The following post is by Daniel Walshaw, Music Division.
Today is the birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of the greatest composers to ever put pen to paper, and what exactly does that mean? I never quite understand our fascination with celebrating the birthdays of our favorite minds that are long gone. Does it make Mozart’s music any more sublime now that he is 255 years old? Will it be more beautiful when he turns 300? That would be impossible. For a lesser composer, celebrating a significant birthday will momentarily remind us of their existence, but for our dearest Wolfgang, the music never loses touch because of all the wonder and genius that it holds.
Yet, with our often stressful lives, there is no better day than today to go digging through the digital collections at the Library of Congress to find some true treasures of our celebrated hero. Rather than give a lengthy biography, of which there are thousands written, I will just pass along the Mozart that speaks to my heart.
When I was in graduate school, one of my favorite evening activities was to grab some Mozart scores and a bottle of wine, sit in a quiet practice room after the undergrads had cleared out and, at the piano, submerge myself in his magical slow movements. For me, there is nothing more tragically heart warming and effortlessly complex than a Mozart adagio. So, with my questionable score reading skills at hand I, as gently as possible, walked my way through some of the most peaceful lines of music ever written — trying to figure out what they mean, how they function, where they come from and where they are going. The LC holds the manuscripts to some wonderful Mozart, his fifth violin concerto, K. 219, is a true beauty.
If we skip to the second movement, we find music that is full of hope and possibility. Nothing more than a descending set of diatonic notes in E Major sounds in the violins, but heartfelt mystery unfolds within. Are we hearing appoggiaturas on strong beats outlining a triad or are we hearing a descending scale starting on the first B traveling to the F# a bar later? How will these simple notes react when faced with tragedy or joy? All these questions will later be answered as the music is spun out but Mozart so tenderly leaves us room at the beginning to create our own narratives.
Another favorite, and a favorite of many, is the Gran Partita, K. 361 for winds. Again, skipping ahead, we find the second Adagio in this monumental serenade. This music is a little more deliberate, but no less beautiful. Without even knowing what the notes themselves mean, we can see the heavens opening up with just the shapes on the page. Just like before, simple notes lead to pure beauty – a descending line over a pedal point can somehow send shivers up one’s spine when used by Mozart.
So to remember our great genius on his birthday or on any other day for that matter, I strongly recommend cozying up with your favorite records or, if you have the option, sitting down at a piano and wandering through some of the most beautiful music known to man.