By Samuel J. Stephens
Among Mozart’s most mature works of art,
Whence did genius from mere prodigy part?
How, from style enlightened and humane
(Facile and fluent, witty and urbane),
Was mighty Jupiter unbound and loose?
It sudden struck me like a bolt of Zeus
How that gentler manner had turned and set,
To meet the old gods, and meet them well met.
With the apprentice we must begin,
In whom the teaching-master seeks his twin.
Succeeded on the Holy Roman Throne
From across the border by older bone:
Emperor Joseph was dead and done,
Emperor Leopold was Francis’s son.
Music and Masonry his unconcern,
He set his father’s kingdom stern.
Many that depended on the royal whim
Were set marooned or left to swim.
Franz Xaver Sussmayr, orphaned once more,
(Adopted before by his knock on a door)
Rushed to his coffee mates at their usual place,
A frantic confusion upon his face.
“My master Mozart is passed away,
My adopted father, greatest of his day.
Now his widow’s left in desperation
With little or no remuneration
Of her husband’s lauded talents now gone!”
All his friends having turned to him as one,
Smiled (only some) at his pert pretense
Knowing he had advanced fair recompense
From the widow whose husband taught him all
(Of what he had retained, and that was small).
Mozart of himself had learned evermore,
Older techniques which to him were but lore:
Grounds and rounds, elaborate rimes,
Hurdy-gurdy canons of olden times.
Fresh youths sniggered (and mercenaries agreed)
Only their gallant new style should breed.
Thus, according to the Emperor’s Quantz:
“A musician must affect to the music’s wants;
According to the passion prevailing,
A joyful dance or mournful wailing—
A linear theme, concentrated clear,
Variated till it again appear
With elegance and a minimum of means,
A most delightful melody weans.
Now mournful dancing or joyous tears,
Mixed and human as our hopes and fears.”
Young Wolfgang on Christian’s knee,
Learned this light Venus and Persephone.
Once in Munich, Paris, inhaling the air,
Young Wolfgang learns this mood everywhere.
Leopold the elder, his own father,
Championed this style and no other.
The bourgeois attempt to please the king,
And so coiffed his son to play and sing.
This intimate style, Empfindsamkeit,
Easy, pleasing, tempered, and so right,
Avoided the pompous ancient polyphony
And found humanity in homophony.
Here at last was Zeus turned upside down,
And Figaro’s marriage problems made renown.
This humble, upstart world gave Mozart berth
To embrace the Everyman and his mirth.
But New Vienna’s empiric spires
Could not wane the world of old sires,
And Leopold’s age, now rejecting wealth,
Looked askance his son’s spirit’s health.
(Masonry and esoteric knowledge,
Tolerated by Joseph’s inner-college—
Imperial police already espied,
Twice re-named, allegiance thrice belied.)
The book imbibed of Moses Mendelssohn,
He essayed, beseeching to his only son,
The nurturing, truthful Catholic scroll
For the late salvation of his soul.
Within the Masonic brotherhood guild—
Which was often the purpose plain distilled
For many men who wished dearly to join—
Young Wolfgang offered music for his coin.
Yet the draw was mystic that drew him deep,
Concern most Christic for the mystère sleep:
“I never lie in bed without thinking,
Young as I am, it’s a thought un-shrinking,
That I may not live to see the next day.”
(This in a letter to his father did he say.)
Of his latent marriage two days before,
He wrote Leopold, whose absence was sore:
“My wife Constanze knows the mother’s duty;
She is not ugly, rather her beauty
Is winsome in her figure and her eyes,
And like Mother Mozart was, she is wise.”
Desperate and irate at his son’s gall,
Leopold set out to visit that fall,
And disapproved the marriage in writing,
In chiding voice, churlish and biting.
Once in Vienna, his knuckles rapped the door.
He saw his son’s child play upon the floor.
Herr Franz Joseph Haydn, visiting, said,
“Your son is the greatest, living or dead.”
Leopold blushes, finding all is assured,
Keeps back his tongue, his opinion secured.
Enter the Baron Gottfried van Swieten,
Ambassador and a son of Good Reason,
Himself stiffly bound, unable in art,
As Haydn said, “Stiff as a board, but smart.”
He stood a-stream “Something new, all the time,”
Eschewed the ephemeral, praised the sublime.
For him the world was better yesterday,
When the Mighty Fortress held its sway.
Kirnberger his teacher, student of Bach,
Imparted the fugue, foundation of rock.
From Swieten’s home not mercury,
But Jupiter, or some fragment porphyry
Of that larger self, hot to human touch,
Confers on Wolfgang’s house a fugue nonesuch.
This shining jewel Constanze recognized,
With lusty ambition matronized
Wolfgang with courage, kisses no more
(She had few to give him, for they were poor),
Made up her own mind, in her own moods,
To dictate his composition of new fugues.
On each Saturday young Wolfgang returned
To play his new counterpoints blithely-learned.
Van Swieten only snorted demurely,
Not considering these fugues so purely
(Or so fine as the powder on his chair
Which he had so lately wiped on there).
“Bless you my son, your attempts I allow,
But here itself is the great burden now:
These are the two testaments of old law,
Born unlike you and I on earth and straw,
Babe of the brain in mental Bethlehem,
Bach’s well-tempered, everlasting children.
Forty-eight preludes and fugues of each stripe,
Counterpointing each other type-to-type.
This galant style’s too simple and too quick,
Simple melodies ornamented with a trick,
Giving the stomach some cheaper delights
Through cheaply drawn-up musical flights.
Chaos too contradicts on every point
As a jackass king himself may anoint,
But contradicting rightly’s out of vogue
And Bach’s rightful style’s been made the rogue.
Here, take these six fugues and preludes with you,
And arrange them for my players anew.”
Despite Constanze and her constant meddling,
He takes them and agrees to Swieten’s peddling,
And once more at the piano, he plays them
Through to find the instrumental stem
Of arrangement for six string players:
Violins, violas, and cello-bass layers.
He sits calm, plays simply, hardly moving.
Then, in an outburst disapproving,
“These old preludes are no good for playing
On today’s fine strings! Too many splaying
Melodies make them garbled and unsweet”—
Constanze brings more coffee to his seat—
“I’ll have to re-write this whole prelude batch
And risk something awful if they don’t match.”
Interrupting were the drinking days;
With Constanze, longer the billiard days.
His piano fugues, unfinished, lingered there,
Spilled with coffee upon his clavier.
From Salzburg, news of Leopold’s death:
First, Wolfgang’s tears, then a sigh of breath.
From Hamburg, death of Emanuel Bach:
For Mozart, strains of Vom Himmel Hoch.
“He was the father of us all,” wrote he,
“And how he wrote defined how we must be.”
A simple four-note theme transforms to song,
Natural to his nature and un-wrong.
This pulsing polyphony is not Bach,
But is conjured of the Bachian stock.
Mozart, rather than fuguing at the fifth,
Unisons his themes in resolving lift,
Releasing energy previously bound,
Exalting in the rising stretto sound.
Counterpoint devices, used securely,
Used confidently and maturely.
Feeling the strength to be his own,
He knows he is himself, yet not alone.
Integration, not imitation, is right,
Mere imitation is the artist’s plight—
It stops your hand cold, frozen in terror,
Doubting in shame all before as error,
To unlearn at the greatest, utmost pain,
To kill those works in your natural vein.
But no artist must work without knowing
What seeds have been planted before sowing
Their own or else they commit that offense
Intolerable in adolescents:
Presumed conquest of a civilized land
(Hopefully to be scorned, kicked, and banned).
To Sussmayr now once more, in whose mouth
Are words of response, but finding it drouth
He closes it and goes about his way.
Of his fortune, our fears we can allay:
Fat in later age (dead at thirty-eight),
Composer of opera and dead-weight,
For a time enjoying some fair success—
But not too long, too much, we must confess.
For the laws of the craft are demanding,
Requiring a mind forever expanding.
(A poet may plow the sands of the beach,
But only bustling smallness does he breach.)
And even then the emperor’s purview
May cut you forever from his view:
Where can talent find a place where spirit
Truly cares for song among those who hear it?
The artist on earth, suffering aright,
Is best equipped to appraise his own plight.
To meet the old gods, and meet them well met,
One must know their minds, admit no regret.
Favor their favors, like the burst from Jove,
Be allayed in the Dionysian grove.
(But Bacchus is best measured not too much,
Requiring the surgeon’s mindful touch.)
Thus, he that dies with no tomb of stone
May of his genius sit on Zeus’s throne.
To meet the High King, and meet Him well met,
Know of yourself, admit your own regret.
Heaven is heaven, man is only man,
Who to attain it must do best he can.
(Genius does not await you in far halls,
Nor confines within you within four walls.)
Ready your garment for the eyes of the king,
For it is you yourself that you must bring.
Samuel J. Stephens works professionally in copywriting and promotions in the Nashville music industry, but reads classical-music history by night. He studied literature at the University of Middle Tennessee and writes poetry in many forms. He is writing a poem in the ancient Beowulf meter. He can be reached at [email protected]