History is no more than a thin thread of the remembered stretching over an ocean of the forgotten…
—Milan Kundera


A Different Story

Music history classes are mostly about composers—their lives, their work, and their influence on other composers. When we look at history from a Four Arts perspective, we discover a different story, a much bigger story.

We find, for example, that concerts were once very different from what we see today. Mozart, Chopin, and others were far more like today’s popular performers than today’s classical musicians. Why? Because they performed music that they created. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 19th century that pianists could make a living by playing music written by others. That’s not very long ago!

Beethoven wouldn’t be able to make much sense of modern piano competitions. When Beethoven competed to see who was the best pianist in Vienna at royal parties, he and his competitors (it might be Hummel, Wölfl, or Stendhal) usually improvised on the same theme. It wouldn’t have occurred to them to play music written by another. The best musician was the greater creator.

As we begin to take a closer look at Bach, Beethoven, and other master musicians, we find that spontaneous creativity (improvisation) was once considered to be music’s main course rather than merely a dessert or an appetizer. We also come to appreciate the powerful role that arranging had in the lives of the masters. This validates these arts that are now exiled to the fringes of music education, and makes them more appealing to educators, students, and parents.

Stories of the Masters

The word “history” could be reduced to the word “story”—after all, history is basically someone’s story about what happened before. I’d like to tell some stories about famous musicians such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven that reveal their immense creativity. Note that I didn’t call these people “composers.” Bach was a musician, and composing was but one aspect of his art, so he probably would not have cared for a label that represented just a sliver of such a large pie.

Let’s begin by telling some stories about Mozart.  I’ll add many more stories over the coming months and years.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart   (January 27, 1756 —December 5, 1791)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had an older sister, Maria Anna, who was nicknamed Nannerl. She apparently had musical abilities akin to his, but being of a different gender, she did not have similar career opportunities.  According to Nannerl’s recollections, little Wolfgang regularly had to be pulled (sometimes kicking and screaming) from the keyboard or he would play all night and exhaust himself completely. He would sit for hours at a time, improvising, varying themes, delighting in the sounds he was making.


An aside: When I picture young Mozart being pulled away from the keyboard, I can’t help but think of those now-famous laboratory mice who were wired by scientists to be able to stimulate their brain’s pleasure center by merely pressing a lever. Those rats pressed the lever again and again and again, oblivious to anything but pleasure and even more pleasure.  In their rapture, they forgot about everything, including eating, sleeping, and staying alive to be able to enjoy even more pleasure. These unfortunate creatures needed the equivalent of Mozart’s parents to pull them away from the levers and shout, “You must stop! You must eat! You must rest!”

During Mozart’s childhood, the Mozart family was acquainted with a Benedictine priest named Placidus Scharl. (In our frenzied world, perhaps parents would consider reviving the name Placidus?) When recalling young Wolfgang, he wrote, “Even in the sixth year of age he would play the most difficult pieces for the pianoforte of his own invention. One had only to give him a subject for a fugue or an invention, and he would develop it with strange variations and constantly changing passages as long as one wished. He would improvise on a subject for hours. This fantasia-playing was his greatest passion.”  Other visitors to the Mozart household left similar accounts of tiny Wolfgang playing extended fantasias on his violin.

Mozart spent much of his youth touring Europe with his family, giving performances with Nannerl for the royal crowd. When Wolfgang was just eight years old, the family visited London for the first time. There, Wolfgang met J.S. Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian Bach, who  was then a gifted and famous musician in his late twenties. “John Bach” (he lived in England for the final two decades of his life) was born when his father was fifty years old. He sometimes referred to his father as “the old wig.” By all accounts, Mozart and J.C. were equally delighted to find an equal to play with. And play they did!  At one event attended by the King and Queen of England, Mozart sat between Bach’s knees at the keyboard, and they improvised a piece in which they would take turns playing, much like the game in which a story is told by each person making up a sentence in turn. The piece went on and on for over an hour! An observer later recalled: “…each led the other into very abstruse harmonies and extraneous modulations, in which the child beat the man.”

When Mozart was thirty-three, he was passing through Dresden, so he paid a visit to some friends. A portrait artist named Dora (or Doris) Stock was at the household that evening and she made the sketch you see here, a portrait that has since become a famous one of Mozart. According to Ms. Stock’s account of the evening, Mozart arrived shortly before dinner. He immediately went to the pianoforte and began to improvise. Everyone gathered around to listen. When the servant came in and announced that dinner was being served in the dining room, no one budged. Who could pull themselves away when Herr Mozart was playing so beautifully? So the soup grew cold. Finally, the hostess’ appetite for music was eclipsed by her appetite for roast beef, so she gently tapped Mozart on the shoulder and said, “We are going to eat now. Please join us.” She did not realize that such a gentle approach wouldn’t be enough to pull Mozart away from his delight. And so, the group ate dinner and dessert accompanied by none other than Wolfgang Mozart improvising at the piano. Imagine being there!

We think of Mozart as a composer because we know him by the notes he left behind, but these notes are the residue of Mozart’s profound love of music, and of his deep, creative friendship with various instruments, particularly keyboard instruments. While biographies of Mozart focus on the completion of this composition or that, his ongoing, daily, spontaneous conversations with keyboards never stopped until Mozart himself did at the age of just thirty-five.

The German author Wolfgang Hildesdeimer wrote a biography of Wolfgang Mozart. I am particularly fond of this passage from that book:  “Contemporaries report that when he was playing the piano, especially when improvising, he became that other human being they would have liked him to be in his daily life. His expression changed; he seemed to become serene… These must have been the moments (often hours) when he reveled in blissful self-forgetfulness, when he severed his connection with the outside world; here he was the unadorned Mozart, who needed no intermediary in order to communicate – no singers, no instrumentalists or fellow musicians, and no bothersome score, either. Here, and perhaps only here, he achieved true pleasure in his own genius; here he transcended himself, becoming the absolute Mozart.”