Elsewhere on this website I confessed to having been foundationally influenced, as a writer, by Robert Stone. I also owe him for Mozart. It was that first novel of his again, A Hall of Mirrors, when forty-some pages in, his man Rheinhardt, down and nearly out in New Orleans, walks into a library for some peace and quiet and comes upon a kid reading the score of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, at which point Rheinhardt remembers auditioning for Juilliard with the piece.
Somlio, pale and fat, came in with his four musicians, treacherous and bitter little men, they said, who liked to lead you down the glory road and then leave you impaled on a transition, drowning in spit and clinkers . . . Then Somlio gestured from his seat and the swings [sic: first printing, touchingly inscribed] welled with what seemed a sudden violence and went into the opening bar of the theme, the ten notes that sounded like “East Side, West Side.” And Rheinhardt, fifteen seconds from his ordeal, looked across the street to the rocky vacant lots where the Harlem housing projects were going up and little Puerto Rican kids were throwing rocks at a cement truck, picked up on G and performed the first arpeggio . . . So it turned out that morning that just above the barrier of form there was a world of sunlight where he could soar and caper with an eagle’s freedom, rule and dispense passion, where his breath was the instrument of infinite invention, yet not a pause was lost — not a note . . . Because there was perfection in this music something of God in this music, a divine thing in it — and the hungry coiled apparatus in Rheinhardt was hounding it down with a deadly instinct, finding it again and again . . . He opened his eyes to see the cellist bent low over his strings, the man’s eyes were bright with love, and as his fingers moved tenderly across the board his upturned wrist displayed the five blue characters where they had taken that caressing arm and tattooed on it — DK 412.
I loved the book and went out to buy a recording of the piece, with Gervase de Peyer and the Melos Ensemble, put it on the stereo and didn’t get it at all. I was a jazz guy, I was listening to Sonny and Coltrane and Mingus and Ornette, and when it came to classical music I was into Bartok’s quartets and the Sacre, and Mozart’s cadences sounded simple-minded to me—I mean, honestly, that last movement!—but I made a kind of vow anyway: people had known Mozart was great for hundreds of years already, so there was probably something to it—and I myself had got a thrill from the opening of his Haffner symphony in my parents’ Readers Digest compendium-of-the-classics box set—but most of all, Stone’s writing had made me want to know; so I promised that I would listen to classical music systematically now, until I understood for myself why Mozart was so wonderful and all; because if a guy as hip as Robert Stone dug him that much, it had to be right.
It took me a few years to get there, and I listened to a lot of music en route, for which I am duly grateful. The Juilliard scene still sounds wonderful to me, and reading it again just now I realized for the first time that I didn’t only owe Stone for my education in Mozart but also for beginning to show me how I would write about music years later.
And nowadays for helping me sleep at night.
Like, I suspect, most writers with a hyperactive if inefficient brain, I am a career insomniac who by nature keeps vampire hours, or musician hours, and apart from being out of synch with the world’s workaday clock, I’m okay with that. But a few years ago when I got a day job that required me to wake up at five or six in the morning and then truck into the city to get desperate and exhausted, I tucked into my girlfriend’s stash of imported sleeping pills and haven’t gotten off them since. Now that I have more leisure time—don’t we all—my sleeping-time dropoff keeps edging further and further into the small hours, so that when I heard of Max Richter’s all-night music called Sleep, available online or complete in eight CDs, and that he’d worked it up in collaboration with a neurologist, I tried it on. It sounded like Brahms for simple people. There was a four-four tread and a repeated tolling at the bottom of the keyboard at the start, but no ambiguous, half-anguished Brahms chords, and as it went on the music revealed itself to be ultra-simplified minimalism off the rack, but it actually worked. That four-four repetition, which at first irritated me with its regularity, began to take control of my pulse rate and dial it down. For a month or so I found myself sleeping with the music playing through the night, or most of it, instead of waking halfway through and wondering if I’d need to take another quarter-pill to get me back to dreamland. Then it stopped working, and I didn’t like to listen to it while lying there awake, and always had to avoid the ooo-ooo vocal tracks.
Which brought me back to Mozart, though I forget the specific turnings of the road that took me there. It was all about the piano concertos, mostly the last dozen or so Mozart composed in his brief maturity. I had learned my way through most of these pieces in the course of my education, and when starting out young naturally enough I fixated on the only two he had written in the minor mode—numbers 20 and 24—and of course the slow movement of the “Elvira Madigan” was heavenly stuff, but the other concertos remained a largely undifferentiated mass for years, and it was only relatively recently, when I was staying over at someone else’s house and found it on the radio that I realized that #23 in A major was actually (I decided for the moment) the greatest of them all.
It was Balm from Gilead from the moment the first phrases eased you in. It was Good for What Ails You in three movements. It was heart’s-ease and Elysium, and it had the consequence of getting me to listen to the other concertos more intently; so that when Richter failed me—and I like the film score he’s been writing for Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels—I found my medication with my laptop beside me, a bluetooth speaker set at a discreet volume on my bedside drum, and Murray Perahia’s traversal of the complete concertos, conducting the English Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard and conveyed to me by the devil’s instrument, Spotify. I could listen to a concerto or two with waking intent, then set the sequence on #17 and hope to sleep straight through to 27 or battery death. Even though the music was anything but minimal or inactive, I usually made it unbroken to the opening fanfares of #25 in the morning. Mozart beats Richter! The concertos would start off with their often apparently simple themes: statement, slight counterstatement, then enter the piano and a world that was one cascade of radiance after another, and I slept through it all, in augmented peace.
Well, everyone knows that the piano concertos are among Mozart’s greatest achievements, and that the concertante setup seems to suit him pluperfectly: the self in context of an accompanying world, a dialogue of the single and the collective . . . then the beauty of all those notes. It’s hard to say exactly why the music’s as great as it is. If you have to ask . . . All I can advise is: practice, practice, practice. And perhaps above all: listen less crudely. We live in a noisy and overbearing culture with its volume turned up to eleven. We turn things up because we’ve forgotten how to hear. Coming to grips with Mozart’s piano concertos will lead you into an education into the ways and means of beauty, and much besides. And it may yet remain difficult to put your finger on how it got to be this way and why.
The question remains: how can this music possibly be this good? Formally, even the best ones are like enough to each other to have come out of a cookie cutter. They open with the orchestra and a melody, sometimes striking, sometimes cute, sometimes a banal little march—#21 in C, which in its middle possesses what maybe the single sublimest melodic phrase ever written, begins that way—but then the piano enters with its incredible profusion of notes, each one golden, its melodies arrayed like sheets of sound or picked out in perfect individuations, wealths of melody threading the everywhere, so many notes it’s impossible for me to imagine anyone writing them all down, never mind imagining them, never mind playing them . The concertos don’t have the scale of the music that began with Beethoven and expanded through the Romantic century. They’re tuneful. They’re ditties. They’re the greatest piano concertos ever written and there are a lot of them. Go figure.
Not long before he began writing eleven masterpieces in the form all in a row, between 1784 and 1786, he wrote a dismissive letter to his father about three piano concerti he had just turned out for the Viennese public:
These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why…. The golden mean of truth in all things is no longer either known or appreciated. In order to win applause one must write stuff which is so inane that a coachman could sing it, or so unintelligible that it pleases precisely because no sensible man can understand it.
And in fact this casual attitude toward his material persisted into his golden period. He didn’t mind starting with trivial thematic stuff—just listen to the 17th concerto, which at the start gives little hint of the sublimity to come; and its slow movement seems still less promising, but it opens up to a chambered but intense drama that will amaze you if you listen right. (I’ve always loved it in a vague sort of way, but now I hear it as Beauty encountering Grief and then dealing with it—the initial encounter is one of the few things Perahia fails adequately to grasp and, I think, underplays in this music; whereas Brendel, who also has a scrollable set of the complete concertos, almost savagely overdoes it.) Mozart is a great example of Fats Waller’s “T’aint watcha do, it’s the way watcha do it.” Or of spinning gold from straw. He didn’t mind if the concertos were all constructed on the same pattern. And neither should we. I pass the mic to a Mozart scholar who must have only narrowly escaped being invented by P.G. Wodehouse: Professor Cuthbert Girdlestone, who wrote of the concertos in 1939:
They are an inexhaustible spring of delight. Their diversity corresponds to our most varied moods, from the state of quiet content in which all we ask of art is entertainment, exquisite rather than deep, the exuberance of animal spirits, the consciousness of physical and moral health, to melancholy, sorrow and even revolt, and to an Olympian serenity breathing the air of the mountain tops. The comparative uniformity which we notice between them at first sight disappears with closer scrutiny. The feeling is never the same from one to the other; each one is characterised by a personality of its own and the variety of their inspiration shows itself ever greater as we travel more deeply into them.
My experience of the concertos confrims Professor Girdlestone’s perceptions, but there is one invariable constant among them: once the piano enters, so does that world of sunlight and infinite invention above the barrier of form the Robert Stone wrote of, and what becomes clear is that the piano is Mozart’s heaven, and what pours forth from it is more heavenly still. And if we ask ourselves why that should be, we might first settle on a readymade psychological explanation: he was a child star who never learned how to handle himself in the real world, so when he wrote these pieces, most of which were composed for his own use in concert, he was an escape artist making the perfect if temporary escape from the fortress of the real.
In part, maybe so, but if I have any aesthetic ideas that I adhere to it’s something I snatched from Proust: that the hacks of the art world, the Salieris, say, can use as many skills as they like, but the source of all true artistry does not proceed from the earthly personality of the artist but from his essential self, outside time, perhaps immortal, perhaps not—Proust doesn’t go that far—and this is something we, listening, can recognize because, even if we’re not ourselves artists, we possess or are possessed by such a self as well, and we detect upon the air the welcome scent of our true home in felicity and grace and a world beyond the one that passes before us here, as we pass too, and which, veiling itself, passes for life, as life, when really . . . The odd thing is that when Proust, and with him the narrator of his monsterpiece, discovers the fact of his extratemporal essence, it never occurs to him to ask to what order of Being this objective ontological fact, suddenly revealed to him, belongs. Instead he decides that in this world at least its only activity lies in the area of art, or in stray moments of eating a madeleine—in fact it was a rusk—with a tisane or stepping on an uneven paving stone. Proust enjoyed extremely idiosyncratic means of extratemporal travel; most people find out about such things via a spiritual practice of some kind, or dumb luck, or divine grace. (BTW, I think it was the narcissism that early experience bonded to his personality that sealed Proust away from higher enquiry: once he had himself in comprehensive view, that was enough.) Mozart was certainly in no doubt about the nature of artistry, and took his analysis higher still: he understood his musical ability to be a gift from God, and therefore it had to be treated with appropriate respect.
But such a gift, and the respect due it, means that one has to do the work, prepare the place for it, accumulate all the expressive, technical, intellectual and emotional means—what these days we usually call craft—that will enable that gift as completely as possible to arrive in this world and do its stuff. The appropriate means for the appropriate gift, as it appears in unrepeatable individuals, each uniquely selfed outside time and also alive within it: Proust and Hemingway unpack different toolboxes when they set to work.
So here I sit, with what is often considered Mozart’s greatest piano concerto, #24 in C-minor playing alongside the sofa, and even in so tragically inclined a piece, a tragic sense undiminished, once we hear it well, by its classical, pre-Romantic scale—please notice that the main theme provides the model for Brahms’ titanically tragic First Concerto—even here the sense of the piano being Mozart’s heaven is inescapable. It helps, I’m sure, that I’m listening to Perahia’s refined and fluent version—he always goes for the pure gorgeous—and not to someone harder-edged, like Brendel. But there are mysteries even so.
I spent a few hours the other day reading Charles Rosen’s analysis of Mozart’s extremely abstruse technical means of achieving musical results that sound so natural you might think that the composer had found them ready-made as he strolled among the flowers of his native land and found them complete and perfect in a buttercup. Which I think helps explain the concertos’ variety within their alikeness, and may also help prove Proust’s point. And Elvin Jones’ point too. I mean that in of one of those life-of-Coltrane documentaries, at the very end, that brilliant, anarchic roughneck thundergodlike master of oceanic rhythm at the drums looks into the camera and with a semi-incredulous grin, tells us that in the time he spent with John Coltrane, “I experienced something more real than Life.” Then he gives it a nod yes, to make sure we understand that he means it literally.
So where does that leave us, with our lives, our daubs, our verses, paragraphs, paradiddles, singsongs, doodles?
I incline my ear—the good one: the others mugged up with an infection for the moment—or raise my sight a little higher, as the next concerto starts up with its fanfare, in a time on earth which it’s a pleasure to get any kind of vacation from.
Oh, and that Mozart-for-sleeping thing? It stopped working after a month or so into the pandemic, but so what? I remember going to an astonishing Fra Angelico show in the rear rotunda of the Met a few years back, and it must have been my lucky day, because even though I’d been to San Marco in Florence it was here that the paintings opened their throats and sang to me. I walked around for an hour or so, gaping in amazement the whole time, but did overhear some amusing comments from passersby. A well-dressed Upper-One-Side-or-the-Other woman told her adolescent son, “Never mind all those Jesuses and Madonnas, look at the art, the art.” Even better, as I stood before some small masterpiece, which I think depicted Mary at home, in some ornate red chamber in one world or the other, yet another woman told her son, “I don’t really like this period,” and I almost shouted out loud, What period do you mean, Eternity?
It’s amazing how much you can learn just by trying to get a good night’s sleep. I show no sign of getting tired of this music ever, never, ever.