Mozart's Grace

Mozart's Grace

Mozart's Grace

Mozart's Grace

Synopsis

It is a common article of faith that Mozart composed the most beautiful music we can know. But few of us ask why. Why does the beautiful in Mozart stand apart, as though untouched by human hands? At the same time, why does it inspire intimacy rather than distant admiration, love rather than awe? And how does Mozart's music create and sustain its buoyant and ever-renewable effects? In Mozart's Grace, Scott Burnham probes a treasury of passages from many different genres of Mozart's music, listening always for the qualities of Mozartean beauty: beauty held in suspension; beauty placed in motion; beauty as the uncanny threshold of another dimension, whether inwardly profound or outwardly transcendent; and beauty as a time-stopping, weightless suffusion that comes on like an act of grace.


Throughout the book, Burnham engages musical issues such as sonority, texture, line, harmony, dissonance, and timing, and aspects of large-scale form such as thematic returns, retransitions, and endings. Vividly describing a range of musical effects, Burnham connects the ways and means of Mozart's music to other domains of human significance, including expression, intimation, interiority, innocence, melancholy, irony, and renewal. We follow Mozart from grace to grace, and discover what his music can teach us about beauty and its relation to the human spirit. The result is a newly inflected view of our perennial attraction to Mozart's music, presented in a way that will speak to musicians and music lovers alike.

Excerpt

Anmut ist eine bewegliche Schönheit …
[Grace is Beauty astir …]

Schiller, Über Anmut und Würde

Die Schönheit bleibt sich selber selig;
Die Anmut macht unwiderstehlich …
[Beauty’s delighted with itself;
Grace makes it irresistible …]

Goethe, Faust Part II, lines 7403–4

Sonority

What is so special about the sound of Mozart? Consider the opening of the Adagio from the Clarinet Concerto, much beloved for its pellucid beauty (example 1.1). There is nothing the least bit exotic in the first four-bar phrase. Everything is transparent, straightforward: simple harmonies (tonic and dominant), guileless melody, slow harmonic rhythm. And yet there is a force at work that holds this texture together in beautiful suspension, a focal energy that creates a sense of apartness and integrity. Note first the warmly cohesive, floating quality of the string sonority: the pedal tone in the viola sustains the sound, while the murmuring figures in the violins lend it a gentle animation—the contrary motion of their figuration promotes a sense of balanced individuation. Then consider the bass line, which works in tandem with the harmonic rhythm: its brief nudges on the dominant give the texture just enough push to keep it floating, but not so much as to force anything. That the dominant falls on . . .

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