All Over Creation: Mozart Was an Austinite
The spirit of innovation that drove the composer lives on in our city
The music had the feel of a bad dream, where things are out of place; they don't fit. You know, you're in your house, but it looks nothing like your house. The notes toss and turn, edging too close to one another and making unsettling chords – ominous, foreboding. Before it was played by the Aeolus String Quartet, Austin Chamber Music Center Artistic Director Michelle Schumann had alerted the crowd that the work wouldn't sound terribly discordant to ears a century past the cacophonies of Stravinsky and Schoenberg – indeed, today's standard-issue B-movie thriller comes with more jangling disharmonies than this Classical-era chamber work. But if you could recalibrate your aural sensibilities to 1785, you could tell why music dealers of the day accused the publisher of printing wrong notes in the opening, why a Hungarian nobleman ripped up the sheet music after hearing it played, why the piece was instantly nicknamed "Dissonance." The music sounded jarringly off. Off and new.
Here was the 29-year-old musical firebrand of Vienna, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, giving Austria's powdered wigs another good shake, showering them with sounds they hadn't heard before. That aspect of the composer is easily forgotten at a 200-year remove from the man. Mozart is now the object of so much cultural reverence – really, when's the last time you heard him described without the word "genius" attached? – that his humanity and history are obscured. Schumann's tip-off about String Quartet No. 19 at ACMC's Mozart's Birthday concert created enough of an opening in Mozart's honor-encrusted rep to let us hear his experimental streak, his drive not only to write the most exquisitely beautiful music in his power, but also to push musical forms in new directions. The disquieting tension that Mozart establishes in that brief dissonant opening – two minutes out of almost half an hour – has no real precedence in the string quartets of Joseph Haydn, the master and innovator of the form to whom Mozart dedicated this string quartet and five others. It's a bold gamble on Mozart's part, and it pays off when the music breaks into a sunnier mood, magnifying joy the way that waking out of a nightmare does – the world as it should be looks that much better after seeing it in some distorted, unfamiliar form. Its shadow lingers, though, much as the memory of a bad dream does, adding poignance and perhaps purpose in the moments when the four instruments come together in striking unity, with a potent consonance. Mozart has taken a masterfully developed form and enriched it, deepened it in revolutionary ways.
I carried that understanding of Mozart into Austin Lyric Opera's ebullient production of The Marriage of Figaro a week later. As Maestro Richard Buckley burst into the overture at a gallop, I tried to attune my ears to the times in which the composer was writing, to hear the change that Wolfgang – now all of 30 – was making in opera. It really hit me as Figaro, his fiancée, and the countess hatch a plot to catch the amorous count in a phony tryst, and a comic set-piece involving the page hiding from the count in his wife's closet is set in motion. A duet between count and countess becomes a trio with Susanna, Figaro's intended. Then Figaro enters, transforming it into a quartet, which is interrupted by the gardener, building it into a quintet. And so it goes for some 20 minutes, growing to sextet and septet – a spectacular expansion of the scene, voice by voice, continually flowing and growing, like a river being fed by tributary after tributary. And it isn't merely the structure and its scale that are radical; it's what happens within that structure: the sustained tension among the characters and constantly shifting emotions they express throughout a complex series of revelations and reversals. What could have been conventional opera buffa is transmuted by Mozart into a comedy of full-blooded human beings.
In the week between these two events, Golden Hornet Project sponsored a screening of the Milos Forman film Amadeus to raise funds for its Mozart's Requiem Undead project. The film, which is – let's all say it together – fiction and not history, nonetheless is valuable for giving us a Mozart of a specific age and time, a figure as full and human as one of his Figaro characters. We get to see him as a working artist, driven to create and innovate. Considering what GHP is doing with Mozart right now – "finishing" his unfinished Requiem by commissioning a dozen different composers to create a new version of one of the work's movements – you can see a direct connection between their work and his. GHP co-founders Graham Reynolds and Peter Stopschinski are always making new music and perpetually playing with form and structure to try to make the new newer. Whether it's in the score – Reynolds deconstructing and reconstructing Bach for Ballet Austin, Stopschinski and playwright Kirk Lynn partnering on an opera about Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips – or the format – the Final Four-styled, audience-vote composition competition String Quartet Smackdown – these artists are innovating. And that's true of so many in Austin's creative community: musicians, actors, directors, game designers, filmmakers, poets, visual artists, choreographers, novelists, and so on. We live in a city that attracts and supports the original and the new. I'm not saying that we necessarily have a Mozart living among us, but our artists are part of the trailblazing tradition that he belonged to, and as someone who was striving to break new ground the way our artists are, he was one of us. We're not exactly Vienna, but I think that Mozart was an Austinite.