'Every Angel's Terrifying.' (Description of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)(Mozart and the Enlightenment: The Mystery of Genius) (Cover Story)

By Messiaen, Olivier | UNESCO Courier, July 1991 | Go to article overview

'Every Angel's Terrifying.' (Description of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)(Mozart and the Enlightenment: The Mystery of Genius) (Cover Story)


Messiaen, Olivier, UNESCO Courier


BEAUTY'S nothing but the start of terror, and we adore it because of the serene scorn it could kill us with". These lines by Rainer Maria Rilke apply very well to Mozart's music. It is a music of purity and perfection, as befits this most musical of musicians. No flaw can be found in it.

Accentuation in Mozart. In his feminine rhythms (anacrusis, stress accents, pauses), the stress is always in the right place. Melody in Mozart. Melodic lines suffused with his own special poetry. What enchantment in Suzanna's aria in Figaro, what gentle strains of birdsong in the andante of the Haffner symphony!

Harmony in Mozart. Always light, always perceptible, always appropriate. A soothing harmony when it is tonal (listen to the "Ave Verum" and the slow movement of the Jupiter symphony), a heartrending harmony when it is chromatic (listen to the symphony in G minor, the andante of the concerto for piano in A major, K. 488, and the slow movement of the concerto in E flat, K. 271). Sometimes it is an otherworldly harmony, as in the amazing Statue scene at the end of Don Giovanni, where we already find (underscored by the trombones) two sonorities favoured by Debussy: the chord of fifths and fourths, and an altered chord belonging to the whole-tone scale.

Form in Mozart. It is always perfect and constantly renewed (listen to the great symphonies and the piano concertos).

Theatre in Mozart. A man of the theatre if ever there was one, Mozart, at a single stroke, captures with one aria the essence of a character (listen to Cherubino, the Countess, Sarastro, Papageno). His finales are masterpieces of the stage. Pierre Jean Jouve said of the finale of Don Giovanni that it was "an awesome piece of music". …

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