Mostly Mozart

This week: a musical conversation about Mozart, with biographer Jan Swafford and pianist Robert Levin. Listen today at 2 pm or anytime at our website.

On this week’s show, you’ll hear the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart along with plenty about the man himself, thanks to biographer Jan Swafford. Swafford sat down with the pianist Robert Levin to tell the Mozart story.

Robert Levin at the piano, with Jan Swafford.

Mozart: The Reign of Love is the title of Jan Swafford’s biography, and this week Swafford explains how Mozart and his music grew in response to his contemporary scene—this was sociable music from a sociable, imaginative composer. Says Swafford:

There’s a kind of feedback loop that goes on between the person you’re writing for and how you’re writing and so forth. For example, a piece like the Kegelstatt Trio, which was written for Mozart himself on viola, his friend Anton Stadtler on clarinet, and a student, a teenage student of his [Franziska von Jacquin]. And this girl was apparently a very good player. So it was completely a social thing in the middle of a party, but it had to do with Mozart’s sense of her, and Mozart’s sense of his own skills on viola, and a sense of Anton Stadtler who was maybe the greatest clarinet player alive, and it was written for a social situation and they would be drinking and eating and saying, now we’re going to hear Wolfgang’s new trio. And that was the context of chamber music.

The pianist Robert Levin describes the complexity of music that has room for both improvisation and reflective composition:

To compose and to improvise is to engage in an act of storytelling. And so you have to have a basic character and a personage represented in tones. And things have to happen to that personage.

When you are improvising, you can play with anarchy if you like, because different things can happen, unexpected things or rational things. When you compose, of course, you have time to reflect on these things. You can be sitting there with your quill dipped into the inkwell while you think about how things are going to go, and you allow them to unfold in your mind. And then when you have a pretty good idea, like a chess player thinking 5, 10, 15 moves ahead, you are then in a position to start writing it down because you now know where it’s going to go and what’s going to happen and to whom it’s going to happen.

The dramatic richness of Mozart’s music, and its social entanglements, made for lively entertainments. Says Levin:

His subscription concerts were like variety shows. They were the eighteenth-century version of, say, the Ed Sullivan Show, in which you would have the first movement of a symphony, and then Mozart would play a piano concerto and then a singer would sing an aria or two, a violinist might come and play something. Then Mozart would do another piano concerto, and then they had the rest of the symphony. But even within the domain of house music, there were different social levels. For instance, piano trios were considered less noble, if you like, than string quartets, and you can see that by the fact that the piano trios and the piano sonatas, which are recreational house music, have three movements: fast, slow, fast. But string quartets, like symphonies, have four movements with a minuet thrown in for good measure.

You’ll also hear about a composer’s mastery of all sorts of stories, moods, tones. Swafford says that Emperor Joseph II, who “heard Mozart early on, before he was emperor . . . was famous for saying to Mozart after the premiere of The Abduction from the Seraglio, ‘Too many notes, Mozart!’ That was the standard line. He has too many ideas. He’s too imaginative.”

Joseph II.

Listen: Levin Improvises Mozart

Here’s more of Robert Levin: a YouTube clip of improvisation in the style of Mozart.

Read: Mozart: The Reign of Love

From the Washington Post:

This is an excellent book on Mozart for both musicians and the general reader. The story is told in a lively, knowing style, without written-out musical examples but shot through with unfailingly erudite and impassioned discussion of the composer’s work. Only toward the end do we feel the huge absence that would be left by Mozart’s death — and Swafford’s evocation of the moment the composer knew he was dying is appropriately terrifying.

Watch: Universal Horror

For Halloween preparation: over at the Criterion Channel you’ll find a crucial phase of 1930s film history: a collection of horror films from Universal Studios, including the James Whale masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man.

Listen: The Just Enough Family

Ariel Levy is the latest New Yorker writer to explore the world of audio. Ariel dishes with her friend Liz Lange, the fashion designer who revolutionized maternity clothing in the 90’s, who’s part of the storied mega rich Steinberg family of New York. Totally binge-worthy.

Buy or Behold: Harvard Square

Illustration by Susan Coyne

The great illustrator Susan Coyne sent us her latest. You can find all her work here.

This week’s ephemeral library

Life after Trump prophecies. On Melvin Van Peebles and exile. Regarding Henry Kissinger. Jonathan Franzen Thinks People Can Change. The Koch Empire Goes All Out to Sink Joe Biden’s Presidency. The Tampa Bay (Pats vs Bucs) Game is a High School Reunion When Your Boyfriend Dumped You.

That’s all for this week, folks. Tune in next week for our interview with Jonathan Franzen.