April 22nd 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The populist wedge: political disaffection comes to Australia

EDITORIAL Human Rights Commission needs to start afresh post Professor Triggs

CANBERRA OBSERVED Liberals' soul searching too painful to publicise

ABORTION Law condones the act as it criminalises the image

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Trump makes calculated response to Syrian atrocity

CHINA No easy way to reverse malignant one-child policy

FOREIGN AFFAIRS French election may determine Eurozone fate

ECONOMICS The taxing of companies: a clarifying perspective

PHILOSOPHY Rights bereft of obligations: or, Socrates versus the pig

MUSIC Classical colours: Mozart's fusion of opposites

CINEMA Beauty and the Beast: A fairytale of true enchantment

BOOK REVIEW Santamaria: a man against the tide

BOOK REVIEW The teen they would have made queen

Heartening response to readers' survey

Books promotion page

Classical colours: Mozart's fusion of opposites

by David James

News Weekly, April 22, 2017

When it comes to the three great classical composers, it is very much a matter of personal preference as to which is the favourite. Bach’s music is as close to perfection as has ever been achieved in art, in part because of the structures of Baroque music. The only parallel this writer can think of is Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is similarly vast and endlessly subtle.

Mozart at the keyboard, with his father Leopold.

Bach was able to explore counterpoint and harmony to its very limit; his work has never been surpassed. Yet the mechanical invention that allowed such complexity to exist – the well-tempered clavier, which allowed the use of more sophisticated harmonies without the instruments going out of tune – was only actually invented in his lifetime.

Beethoven can lay claim to being the musician who most changed the status of music in society. The depth and intensity of his compositions, combined with his peerless melodies, demonstrated to those who came after him that a musician could achieve levels of expression that gave musicians a status as artists that they had not enjoyed before.

But this writer’s personal favourite is Mozart. There are some obvious reasons why he was a great. Like Beethoven, he was a brilliant melodist. There is an extraordinary balance in everything he writes; like Bach his compositions are always perfectly executed, although some of the very early compositions, written when he was still a child, sound a little trite.

Mozart also had a talent for variation that is analogous to the skill of a playwright in bringing to life different characters. This is why he was perhaps the most convincing ever writer of operas. He could move effortlessly across different types of musically dramatic expression: the comic, the tragic, the angry, the stately. One can imagine him as a great watcher of the human condition.

There are stories, perhaps apocryphal, that he would laugh gaily at street musicians who played very badly, seeing in it comic possibility. This is the temperament of a dramatist, an observer.

But the greatest reason for Mozart’s unique place in music is his extraordinary ability to evoke opposite emotions within the same phrase. It is the essence of what makes his music sublime.

To hear this, it is necessary to do some close listening. The late piano concertos are probably the best place to start. Two mental focuses are useful to understand the subtlety of what is happening. One is to try to predict where Mozart will take his melodic sequences. There is always a perfect balance of surprise and resolution; the journey the listener is taken on is exquisite.

Similarly useful is to imagine the emotion that is being musically represented. What emerges is that comedy will suddenly dissolve into pathos, triumph into uncertainty, sadness into joy, tragedy into reassurance. There is really no parallel in music for this, and very few parallels in any art form. Some of Shakespeare’s late romances, which hover between darkness and light, may come close.

But to a considerable extent it is a uniquely Mozartian aesthetic. It is perhaps why his music is so difficult to play well; it requires the performer to have at once a great range of expression and an ability to shift moods at will.

Most composers choose one emotion and look to explore it with great thoroughness and intensity. Wagner is an excellent example of such a journey (seemingly interminable) into the intense. There will, of course, be different emotions explored in different movements, but they are largely kept separate. It is only Mozart who continually fuses them together so that they become transmuted into something else.

Many composers have been influenced by Mozart. Some of Ravel’s music, for example, exhibits the simplicity of some of Mozart’s structures and melodies. Stravinsky gloriously combined Mozart’s sense of balance and structure with new forms of harmony, orchestration and rhythm.

Miles Davis

But the only musician I can think of who was able to fuse opposites in a similar way was jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, left, who was able to combine, in short phrases, ferocity and pain, and then vulnerability and sadness.

Davis’ range of colours though was comparatively limited when compared with Mozart’s; his music was profound but not as transformative. When it comes to the sublime combining of opposites, only Mozart was able to do it across the spectrum.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm