- Mozart’s Grace by Scott G. Burnham
With Mozart’s Grace, Scott Burnham, the experienced Princeton scholar, shows musicians what the great composer can teach us—and perhaps what he has taught subsequent master German composers (e.g., Beethoven, Schubert, and Schoenberg)—about musical beauty, style, harmony, melody, time, and form. Burnham offers a stirring, erudite, and deeply poetic treatment of around fifty select passages as a culmination of some three decades of thought and discussion. Burnham invites musicians to join him on a quest to “apprehend [End Page 78] the quality of beauty in Mozart’s music” in what he calls “a personal attempt to describe what is striking about the sound of Mozart” (p. 4). He achieves this through several perceptive analytical vignettes loosely categorized according to the following: their qualities of “Beauty and Grace” (chapter 1); their multiple and various “Thresholds” (chapter 2); and their tendencies toward “Grace and Renewal” (chapter 3). While freely admitting his methodology is unsystematic, Burnham’s ultimate goals are, on one hand, “to support some of the reigning critical intuitions about Mozart’s music with fresh analytical evidence,” and on the other hand, “to develop a newly inflected view of our perennial susceptibility to his music” (p. 5). For a book of unexceptional length—less than two hundred total pages and with score examples on almost every page (as each selection Burnham discusses, with few exceptions, is reproduced from the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe)—the boundless amount of rich philosophical and analytical nuggets will undoubtedly fill the minds of faithful musicologists, music theorists, and performers for a long time. In the following review, I will first provide content descriptions and then close with comments concerning how it can best serve its potential audience.
Chapter 1 is split into two subtopics, “Sonority” and “Line and Expressivity.” The central concept for Burnham in the former is to show how Mozart creates sound environments that project a kind of “animated stillness,” or “the rhythmic relation between pulsing accompaniment and slower moving melody” (p. 10). The examples presented in this part include excerpts from slow movements, such as the Adagio from the Clarinet Concerto, K. 622, and the “Soave sia il vento” trio from Così fan tutte, which set the tone for a significant majority of the book. In fact, what separates this Mozart book from most other significant studies (analytical or otherwise) is Burnham’s nearly exclusive focus on slow-tempo passages. Not only is this strategy ideal for close and descriptive analysis, but it also provides a practical way to elucidate abstract concepts (also involved at faster tempos) for the listener. In the second part of the first chapter, Burnham sets up an elegant comparison between visual and musical beauty by invoking William Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty, a late-eighteenth-century English treatise on visual art that discusses ideal levels of graceful linear curvature—the beautiful human form set in motion. Through an analysis of the soprano melody during mm. 38–46 of the “Christe eleison” from the Kyrie of Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, K. 427, Burnham demonstrates how Hogarth’s “lines of beauty and grace” translate to the “gentle undulations” of Mozartean melodies (p. 21).
Despite its great length, chapter 2 features stimulating readings of Mozartean passages—especially from his Requiem, K. 626, and Ave verum corpus, K. 618—that indeed rise to the level of thresholds. Burnham organizes these “liminal experiences” into four broad analytical subsections of aesthetics and style (p. 40). In “Summoning the Supernatural and the Sacred,” Burnham shows us how Mozart puts us at the threshold of death in the overture and first scene of Don Giovanni, where particular passages (e.g., the Commendatore’s murder) seem to temporarily suspend time through abrupt changes in mode and texture. In the overture, Mozart creates an “uncanny” feeling by combining chromatic harmonies with simple melodic diatonic scales (p. 45). This idea of “uncanny time” has been previously explored, however, and I only wish...