- Mozart’s Grace by Scott Burnham
From Haydn’s famous comment to Leopold Mozart in 1785—‘I say to you before God and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name’—to Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival now entering its forty-ninth year, the exceptional quality of Mozart’s music has been universally recognized for some two and a half centuries. Music that sounds as effortless as Mozart’s, however, presents a challenge for critics. Scott [End Page 279] Burnham acknowledges this straight away in his brilliant book Mozart’s Grace by opening with Karl Barth’s observation: “‘Whoever has discovered Mozart even to a small degree and then tries to speak about him falls quickly into what seems rapturous stammering”’ (p. 1).
To gain the traction necessary to explain Mozart while avoiding cliché, the critic must dig deep into both music and language. Even apt terms—‘beautiful’, ‘scintillating’, ‘profound’—sound banal if ungrounded in specific insights and subtle observation. Herein lies a challenge: observation that comes from the ability to read Mozart in musically sophisticated detail is a prerequisite for such work, but the highly technical language of much contemporary musical analysis, however insightful and valuable to the profession, can easily miss the spirit of openness and accessibility at the heart of Mozart.
Burnham approaches the magic of Mozart’s music with his own combination of accessibility and subtlety, offering perceptive readings of individual musical passages and the philosophical implications of Mozart’s music writ large. Burnham’s criticism thus resonates with Mozart’s own assessment of his music as balanced between the straightforward and the subtle. In a 28 December 1782 letter to his father Mozart declared that the piano concertos K. 413–15 contained ‘passages here and there that only connoisseurs can appreciate fully—yet the common listener will find them satisfying as well’. This special balance between the seeming simplicity of the whole and the intricacy of its construction is perhaps one of the most overarching implications of ‘grace’, the word at the heart of Burnham’s critical project.
‘Grace’ is an inspired choice for critical emphasis. In many places ‘beauty’ could and does serve as a synonym, and Burnham explicitly strives to reintroduce appreciation of beauty into scholarly discourse. But grace has a broader domain than beauty. Grace avoids the implications of balance and symmetry central to the beautiful in a Burkean or Kantian sense. Indeed, while much of the music Burnham examines conforms to eighteenth-century ideals of the beautiful, he also discusses passages of intense dissonance and violent disruption.
Grace has a flexibility that allows Burnham to apply it to a wide range of passages, none more apt than his opening two examples, the A section of the Adagio of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and the farewell trio ‘Soave sia il vento’ from the opera Così fan tutte. Like many of the composer’s mature slow movements, the contemplative lyricism of the Clarinet Concerto’s Adagio serves equally well as a blessing for a wedding or an expression of grief at a funeral. The Adagio is an ideal example of grace, heavenly in sonority, elegant in its sarabande-inflected lilt, consoling in passages of hymn-like homophony, and beautiful in its every melodic turn. A malleable term and generous word, ‘grace’ ineffably conveys implications of elegant movement, refined behaviour, and Christian benevolence.
As one who has performed the Clarinet Concerto for three decades, I can attest that Burnham’s consideration of what he dubs the ‘sonic envelope’ of the A section of the work’s second movement wins the musician’s trust. One of many analytic observations that speak to my experience performing the solo part is the slight lengthening of the first note of the third bar, which, as Burnham suggests, provides a springboard allowing the second sub-phrase to rise higher than the first. The detail is surely deeply imbedded in many clarinettists’ understanding of the phrase, but Burnham’s ability to make explicit...