Was the World Ready for Mozart?

Mozart’s career straddles an immense sociological shift occurring in the lives of composers at the end of the 18th century. We tend to think of Beethoven as the first composer to be free of the creative constraints placed on court composers, but Mozart was the earliest major figure to defy this tradition. While his break with the Salzburg court and subsequent move to Vienna were events closely tied to a desire for a courtly appointment in the musical capital of the western world, his Viennese career was that of a freelancer. In some respects this experiment was a failure; Mozart died struggling to make ends meet for his family. The successes of this creative and financial venture cannot be overstated; today we still witness the repercussions of Mozart’s public struggle to reconcile the difference between writing music that his public and his patrons wanted vs. that which he felt worthy of his creative abilities. Mozart’s story had an unimaginable impact on the lives of Beethoven and the 19th-century cult honoring starving artists and misunderstood geniuses. Beethoven himself said that Mozart’s K. 464 string quartet was “Mozart telling the world: ‘Look what I could do if you were ready for it!’”

Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat, K. 563, is one of the works that most cleverly fulfills an obligation to write pleasing music for his audience while serving as a vehicle for the true invention and daring of the composer’s musical imagination. Composed in September of 1788, this is one of Mozart’s few works in the divertimento/serenade vein not commissioned for a specific occasion. The E-flat Divertimento was composed as a gesture of thanks for a friend, and it was premiered with Mozart playing the viola part while on a multi-city tour in Dresden the following April. While the overall tone of this piece is sunny and serenade-like, Mozart imbues this light genre with intensity of intellect and emotion that was surely viewed as inappropriate and rebellious. Right from the opening of the first movement, there is a heightened sense of counterpoint; the voices are equal, with the viola and cello matching the flashy writing of the violin stride for stride. This is not music a gigging musician could show up and sight-read as background music at a party!

In addition to pushing the limits of virtuosity appropriate to an 18th-century divertimento, Mozart lets the affect of his music wander far beyond the trivial and congenial. A notable example of this occurs in the development of the 1st movement, a searching and unstable journey that travels through minor keys before returning to the jubilant music of the opening. The slow movement is also very enigmatic and heartfelt, plumbing depths of expression suitable only for the greatest music of the concert hall or chamber salon.

JH, 2.25.15


Nova Chamber Music Series
Nova Chamber Music Series

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