All Over Creation: Mozart Was an Austinite The spirit of innovation that drove the composer lives on in our city
By Robert Faires
Friday February 15, 2013
The music had the feel of a bad dream, where things are out of place; they don’t fit. You know, you’re in your house, but it looks nothing like your house. The notes toss and turn, edging too close to one another and making unsettling chords – ominous, foreboding. Before it was played by the Aeolus String Quartet, Austin Chamber Music Center Artistic Director Michelle Schumann had alerted the crowd that the work wouldn’t sound terribly discordant to ears a century past the cacophonies of Stravinsky and Schoenberg – indeed, today’s standard-issue B-movie thriller comes with more jangling disharmonies than this Classical-era chamber work. But if you could recalibrate your aural sensibilities to 1785, you could tell why music dealers of the day accused the publisher of printing wrong notes in the opening, why a Hungarian nobleman ripped up the sheet music after hearing it played, why the piece was instantly nicknamed “Dissonance.” The music sounded jarringly off. Off and new.
Here was the 29-year-old musical firebrand of Vienna, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, giving Austria’s powdered wigs another good shake, showering them with sounds they hadn’t heard before. That aspect of the composer is easily forgotten at a 200-year remove from the man. Mozart is now the object of so much cultural reverence – really, when’s the last time you heard him described without the word “genius” attached? – that his humanity and history are obscured. Schumann’s tip-off about String Quartet No. 19 at ACMC’s Mozart’s Birthday concert created enough of an opening in Mozart’s honor-encrusted rep to let us hear his experimental streak, his drive not only to write the most exquisitely beautiful music in his power, but also to push musical forms in new directions. The disquieting tension that Mozart establishes in that brief dissonant opening – two minutes out of almost half an hour – has no real precedence in the string quartets of Joseph Haydn, the master and innovator of the form to whom Mozart dedicated this string quartet and five others. It’s a bold gamble on Mozart’s part, and it pays off when the music breaks into a sunnier mood, magnifying joy the way that waking out of a nightmare does – the world as it should be looks that much better after seeing it in some distorted, unfamiliar form. Its shadow lingers, though, much as the memory of a bad dream does, adding poignance and perhaps purpose in the moments when the four instruments come together in striking unity, with a potent consonance. Mozart has taken a masterfully developed form and enriched it, deepened it in revolutionary ways.