Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: How Did He Do It?

Mozart circa 1780, detail from portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

Mozart circa 1780, detail from portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

On this day in 1788 Wolfgang Mozart completed the score of his Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K. 543. It is – with no exaggeration or hyperbole intended – a virtually perfect work: with the greatest of respect to Joseph Haydn, Mozart’s K. 543 is the most exquisitely constructed and expressively sublime Classical era-styled symphony in the repertoire.

Having completed his Symphony in E-flat Major 229 years ago today, Mozart went right back to work. Over the course of the next 29 days he wrote out the score of his proto-Romantic Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550, completing it on July 25. The following day he began work on his epic and monumental Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551 (“Jupiter”), finishing it 16 days later, on August 12.

Start to finish, Mozart wrote out the scores of his final three symphonies – arguably the greatest symphonies composed in the eighteenth century – in just six weeks. For our information, there are no cross-outs or revisions. Working with a quill pen and ink, Mozart simply wrote out the scores, a measure at time, beginning to end.

How did he do it? How could he do it? Driven batty by Mozart’s inexplicable genius, observers from his time to ours have offered up all sorts of often equally batty explanations: that he was the Christ-child of music, sent to earth to bring artistic redemption to humankind before returning to God’s bosom at 35; that his father Leopold had made a Faustian deal with the devil; the he (Mozart) received his skills from a magic ring acquired in Naples (I kid you not); that he was autistic; that he was an alien.

Here’s what we know:

Mozart composed his works “in his head”. The act of actually notating the music on paper – “copying out” as Mozart called it – was a necessary last step, but not, for him, part of the actual compositional process. When Mozart was composing something relatively simple, like opera recitatives or ballroom minuets, conception and notation occurred simultaneously. According to his wife Constanze, at these moments Mozart composed music:

“As if he were writing a letter.”

Then again, according to Constanze:

“When some grand conception was working in his brain, he was purely abstracted, walking about the apartment, and knew not what was going on around him.”

In a letter to his father Leopold, written while he finishing the composition of Idomeneo in 1780, Mozart wrote:

“Well, I must close, for I must now write at breakneck speed. Everything has been composed, but not yet written down.”

As we observed in my post of April 10, Mozart’s musical memory was so highly developed that he could retain entire works of music – note for note – in his head. Yes, that’s just a bit scary. On April 8, 1781, while he was in Vienna, Mozart wrote his father:

“Today we had a concert, where three of my compositions were performed – new ones, of course; a rondo for [the violinist Antonio] Brunetti; an aria for Ceccarelli, which he had to encore; and a sonata with violin accompaniment for myself [the G Major K. 379], which I copied out last night between eleven and twelve. In order to finish it, I only wrote out the violin part for Brunetti and retained my own part in my head.”

This sort of thing happened all the time. In his Anecdotes of Mozart, published in 1804, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard writes:

“It came about one day that, having to do a piece for a court concert, [Mozart] had no time to write out the part he was to play. The Emperor Joseph, happening to glance at the music paper which Mozart appeared to be following, was astonished to see nothing but staves without notes, and he said to him: ‘Where is your part?’ – ‘There’, said Mozart, putting his hand to his forehead.”

Mozart was the ultimate multi-tasker, able to compose a new work in his head even as he copied out a different one on paper. For example, on April 20, 1782, he sent a newly composed prelude and fugue to his sister with the following cover letter:

“I send you herewith a prelude and a three-part fugue [in C Major, K. 394]. The reason I did not reply to your letter at once was that, on account of the wearisome labor of writing these small notes, I could not finish the composition any sooner. And, even so, it is awkwardly done, for the prelude ought to come first and the fugue to follow. But I composed the fugue first, and wrote it down while I was thinking out the prelude.”

Such stories are legion. Here’s one more. We know that Mozart “copied out” the overture to Don Giovanni on the day of its premiere. But a story circulated at the time that Mozart actually had three complete overtures to Don Giovanni in his head. According to the story, the singer Luigi Bassi – who premiered the role of Don Giovanni – and Mozart’s friend, the Prague-based pianist Franz Duschek chose the overture in D Minor after Mozart played all three of them on the piano. The other two overtures were never “copied out” and thus were lost.

Unfortunately, there was a downside to Mozart’s phenomenal memory, as we cannot know just how many works he had in his head when he died at the age of 35. According to the German music historian Hermann Abert, whose monumental biography of Mozart runs 1515 pages in length and is roughly the size of my wife’s all-electric Fiat:

“Given Mozart’s dislike of writing anything down, it is entirely natural that a large number of his works were simply never written down. Strange though it may sound, only a part of his oeuvre has survived: the rest he himself kept from us.”

As if we didn’t already have enough things to keep us awake at night, we now have that nugget to contemplate!