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Mozart: In Search of the Roots of Genius

By Edward Rothstein
February 2006
This is an excerpt from an article that was originally published by Smithsonian Magazine. The full article can be read here.

The author traveled to Salzburg and Vienna during the celebrations for Mozart's 250th birthday, reflecting on the spirit of the places and what we know of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Hellbrunn is not part of these celebrations, but perhaps it should be. For 200 years, every important visitor to Salzburg’s court was taken there; by the 18th century much of Hellbrunn had become a grand public park. I imagine Mozart visiting as a child, during one of the interludes between his epic journeys through the courts of Europe, where his father, Leopold, was showing off his prodigious children.

If he did visit as a child, he would also have seen Hellbrunn’s newest novelty, a mechanical theater in which 200 automated wooden figures populate an Austrian town square, accompanied by music from a hidden, hydraulically operated organ. It was an animated music box run by water, a marvel that would have caught the attention of Mozart’s father, who composed music for the mechanical organ in the fortress that looms over Salzburg—music still heard here.

Of all the Mozartean landmarks I saw in Salzburg and Vienna, Hellbrunn most profoundly captures something essential about his spirit. This is worth understanding, because over the past 200 years, Mozart has continued to elude our grasp. He began his career as a wunderkind—a literal wonder child over whom the courts of Europe fawned—and ended it in debt and dismal circumstances, but he is one of the touchstones of the Western classical tradition. In the popular imagination, he is the eternal man-child, whose music is so energized with healing powers that it is thought to increase infant intelligence (the so-called Mozart effect). Even to cognoscenti, the composer of the Jupiter Symphony and the creator of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni seems to inhabit an otherworldly musical realm. And that makes it all the more remarkable to follow in his all-too-earthly footsteps, to trudge up the narrow staircase in Mozart’s Geburtshaus (birth house) in Salzburg and look out at the building’s congested courtyard or to walk the short distance his coffin was carried in Vienna from his deathbed to the church where friends, family and admirers paid their last respects before his body was unceremoniously dumped in an unmarked grave, the fate of most of Vienna’s untitled populace.

The heavenly music and the mundane man: Can they be reconciled? This was the problem famously posed in Peter Shaffer’s play (and movie) Amadeus (to be performed on a floating stage on Salzburg’s river this summer): How does genius and beauty arise out of vulgarity, pettiness, ordinary life? Walking in Salzburg, one is brought up short trying to imagine what any of this might have to do with the painful beauties of the music. The ornate churches and regal halls of Salzburg must have shaped Mozart’s aesthetic, their grand ambitions combined with meticulous attention to detail, their elaborate rhetoric combined with cultivated refinement. But these settings overwhelm in ways Mozart’s music does not, dwarfing the viewer with self-conscious magnificence.

Read the full article on the Smithsonian Magazine website...