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Mozart

Think of Mozart as a comedy writer. Yes, he wrote some drama too, but overall, not that much. If you look through his work, you’ll find a G minor symphony or string quintet here and there, or a D minor piano concerto, but the rest is pretty Major key, pretty sunny. Of the operas, a few are serious, like Idomeneo, La Clemenza di Tito, and a bit of Don Giovanni, but mostly it’s a lot of situation comedies, mistaken identities, costumes, goofy bird catchers, right? The strange thing is, we take Mozart very seriously for someone who wrote mostly comedy. Few comedy writers in any genre are so revered. We might think of Haydn in terms of comedy — but Mozart?

There are two reasons for this. One is that beauty and perfection are the things that strike us first in Mozart’s music. This is true especially now, hundreds of years later, that the subversive elements in his music have lost some of their social and sonic impact. In terms of beauty, Mozart’s music is unmatched: the perfect melodies, the flawless structure, the warm, singing timbre of everything he wrote. Music is the most sensual of the arts, and the pure, miraculous beauty of his work casts a spell on us, and that spell can sometimes hide its other qualities.

We also tend to forget Mozart that worked in comedy because he used it for such serious purposes. The power of comedy is that it disarms and equalizes. When we laugh, we are outside of ourselves. Father and child, king and peasant, friend and enemy can be united, even just for a moment, with laughter. Mozart knew this about comedy and used it expertly. Think of his operas: they entertain and play over a period of hours, but we all remember those moments when, out of nowhere, he suddenly lands the sucker punch and we’re knocked out! Our hearts pound, and tears well up when we hear the Count’s pleading apology to the Countess at the end of Le nozze di Figaro, or when we hear the trio at the beginning of Così fan tutte that seems to bid farewell to honesty itself. Mozart uses comedy to get our guard down before he hits us with the real stuff. And when these moments do come, they are moments of truth and humanity, moments so strong that they break social and family conventions. In one instance, a philandering husband apologizes to his wife; in another, a young woman breaks free of her screaming, oppressive mother. In Mozart, maximum truth equals maximum beauty, and these moments of truth can be found throughout his works, whether they have words or not.

Hours of elegant farce, leading to a few big moments. It feels familiar. Mozart’s music is a metaphor for our lives. After all, if we add up the minutes of how we live, how many of them are truly serious? Don’t we spend most of our time making elegant, pleasant, witty maneuvers that allow us to get through the day unscathed, and allow to coexist peacefully with our fellow humans? And when the big moments of truth do arrive in our lives, don’t they seem to come out of nowhere, to knock us out, to change us, in an instant, forever?