Jozef Grassi.
Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, c1783, by Jozef Grassi.
Photo: Heritage Images / Getty Biller

If the director of this year Lammermuir Festival asked me, as their “artist in residence”, what kind of music I prefer to play, I answered Mozart’s piano concertos, because – strangely enough – they made me feel free. In addition to operas, they are generally regarded as his most important work, and perhaps this is partly because you encounter “Mozart himself”: the keyboard becomes a proxy or stand-in for his renegade, evil (and yet decent) musician. You do not feel in these pieces (as with later Beethoven Concertos, or Tchaikovsky) that the piano is locked in a battle with the mass of the orchestra, trying to triumph against unsurpassed chance. No, it’s all dialogue, or multi-logo. Piano (Mozart) is not the only or best star. You have the beauties of the strings of course, and perhaps more importantly, you have the evil wind that gives operatic figures coming out of the stage to express a short but touching cameo. Each section and instrument has its strengths and weaknesses – the pillowy maintenance of a violin section, the more penetrating clarinet (with its sense of human breath), the ping and clarity of a piano. I feel that Mozart had special soft spots for the viola, his native instrument – often from the middle, from within, like him – and the bassoon. The bassoon either pleads and sucks tragically, or laughs. It is both a messenger of suffering and a prankster.

Injustice privilege leads to defiance and total ruin ... Christopher Purves as Don Giovanni with Mary Bevan as Zerlina in the English National Opera 2016 production of Richard Jones.
Injustice privileges lead to defiance and total ruin … Christopher Purves as Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Mary Bevan as Zerlina in the English National Opera 2016 production of Richard Jones. Photo: Tristram Kenton / The Guardian

The late big ones Charles Rosen said that the whole classical style, the cornerstone of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, depends on the style of the comic opera, that is to say: the change. The art of quick-fire timing, the same as any comedian. You deliver your premise, then hit a dime on the punchline.

This mechanism works continuously in Mozart. You start a phrase as the Imperial Count, and in the end you are his victim, Susanna. None of these voices are particularly privileged; Mozart’s style (more anonymous than Beethoven) sets itself up as a ship for them all. The reward of all this switching and crossing is – somehow – access. At certain moments, suspended within Mozart’s works, you find yourself in contact with (to point out another bad word these days) emotion of an incredible fragility, a declaration of love or a sign of error, or a red stream of loss. That’s when Mozart notices you: the real privilege is to see the world through the eyes of another.

Jeremy Denk’s recording of The Mozart Piano Concertos, with the St Paul Chamber Orchestra is out on Nonesuch of 17 September. Jeremy Denk performs at the Lammermuir Festival 16 in the September 20th.

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