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Diversity, dialogue – and prankster bassoon: how Mozart speaks for all of us | Classical music

When I was 12, my piano teacher gave me a nice gift. For my first piano concerto, he gave me Mozart’s 23rd in A major, one of the most perfect pieces ever written. “Kiddo,” he said, “you have to understand that this room is a privilege. I begged my father to take me to the music store right away; on the way back, I stroked the cheerful yellow blanket, adorned with laurels. For weeks, my parents didn’t have to force me to practice. I loved even those first four bars – how they folded up, all in intimate lyricism. And then the following bars, as they rose, as if they were laughing at the first one.

My teacher’s use of the word “privilege” came back to me recently – he probably wouldn’t put it that way now. The word is floating heavily in the air these days. He lost the positive connotations he had. But Privilege and Mozart have a fascinating and strained relationship. Just look at his two most famous operas: The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Both plots center (not vaguely, but obsessively) on the privileges of terrible people, and derive most of their momentum from destroying their obsolete sense of entitlement. Count Almaviva claims the right to deflower his servants; the Don claims the right to sleep with anyone and anything that moves, whether they agree or not.

Mozart was not only drawn to these dangerous intrigues, but he wrote some of his most vivid and iconic music for those moments of privilege ripped from his pedestal. Just think of the howling minor scales and wild color intensities as the Don is dragged by demons through hell. And, on the other side of the spectrum, the magnificent pleading phrases – all the possibilities of music without a hash or flat, just the beauties hidden in the major scale – as the Earl begs to be forgiven for his endless cheating. These are the two possible ends of unjust privilege, Mozart seems to suggest: on the one hand, challenge and total ruin; or sincere and sincere regret and acceptance of blame. Both, of course, sound awfully familiar in our modern world. And it’s interesting how sexual mischief arose in Mozart’s mind – his awareness of the connection between sex and power.

Jeremy Denk at the 2021 Lammermuir Festival
‘Mozart’s piano concertos make me feel free’ … Jeremy Denk performing at the 2021 Lammermuir festival. Photography: Robin Mitchell

This aspect of Mozart’s genius is found in his non-lyrical music. Most listeners unknowingly know (or care to know) that music has a number of small hierarchies and “privileges” built into it. What tone is the welcome tone, for example, or what beat is the upbeat. Some notes seem right and regular; others are wrong and need to be resolved. These hidden assumptions, changing from style to style, make expression possible. Perhaps the most radical of all is the general assumption, anytime, anywhere, of what music “should do” – the range of its acceptable behaviors.

It is here that Mozart’s special personality meets its historic moment in a profound way. It is worth comparing him to Beethoven, whose career depended on endless subtleties, of doing the wrong things. He embraced the character of a revolutionary. But Mozart behaved more like an informant – more dangerous, in a way, and insidious. He often at least gives the air of wanting to adapt to the dominant style, to be elegant and tidy, to wear the wig and the bow. During this time, however, he slips his dissent everywhere, in the corners between sentences, in a caveat here, or a missing time, or an infinity of ingenious maneuvers. In the great Concerto in C major K503, for example, we begin with all the finery and empire: a fanfare, trumpets and drums, the greatness of the orchestra. Only 20 seconds later, however, the piece disintegrates into a scattered minor key noise. Where’s the beat? Are we in major or in minor? Even the most basic assumptions of a piece of music are called into question – and it is only by questioning them that Mozart arrives at his most important revelations.

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

When the director of this year’s Lammermuir Festival asked me, as ‘artist in residence’, what music I liked to play the most, I answered Mozart’s piano concertos, because – strange to say – they made me feel free. Next to operas, they are generally considered his most important work, and this is perhaps partly because you meet “Mozart himself”: the keyboard becomes a proxy or a replacement for his renegade, mischievous ( and yet virgin) musicality. One does not have the impression in these pieces (as in later Beethoven or Tchaikovsky concertos) that the piano is locked in a battle with the mass of the orchestra, trying to triumph through thick and thin. No, everything is dialogue, or multi-log. The piano (Mozart) is not the only or the best star. You have of course the beauties of the strings, and perhaps more importantly, you have the motley winds, which become opera characters emerging from the backstage, coming to express a brief but touching cameo. Each section and instrument has its strengths and weaknesses – the mellow sustain of a violin section, the more penetrating clarinet (with its sense of human breath), the ping and clarity of a piano. I have the impression that Mozart had weak points for the viola, his native instrument – often instigator of the environment, of the interior, like him – and the bassoon. The bassoon either begs and sighs tragically, or laughs. He is both a messenger of sorrow and a joker.

Unfair privilege leading to defiance and utter ruin ... Christopher Purves as Don Giovanni with Mary Bevan as Zerlina in the 2016 English National Opera production by Richard Jones.
Unfair privilege leading to defiance and utter ruin … Christopher Purves as Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Mary Bevan as Zerlina in the 2016 English National Opera production by Richard Jones. Photograph: Tristram Kenton / The Guardian

The late great Charles Rosen said that the whole classical style, the foundation of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, depends on the style of opera comic, that is, on change. The art of quick timing, the same as any comedian. You deliver your premise, then spend a dime on the punchline.

This mechanism is at work permanently in Mozart. You start a sentence as the imperious earl, and at the end you are his victim, Susanna. None of these voices are particularly privileged; The style of Mozart (more anonymous than that of Beethoven) sets itself up as a vase for all. The payoff for all of these changes and crossovers is – sort of – access. At certain moments, suspended in Mozart’s work, you find yourself in contact (to invoke another heavy word today) an emotion of incredible fragility, a declaration of love or an admission of error, or a gross loss current. It is then that Mozart makes you realize: the real privilege is to see the world through the eyes of another.

Jeremy Denk’s recording of Mozart’s Piano Concertos with the St. Paul’s Chamber Orchestra will be released on Nonesuch on September 17. Jeremy Denk performs at the Lammermuir Festival on September 16 and 20.

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