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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 9 Enlightenment and Reform
Richard Taruskin

fig. 9-3 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Joseph II was not a great patron of the arts. His sociopolitical reforms were his all-consuming interest, leaving little room for entertainment or intellectual pursuits. Music historians have tended to despise him a bit, because of his failure to give proper recognition or suitable employment to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91), the great musical genius of the age, whose music often perplexed him. (Joseph II is now best remembered by musicians not for his heroic reforms but rather for telling Mozart one day that there were “too many notes” in one of his scores.) But in fact Josephine Vienna, where Mozart made his home in the last decade of his life, and to whose musical commerce he made an outstanding contribution despite his failure to achieve a court sinecure, provides an ideal lens through which to view the work of one of European music’s great iconic figures in a truly relevant—and “enlightening”—cultural context.

Posterity has turned Mozart into an “icon”—the “image of music,” replete with an aura of holiness—for many reasons. One was his phenomenal precociousness; another was his heartbreaking premature demise. These as-if-correlated facts have long since converted his biography into legend. His earliest surviving composition, an “Andante pour le clavecin” in his sister Nannerl’s notebook, was composed just after his fifth birthday (if his father, who inscribed the little harpsichord piece, can be believed). His last, as fate would have it, was a Requiem Mass, on which he was still working when he died, just 30 years, 10 months, and one week later. In that short span Mozart managed to compose such a quantity of music that it takes a book of a thousand pages—the Chronological-Thematic Catalogue by Ludwig Köchel, first published in 1862 and now in its seventh revised edition—just to list it adequately. And that quantity is of such a quality that the best of it has long served as a standard of musical perfection.


fig. 9-4 Mozart as a boy in Salzburg court uniform.

Mozart was born in Salzburg, an episcopal city-state near the Bavarian border, where his father, Leopold Mozart, served as deputy music director in the court of the Prince-Archbishop. By 1762, when the child prodigy was six years old, his father relinquished most of his duties and gave up his own composing career so that he could not only see properly to his son’s musical education but also begin displaying his astonishing gifts to all the courts and musical centers of Europe. By the age of ten the boy Mozart was famous, having performed at courts throughout the German Catholic territories, the Netherlands, Paris, and finally London, where he stayed for more than a year, was fêted at the court of George III, became friendly with John Christian Bach, and submitted, at his father’s behest, to a series of scientific tests by the physician and philosopher Daines Barrington, to prove that the boy truly was a prodigy and not a musically accomplished dwarf. Barrington’s report, “Account of a Very Remarkable Musician,” read at the Royal Society, a prestigious scientific association, marked an important stage in the formation of the Mozart legend, the “myth of the eternal child,” as Maynard Solomon, the author of an impressive psychological biography of the composer, has called it.15

It is because of his uncanny gifts and his famously complicated relations with his father that Mozart has been the frequent subject of fiction, dramatization, “psychobiography,” and sheer rumor (including the persistent legend of his death by poisoning at the hand of Gluck’s pupil Salieri, a jealous rival). Before Solomon’s sober psychological study there was a reckless one by the Swiss novelist Wolfgang Hildesheimer, not to mention Alexander Pushkin’s verse drama “Mozart and Salieri” of 1830 and its subsequent Broadway adaptation by Peter Shaffer as Amadeus, later a popular movie. But Mozart’s iconic status was also due to his singular skill at “moving an audience by representations of its own humanity.” His success at evoking sympathy through such representations has kindled interest in his own human person to an extent to that point unprecedented in the history of European music, partly because the creation of bonds of “brotherhood” through art had never before been so central an artistic aim.

It is also for this reason that Mozart’s music, in practically every genre that he cultivated, has been maintained in an unbroken performing tradition from his time to ours; he is the true foundation of the current “classical” repertoire, and has been that ever since there has been such a repertoire (that is, since the period immediately following his death). Except for Handel’s oratorios, nothing earlier has lasted in this way. Franz Joseph Haydn, Mozart’s great contemporary, whom we will meet officially in the next chapter, has survived only in part. (His operas, for example, have perished irrevocably from the active repertoire.) Bach, as we know, returned to active duty only after a time underground.

Mozart’s operas have not only survived where Haydn’s have perished. A half dozen of them (roughly a third of his output in the genre) now form the earliest stratum of the standard repertory. But for the Orfeos of Monteverdi and Gluck, they are the earliest operas now familiar to theatergoers. They sum up and synthesize all the varieties of musical theater current in the eighteenth century, as we have traced them to this point, and they have been a model to opera composers ever since.

Mozart composed his first dramatic work, a rather offbeat intermezzo composed to a libretto in Latin (!) for performance at the University of Salzburg, at the age of eleven, shortly after returning from London. It is a mere curiosity, like the composer himself at that age. Within a couple of years, however, Mozart was equipped to turn out works of fully professional calibre in all the theatrical genres then current. In 1769, the thirteen-year-old’s first opera buffa, La finta semplice (“The pretended simpleton”), to a libretto by Carlo Goldoni, was performed at the Archbishop’s Palace in Salzburg. (An earlier scheduled performance at Vienna was cancelled on suspicion that the opera was really by father Leopold.) Its style is most often compared with that of Piccinni. About eighteen months later, in December 1770, Mozart’s first opera seria, called Mitridate, re di Ponto (“Mithridates, King of Pontus”), to a libretto based on a tragedy of self-sacrifice by Racine, was produced in Italy, opera’s home turf, where the Mozarts, father and son, were touring. It was so successful that the same theater, that of the ducal court of Milan, commissioned two more serie from the boy genius over the next two seasons. Another early success was Bastien und Bastienne, a singspiel (a German comic opera with spoken dialogue) based loosely on the libretto of Rousseau’s popular Devin du village, which was performed, possibly as early as the fall of 1768 when the composer was twelve, at the luxurious home of Franz Mesmer, the pioneer of “animal magnetism” or (as we would now call it) hypnotherapy.

These three—Italian opera both tragic and comic, and German vernacular comedy—were the genres that Mozart would cultivate for the rest of his career. What his early triumphs demonstrated above all was his absolute mastery of the conventions associated with all three: a mastery that enabled him eventually to achieve an unprecedented directness of communication that still moves audiences long after the conventions themselves have been outmoded. Mastery, rather than originality, was the objective all artists then strove to achieve. The originality we now perceive in Mozart was really a secondary function or by-product of a mastery so consummately internalized that it liberated his imagination to react with seeming spontaneity to the texts he set and achieve a singularly sympathetic “representation of humanity.”


(15) See Maynard Solomon, “Mozart: The Myth of the Eternal Child,” 19th Century Music XV (1991–2): 95–106; incorporated in Solomon, Mozart: A Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Enlightenment and Reform." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-09005.xml