Mozart in Motion – a genius whose balance was doped with nervousness

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Mozart’s cultural currency as an icon – chocolates, souvenir figurines – didn’t necessarily help us understand his music. 1984 cinema Amadeus, with its gross stupidity miraculously touched by divine fire, created a powerful modern myth while perpetuating the idea of ​​genius as essentially inexplicable and anhistorical: something that transcends time or place. Specifically, Mozart’s world of sound is now so familiar to us that many listeners tend to take its seemingly easy beauty for granted.

Patrick Mackie is determined to get us out of this. He wants us to hear this music again and realize how daring and original it must have sounded to his first listeners by immersing us in the historical milieu in which it was produced. In Mozart in motion he reminds us that “the music that we call today Classic is the sound of an always uncertain culture”.

The composer’s own career straddled the old world of feudal aristocratic patronage and the new individualism of independent entrepreneurship. There were times when he himself couldn’t quite tell if he was a success or a failure. Born in 1756, Mozart was the product of an era of transition, half-hectic, half-raw towards modernity, a time when power structures and mindsets were up for grabs, and the French Revolution was upon us. Even keyboard technology was undergoing a radical transformation, with the new pianos-forte, precursors of the modern concert grand piano, constantly evolving.

By adopting, but reworking, established musical conventions, was Mozart paying homage to tradition or was he rebelling against it? Was he a “renegade” of the existing order or was he exploiting it? His tender but trying relationship with his father Leopold – himself a composer, the one who had made his son a child prodigy in the first place – was a metaphor for his relationship to his cultural heritage. short.

Each chapter focuses on a particular composition or group of compositions. We start, for example, with Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor (K310). This “breakthrough work” was written in Paris in 1778, where Mozart, then in his early twenties, went to try his luck. When he played in aristocratic lounges, populated by sophisticated and talkative hedonists, he sometimes felt like playing in front of tables and chairs. The eventful opening of this sonata could never be confused with simple background music. His nervousness, his wandering and his purely individualistic interiority channel Mozart’s contempt for his audience as much as his desire to both destabilize and seduce him.

Mackie’s thesis is that Mozart’s genius is characterized by such creative tensions, the interplay between “formal equilibrium” and “volatility”. It explores how Mozart relied on and went beyond or against the orthodoxies of earlier composers, say in the tradition of Italian opera. The aria of the Countess “Dove sono” by The Marriage of Figaro, for example, begins as a standard opera lament but omits a da capo recap of the original melody at the end, allowing the character to move from a state of passive nostalgia to a state of prospective potentiality and active agency.

If the structure of Mozart in motion is globally chronological, its essayist style makes it as “kaleidoscopic” as the composer’s genius. This gives it richness and invention – although it might have been useful to include, as memory aid, a timeline summarizing key dates and events at a glance. This, however, is a minor inconvenience.

As a music-educated poet with a communicative and expressive turn of phrase, Mackie is well able to describe what he means in words without quoting passages of musical notation. The best way to read this book is not all of a sudden, but to savor it chapter by chapter. The wonders of YouTube mean you can do this while listening to the piece in discussion as you flip the pages, and even comparing the recordings, providing an immersive and stimulating experience that will bring you back to Mozart’s work with a renewed appetite. .

Mozart in motion: His work and his world in pieces by Patrick Mackie, Granta £ 20, 368 pages

Lucasta Miller is the author of ‘Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph’

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