Saturday 27 October 2018

Mozart and the first romanticism

Sextet Act 3 of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro - conducted John Eliot Gardiner

Reading Novalis recently, has made me think some more on what Romanticism was 'meant to be' - which is a healing of the rift between head and heart, between enlightenment rationalism and animistic primitivism, science and arts, mundane reality and idealistic fantasy - so that we move on to something whole, unified and (necessarily) new. 

Of course, Romanticism was hijacked by one-sideness - by political radicalism replacing the head, and sexual revolution the heart. But there were several works by a few Masters who showed what was possible - this ensemble from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro (1786) is a very early example. 

Mozart wrote a fair bit of sublime music in the last years of his life; but few pieces attained the Romantic integration of this one. The opera as a whole is rather poisoned with cynicism - politics from from the Beaumarchais original, with a sexual spice from the librettist Da Ponte. The general average of musical composition in Figaro probably the highest of any opera ever; but a few pieces stand-out as taking things to 'another level' - arguably above the work of any other opera composer; one is the 'Letter Duet' and another this sextet. 

(Only equalled in some duets and ensembles of the later Magic Flute.)

The medium of Romanticism was childhood, rural themes, and fantasy (the supernatural) - but of themselves all of these are an archaism, an attempt to recover lost unity and innocence in un-consciousness. However, the attainment of true Romanticism was to do this in a fully conscious, purposive and thought-full way. 

The music of this sextet illustrates what I mean: it has both the simplicity and innocence of a happy young child, and an effortlessly sophisticated, absolute, conscious technical mastery - this making the musical equivalent (before the fact) of the best work of Blake, Coleridge or Wordsworth (also Goethe and Novalis).  

The music of the later named Romantic Era - by contrast, tends to be one-sided; or - in the case of Beethoven - attains a comparatively strained ego-mastery: very appealing and admirable (I listen to Beethoven more than any other composer except Bach); but a consciously-heroic, 'gigantic', overwhelming, synthesis-of-multiplicity in the subjective-mind of the artist. 

Whereas the Absolute Masters of Romanticism did this in much smaller scale, briefer, more fully-achieved forms - in which the universality opens-out from the work, rather than being squeezed-into it - Blake's lyrics and aphorisms, Wordsworth's short poems, the Novalis Fragments... 


Chiu ChunLing said...

And yet the music of Mozart seems more like the flowering of exceptional prodigy rather than a fully conscious regaining of the good of childhood with a fully reconciled consciousness of adult responsibility.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - I'm talking about very specific (late) Mozart pieces, and indeed of specific passages within them - not about Mozart's ouevre.