“I think, therefore I am.” This proposition by René Descartes is the only thing that anyone in this world can truly be sure of. The thoughts of one’s mind is the only absolute in life. Human beings, while intelligent as they are, are still so small. For all we know, the world could be a cage built by a bigger, smarter being that is so ahead of the human race that it has cleverly hidden all trace of its existence from us. We will never know. But there is one thing that every person, within themselves, can be one hundred percent certain of; “I think, therefore I am.” It is not a possibility to comment on what is happening in the mind of someone else, because there is no way of definitely knowing. Using this idea and applying to the work and hidden messages of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, can anyone truly say that there was a limit to his genius? Susan McClary, after a run in with a colleague, argued against the limits that society has put on Mozart’s depth. While it is astounding for us to accept the entirety of his musical ability and beauty, it is wrong to say that beauty is where his thoughts ended. After all that the world has learned about Mozart, how he composed, how each note had a meaning and a purpose, how he perfectly placed every single aspect of his music, can it not be expected that he had a message, a commentary, on the world around him? That is something that has almost become expected of composers since the 20th century. Shostakovitch’s music was all about the repression and horrors of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin. Social inflection has become a norm in music, a way to give an opinion; it is simply something else that can be expressed through music. With Mozart being a role model and example for so much else in music’s development from the 18th century to modern day, it should be easy to agree that his music was more than beautiful melodies, intricate harmonies, and overall incredible artwork.
In McClary’s essay, “A Musical Dialectic from the Enlightenment: Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453, Movement 2,” she seeks to show her reader the tools that Mozart used in his music to convey intellectual ideas. The first musical tool that she points out is tonality. This is something that has been key in music since its development in the 17th century. It is still a wholly used element in music today, from pop songs, to soundtracks for movies and video games; tonality is the basis for widely accepted music. Granted, there were movements against tonality, but because it is such a strong force, and so useful in the attempt to portray narratives and emotions through musical structure, it has remained and continues to be widely used. McClary points out that tonality for Mozart was an unconscious decision. Or rather a subconscious action. “It was simply a part of his universe, as invisible to him and unquestioned as the air he breathed.” This statement shows that for Mozart, use of tonality was an instinctual impulse. Tonality had become such a widely used musical language that it was habitual to use as an expressive gateway for ideas and thoughts. In fact, it would have been counterproductive if Mozart had refused to use tonality in his music, as it was the proper and accepted way to write music in the 18th century. In the words of McClary, he would have “alienated” himself from the world of composers had he strayed from tonality. This in itself could be scrutinized as a social remark. Tonality, because of the way it has forward motion towards an arrival point, can be seen as predictable. There is somewhat of a box that is tonality; a cookie cutter, for more imagery. That is precisely why there began to be movements against it in later generations of composers. But Mozart knew he would have been shunned if he turned his back on the musical tool. Beyond the strict musical sense of tonality, there was a parallel social structure among composers, one that didn’t allow you to step outside of the box; a cookie cutter. McClary says that tonality is the most basic way to analyze Mozart’s music, but even there, a deeper meaning can be seen.
Even though these structures were set up around him, Mozart found ways to stage his individuality in his music. The way he did this was with the use of identifiable themes. McClary points this out in her analysis of his “Sonata Procedure” within his Piano Concerto in G Major. Mozart presents these themes as an issue, a conflict, giving the idea that identity is a struggle and not something that can be lightheartedly accepted. The themes therefore react and respond to each other. This is clear in his sonata form, where the structure is exposition, development, and recapitulation. During the enlightenment era, which was occurring while Mozart was composing, there were introductions to knew philosophies, new ways of thinking. The end of the 18th century was the sight of the first French Revolution, which held the ideals of the enlightenment near and dear to its heart. While this revolution happened right at the end of Mozart’s short life, there were other (less bloody) revolts against what had been social and intellectual order for many years. However, the people in power always will want to stay that way, and this era was no different. There were limits to what was accepted by governments in the enlightenment, and so while there were new ideas and beliefs in the air, the old order used its power to remain as much in place as possible. This can be seen with the French Revolution as well, which was ultimately a string of errors that led from one monarchy to the next. There is evidence of this all over sonata form. In Mozart’s pieces, the development is usually in direct conflict with the theme of the exposition. There is the introduction of an opposing key and an argumentative theme. However, with the recapitulation, this opposition is resolved and the original theme and key are triumphant. This is in direct correlation with the ideas of the enlightenment being present as an opposition to the old order, because the recapitulation is what ultimately happened; the power stayed in the hands of those who had had it all along, even if common people thought differently. Truly this is what has happened all over history; the power will always be in the hands of those few elite. It seems that there is no way to truly fight that.
These examples have served to be an analysis of Mozart’s work in general, but there can be just as much evidence of his narratives about the world around him within singular works. The Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453 is the basis for McClary’s argument in the first place, as it is what spoke to her as a prime example of Mozart conveying social substance. She studies the second movement to grasp it’s depth and relay it to her readers. She first talks about the orchestral ritornello that starts off the piece. There is a “motto,” followed by what seems to be a completely new idea within the same exposition. McClary characterizes the motto as having “…semiotic roots in the sacred music of the Baroque.” Later on she remarks that the second section is presented as much more secular, and yet seemingly empty. She talks about how this pleasant distraction sounds “more like our stereotypical Mozart…” Interpreting this, it seems that Mozart was presenting the idea of religion, and then the free carelessness that is found outside of a church’s rigid standards. In the end of the ritornello, Mozart brings back his first few measures, the same heavy idea that was originally presented, and gives it intertwining inflections of major and minor modes. This could be construed as Mozart commenting on religion’s sometimes weighty expectations and rules, meanwhile humans typically step out of bounds, giving little thought to their guidelines, but then often repent and beg for forgiveness, which they can only hope will be given. Even if he did not intend for the opening phrase to have religion implications, this could be an expression of any set of laws or rules that are broken by mankind. Or at least that is one way to interpret the opening of this concerto. McClary continues her analysis of the piece with an explanation of the piano’s part in the grand scheme, whether it is to be regarded as the hero or as a rebellious romantic character. This is an entirely interesting and relevant case in the issue of Mozart’s works having in depth meanings, as it has somewhat of a foreshadowing of what the Romantic era would look like.
Mozart was nothing short of a genius. That is accepted by the whole of society, as it has been since his life was really examined after his death. With this in mind, everything that he was thinking, while drinking tea, while walking down the street, while composing, cannot be known. We can only guess what he was trying to get at in his music; this means that it is not certain that he was a mastermind who put aspects of the social world around him into his compositions. But it also means that we cannot rule that out. Unless someone found a word for word dictation of his thought process, written by Mozart himself, it will never truly be known what he tried to portray in his music. But we can make attempts to see what he was seeing, to imagine what he was living through and probably trying to express with his music. This is something that Susan McClary felt strong enough about to write a forty page argument on, as many others have felt strongly about the issue in the past and present, and undoubtedly will in the future. We can accept that Mozart was a master of musical beauty, and to this day his work stun audiences and instill awe in everyday people. Upon learning more about his techniques, like writing music vertically for example, usually even more astonishment is felt by the person hearing that for the first time. So can it not be believed, or even expected, that Mozart would have gone beyond that and found a way to exhibit the things he saw happening in the world in his music? It seems like a highly reasonable assumption, when already so much intelligence is presented. The capacity of Mozart’s mind seems somewhat unfathomable, so I would not put it past him to have been able to relate the social order of life in the notes he wrote.
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