As we still think of it today, Western Classical Music does not begin with Bach, it begins with Mozart. Certain older composers - Gluck, Handel, Scarlatti, Rameau, Vivaldi, Couperin, Purcell, Lully, Monteverdi, Palestrina, et al, and especially Bach - were adopted along the way as grandparents and forerunners. But the canon of Classical Music as it's developed begins with Mozart. Everything before Mozart is a ‘revival.’ Even Mozart’s music is technically a revival, except for that the revival began only a year after his death at the Jahn’s Hall benefit concert for his widow. One could almost date the emergence of modern Classical music to that auspicious concert at which Mozart’s Requiem was premiered. Even Haydn, a generation older than Mozart chronologically, is in many ways his successor - living nearly twenty years past Mozart’s death, enjoying his highest regard after Mozart disappearance, and deserving so in part because he wrote his finest compositions during his autumn years.
Mozart is the ‘universal composer,’ excelling not only in expressing all conceivable human emotions, but in expressing them excellently in every musical form to which he put pen to paper - which was every musical form available to him during his era. Even among later composers who might be said to have done the same - Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Hindemith, Martinu - they all lack either his diversity of expression, or they lack his formal perfection.
Milan Kundera once likened the history of the novel to a soccer game with two halves. In the first half was the undefined, playful novel of Cervantes and Rabelais, full of formal experimentation from feeling out its possibilities until the late eighteenth century. Right before halftime appear Fielding and Sterne, continuing their work two-hundred years after Don Quixote and creating works of prose in which anything could appear conceivable by the human imagination. On the other side of halftime lies the realist certainties of Samuel Richardson and Balzac and all their successors - the implications of whose work we still live with, in which the novel acquires a ‘purpose’, which is to explore the psychology of the human mind and create stories which remain true to real experience.
In the same way, the history of music may be said to contain two halves, but the fundamental difference is that the formal experimentation comes in the second half. Before Beethoven, music was strictly controlled by its form, and any music which violated form’s iron-clad laws was considered a vulgar exhibition in bad taste. In the aristocratic mein of Baroque and Classical Europe, a musician could no more break the rules of musical form than he could run naked through a royal court. Whether the form was polyphonic or harmonic, symphonic or ecclesiastical, there was a manner in which music was made, and those eras are littered with period pieces by competent artisans whose individuality was crushed by the limitations placed upon them. Music was, by general consensus, a plastic art, and a composer was like a designer of furniture or vases - Incapable of rendering emotions with specificity. Occasionally, a composer like Handel or Gluck would come along to challenge that notion and achieve widespread fame for doing so, but fundamentally, music was a diversion which was meant to please the senses without challenging them. In this sense, it can be compared to so much music from today's popular canons, which must be designed within a certain form, and with a certain time limit, so that they may achieve their economic utility. As it was in the 17th and 18th centuries, it’s possible for a popular musician to create meaningful art, but it's not bloody likely, and becomes less by the year. The most meaningful musicians are almost always those who reject popular taste and pursue their own personal vision.
These musicians owe their ability to do so from the revolution - political, scientific, cultural, and aesthetic, which began roughly two and a half centuries ago, and reached its apogee approximately a quarter of a century later.
Within every era is its two halves. The first half of The Renaissance is called ‘The Renaissance’, in which movable type and printing presses spread the dissemination of ideas more quickly, which in turn allowed for the development of literature in the vernacular, which in turn lead to a resurgence of learning, which in turn lead to the developments of perspective in art, diplomacy in politics, separation from the Catholic Church’s dominance of Northern Europe, and most importantly, the Scientific Revolution, which allowed Europeans lives to develop more greatly in quality by every generation than the one before.
But the Renaissance’s second half is what we now call the ‘Baroque.’ In response to all these developments, the aristocracy fortified its dominance. Gains in science and aesthetics were used for aristocrats to proclaim themselves with still more ornate splendor, and with these splendors with art and music which proclaimed its gorgeousness to all who saw it. And with this gorgeousness came gorgeous corruption; deadlier wars and more repressive policies to the commoners who lived under their jurisdiction.
The Renaissance was a revolution of the Brain, but after all this corruption and war came the revolution of the Heart. The Enlightenment can be tied to many things - the Newtonian explanation of the Universe and other scientific advances, the beginnings of the industrial revolution, long-delayed widespread rebellion against Catholic dogma, the greater availability of world travel - and it seems odd to connect such a ‘rationalist’ point of view with emotion, but the most fundamental view of the Enlightenment was that it was irrational to treat fellow humans without dignity. The Renaissance was about the Heart awakening to the wonders of the Brain, the Enlightenment was about the Brain awakening to the wonders of the Heart.
And once the Enlightenment reached its climax in the American and French Revolutions, then began the long trek towards overthrowing hierarchies which prevailed for a millenium in the search for greater freedom, greater enfranchisement, and greater empowerment. All around Europe, people desired to determine their own rulers and cast off the authorities which told them that their place was determined by God. Were they better off afterward than they were before? The certainties of Newton were replaced by the anxieties of Darwin, who explained that our position in the universe is by no means assured and that the struggle for dominance is little different than the struggle for survival itself. The concept of the self and its quest for expression became all-powerful, its own religion, and the Enlightenment ripened into the Romantic Age.
In an Age of the Brain, it follows that the written word, with all its potential expressions of thought, is where the mind can stretch itself widest. But in an Age of the Heart, only music, with its transcendence of linguistic barriers and illiteracy, and its ability to implant emotion into the listener, can make the leap past the Brain to the Heart. Music, not literature, became the primary mode of aesthetic experimentation, and that experimentation began with Mozart.
(Don Giovanni, 1787, perfection is shattered into a million explosive pieces...)
In the summer of 1786, something in Mozart snapped. The pressure of mounting The Marriage of Figaro stretched him to the verge of a nervous breakdown. And after the incredibly successful first performance of The Marriage of Figaro, just when his career seemed on the verge of stratospheric success, his rivals managed to confine his spectacularly received run to merely nine shows.
Short of certain Shakespeare plays, there is not a single more perfect work for the theater in existence than The Marriage of Figaro. It is, in fact, so perfect, that its perfection is almost a flaw in itself. If The Marriage of Figaro must, in fact, take back seat in its perfection to certain Shakeapeare comedies like Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is because there is not a single intimation of anything irrational or incomprehensible in this perfectly formed world. It is an opera with ten crucial characters, all of whom have beliefs, motivations, and souls, captured perfectly on the stage. Aside from the general mysteries of human behavior, there is not a single mysterious moment on the stage - no behavior which the music cannot explain, no attitude which the score cannot elucidate. This miraculous perfection was never again achieved, nor could it ever.
Exempting any historical consideration except for music, the composition of The Marriage of Figaro happened at two crucial moments in the development music history. The first was the widespread dissemination of the new keyboard - the fortepiano (or pianoforte), which enabled composers to think on a new level of dynamic contrast which no composer ever previously could. It was also an instrument perhaps developed more ideally by builders in Vienna than in any other city, and enabled composers like Mozart and Haydn, partially grounded in the ‘old’ art of polyphony, to get a ‘head start’ in experimenting with the new instrument and its musical implications.
The second development came as a result of the first. As the piano became still more important to music, and as polyphony became ever less, a new manner of musical development had to be constructed which endowed music with meaningful content. The diatonicism of the pre-Enlightenment days was simply not enough. What was required was a means to utilize all twelve tones of the keyboard. Chromaticism certainly existed before Mozart, and even well before Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, but it was not de rigeur for musical content. With chromaticism came a sense of tension, struggle, and uncertainty. In the days of Mozart and Beethoven, chromaticism was there to certainties of diatonicism were always guaranteed to prevail, but by the age of Wagner and Liszt, chromaticism triumphed, and with its triumph came unhappy musical endings, the triumph of ambiguity, and the domination of musical dischord. In an almost mystical way, one can see within chromaticism the ideals of the Enlightenment come undone when they were put into practice.
On one side of music’s halftime stands The Marriage of Figaro - in which all musical relationships are resolved in a perfect hierarchy of notes, dramaturgy, societal relationships, form, and diatonicism. Humanity advanced to the point that all of Figaro’s characters, from the highest station to the lowest, are equally deserving of portrayal, but everyone ultimately stays within their place, and there is no accountability for those who violate their privileges. But on the other side of the abyss lurks another abyss. Don Giovanni’s protagonist is such a bundle of animal urges that he lacks all the interior life which every character from The Marriage of Figaro possesses in abundance. There is not a single aria in which he expresses his inwardness, instead, there are only arias in which he expresses his insincerity. He is so much more animal than man, that he must be eradicated from the face of the Earth and sent to hell so that others may have a chance of living a purposeful life. So long as Don Giovanni exists on earth, none of the other characters know their place in the world. When he dies, they can begin the long, and just as messy, process of pursuing their happiness. One might read into Don Giovanni a manifesto of the French Revolution in which abusive aristocrats receive their just deserts. But if we view history purely through the lense of music, then who can deny that the Nineteenth Century gradually revealed the complete triumph of Don Giovanni’s chromaticism?
Mozart was a creature of his time enough that even in Don Giovanni, he required a reconciliation scene. Any great opera creator after Mozart - except Janacek - would have ended it with the spectacularness of the Commendatore scene. But in the world of the greatest genius among all musicians, the world must always be humanized. What is most important to the opera is not the demonic powers of Don Giovanni, but how his diabolism affects the rest of us mortals. The Marriage of Figaro is the music of a stationary world, which has enough dignity to allow the entire world to express itself and for the classes to jostle, but not enough that the lower classes can triumph in any meaningful way over the upper class except for by making the Count ask for forgiveness. Don Giovanni is the music of a world in flux, in which some characters have no personality outside of their addictions, in which vengeance is meted, and characters are uncertain about how to relate to one another. We long for the world to be like Figaro’s, but our world, messy, irrational, and inexplicable as it is, is the world of Don Giovanni.