For many, music is the most intensely expressive form of art – sidestepping the need for words, for concrete imagery, it is at once profoundly personal yet also uniquely universal. Because of this, composers often come under close scrutiny: people search for a specific meaning behind their works, for certain life events and stories that could have inspired their creations. In our acceptance of the timelessness and universality of their compositions, we still have an enduring itch for the specific, for the human.
Thanks to the extensive documentation that surrounds most composers and their lives, connections between works and specific surrounding events can usually be made. Some composers’ creations are ripe with autobiography and concrete points of inspiration. Some examples of this are Beethoven, who is pretty much the main character of some of his works (*ahem* Eroica), or Schumann, who obsessively interwove his wife Clara and the letters making up her name into a majority of his greatest works. These composers wrote pieces that are intensely descriptive and narrative of specific events in their life. But then there are others, perhaps those on whose life we have significant gaps of knowledge, who remain more obscure. (From where did Vivaldi draw the inspiration for his countless works, for example?)
And then we have Mozart. The amount of scholarship and research done concerning his short but intensely eventful life is truly mind-boggling. We know everything about him – his family, his upbringing, his travels, his composition process, his friends. There is little that remains mysterious. We even have a huge number of his letters (perhaps even some we wish would have remained forgotten or lost…) We know when he wrote his pieces, in what environment, and often what inspired him. Yet a question remains: are his pieces autobiographical, or not? Does their character match the time period of his life that they were written in? Did he draw inspiration from his life and what he was feeling in the moment to write them? Or did music exist on a sort of separate plane for him, one separate from daily life, where he found refuge and complete artistic liberty?
From some of the darkest times of his life came some of his most beautiful and joyous music. And from some of his happiest years came his most disturbing works (for example, while in Prague, where he was financially stable for perhaps the only time in his life and where he felt truly respected as an artist, he wrote Don Giovanni – a dark opera about adultery, revenge, and eternal damnation.) But despite this paradox and contradiction, there is nothing insincere about his music. There is no sarcasm, no artifice in his happier music, just as there is no forced pathos in his tragic works. He seemed to be able to summon the most sincere and eloquent emotions at will, regardless of what he may actually have been feeling in the moment. (This is somewhat unsurprising: he was known for being able to come up with the most extraordinary music on the spot, in fact due to his habit of procrastinating he wrote the entire overture to Don Giovanni the night before the first rehearsal.) Mozart seems to have been a master of a unique kind of creativity that he could employ on command, without relying on momentary inspiration or current moods.
However, other works of his do seem to contain an autobiographical element. For example, his String Quartet No. 15 in D minor was written as his wife was giving birth to his son Raimund. According to her, the musical figures present in the work are meant to echo her cries from the room next to his. With such a work, he clearly drew on present life experience for inspiration and referenced it deliberately. Some also say his Viola Quintet in G minor, written around the time of his father’s death (with whom he had a complicated relationship), is clearly influenced by his life and represents all the soul-searching and unanswered questions he had in the face of the death of someone so influential to him. His deliberate artistic choice to use of a second viola, unusual in chamber music, in order to bring forth the amber-toned darkness of the piece corroborates this theory. The most famous example, perhaps, of music being clearly and consciously inspired by events in his life, is his final unfinished Requiem. Several times he stated to those around him that he believed he was writing his own Requiem, knowing that he was on his deathbed. With that in mind, the anguish and transcendent majesty of the work becomes that much more poignant and intimate, a moving portrait of the emotional and intellectual process of a genius coming to grips with his own impending death.
So which was it? Did Mozart use music as a venue for autobiographical, personal expression, or was it something he saw as separate from his own life and instead filled with a more universal, timeless meaning? Or was it a bit of both?
I think the most important clue lies in his own words. Here is a telling quote straight from his pen: “The passions, whether violent or not, should never be so expressed as to reach the point of disgust; and music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always remain music.” Mozart saw art not as much as a a vehicle of personal expression, but rather as something that could ennoble and heal. In other words, he would prefer to write pieces not about personal tragedy, but about the endurance of human spirit and the nobility of life that could help heal such tragedy. Music to him had to remain untainted from the drab darkness that often colored real life. Music was separate: and therein lied its healing and truly awesome power. That’s why, even in his darkest pieces, he never seems to truly sink into emotional despair – there’s always something hopeful, an element of transcendent beauty, something telling of the grandeur of the human soul. This is what lifts his operas, and their often raunchy and ultimately forgettable plots, into absolute masterpieces of timeless and uplifting beauty. His music ceases to be about individual stories and instead speaks of the hope and ennobling quality of art that he so admired and cherished.
In conclusion, while although I don’t think anyone can dispute that some of his works do, indeed, have clear autobiographical elements to them, to focus on that would be to miss the larger picture and character of his creativity. One of Mozart’s most enduring and unique characteristics was his ability to transform the mundane and the gritty into sincere and unforgettable works of beauty – works that rely on their simplicity, profundity, and their earnestness to achieve that unrivaled sense of almost sanctified transcendence. Whatever his inspirations and creative process was, Mozart didn’t intend to write autobiographical and personal works. He wanted his music to represent all that was good and beautiful in life, to uplift. And no matter what the starting point, the inspiration, may have been for his music, it’s the end result that matters – that makes Mozart’s music into the unique, unmatched, and unforgettable creation that it is.