Thoughts on an unanswerable question
By Ulrich Konrad
Mysterious and eerie are the events befalling a traveller in an inn somewhere. Weary after a bone-rattling coach journey, slightly befuddled from the lunchtime champagne, half-asleep he dimly senses the beginnings of an opera performance.
Hallucination or reality? From his room, reveals the waiter he has summoned, a concealed door leads into a corridor that ends in Box No. 23 of the adjoining theatre. Today, he adds, the audience is expecting a performance of Mozart’s »Don Giovanni«; perhaps he, the stranger, would like to attend it? The answer is supererogatory. At the first strains of the overture, his mind is already assailed by gruesome premonitions of horror, from the tenebrous abyss of night he sees fire-wreathed demons extending their incandescent talons. With what potency the music seizes his imagination! In the loneliness of the box, he envisions himself embracing this so consummately staged masterpiece with all his emotive perspicuity, like the strangulating tentacles of a kraken. The curtain falls for the first interval. Who’s that suddenly standing behind him? It’s Donna Anna (or her singer, who knows?), who involves the semi-wakeful somnambulist in a conversation. He now believes he’s clearly apprehending phantasmagorical apparitions from a heteromorphic world. Donna Anna confirms his apperception of having entered the fabled romantic realm where the celestial ensorcelment of aural bliss reigns. Later, two hours after midnight, when the curtain has long since fallen and the theatre is deserted, memories of the enacted tale and the colloquy with Donna Anna culminate in the heartfelt and exalted wish: »Open yourself to me, you far-off unknown spirit realm – you Djinnistan bathed in refulgence, where an inexpressible celestial agony, like the most ineffable joy, fulfils beyond all measure all delights promised on Earth to the enraptured soul!«. The next day, a few men are sitting round a table in the tavern. What are they talking about? The singer died at precisely two o’clock in the morning.
Perhaps she was after all Donna Anna, the loving woman, who followed the demon of the punished seducer to her
Romanticism, a form of utopianism
What the lawyer, author, composer, conductor and music critic Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann in his ambiguous art-themed novella »Don Juan« published in 1813 encapsulated in poetic form communicates more cogently than any rational attempt at explanation what romanticism might essentially be. A clear definition or specification of its contents, at any rate, is beyond the conceptual compass of the multi-stranded intellectual evolution of ideas on the relationship between the mundane and the artistic that began to emerge in the 1790s and whose resounding wing-beats resonated into the first decades of the 19th century. The effect of romantic thought on our comprehension and production of art may be easy to ascertain, but is almost impossible to break down into its individual elements in terms of different art categories or particular works. Romanticism is manifested primarily in the cerebral realm, in mindsets, in theory, in a holistic worldview – it is less a reified manifestation of art than a form of utopian thinking about poetry and art, claim its proponents. Fifteen years before Hoffmann’s novella, Friedrich Schlegel had already stated that a romanticist definition of poetry can only determine »what it is supposed to be, not what it in reality was and is; otherwise it would most succinctly read: poetry is what has been designated as such in a certain place at a certain time«.
And they, the youthful irreverent romanticists, endeavouring to blur the boundaries between Heaven and Earth, between past and present, claimed Mozart as one of their own. How meaningless it was for them that he was already dead when they appropriated for themselves the universalisable poetic pervasion of the mundane. His music, as they wished to hear and comprehend it, was infused with the thaumaturgical ability to open up to people a unknown realm, a world that, again in the words of E. T. A. Hoffmann, has nothing in common with the extrinsic world of sensory perception and in which they leave behind all specific feelings in order to satisfy an inexpressible yearning.
Again and again the Tiecks, Wackenroders or Schlegels, as did Jean Paul as well, lost themselves in the tenebrous domains of night, haunted not least by the doom-laden spectre of Don Giovanni. None of them strove for a knowledge of the oeuvre in the encyclopaedic sense, they were familiar with barely a handful of Mozart’s compositions – the final three symphonies were among them, »The Magic Flute», and the Requiem. This sparsity encapsulated the whole; it offered projective/reflective options for the human imagination, for the poetic ensorcelment of the mundane.
Romantic projective/reflective options for the human imagination.
But was not all this immoderately hyperbolic? A question answered in the affirmative by quite a few contemporaries, like the aged Goethe, who perceived romanticism as no less threatening than Beethoven’s capriciousness (you never really knew where you were with him) and who accordingly predicated self-assuredly: »I categorize classicism as healthy and romanticism as sickly. Most of what’s new is not romantic because it is new but because it is weak, sickly and ill, and the old is not classical because it’s old, but because it’s strong, fresh, happy and healthy. When we distinguish between classicism and romanticism in terms of such qualities, we shall soon recognise their cogency«. He studiously overlooked the fact that the second part of his »Faust« was full of romantic phantasms. But Mozart would have been the only composer who in his estimation could have written appropriate music for »Faust« – drawing upon the spirit of »Don Giovanni«. At this point, every romanticist would have agreed with him. Since for the poetry of Mozart’s music as a wondrous phenomenon they accepted as truth what Friedrich Schlegel had encapsulated in four lines: »Through all the sounds resounding / In earthly reveries here / A gentle sound’s delighting / The subtly listening ear«.
Mozart explores remote realms of the musically expressible
How Mozart would have reacted to the romanticist aesthetic and its pretentions to appropriate his oeuvre is basically an unanswerable question, which could, by the way, just as well be addressed to those who claim Mozart as a »classicist« or some other appellation. That with the phenomenal outreach of his aural artistry he touched upon remote realms of the musically expressible and thus emotional borderlands as well, is manifest to every subtly listening ear that apprehends the essence of the music, an imperative also intensively practised by the composers who were born around 1810, a generation commonly designated as romantic (Mendelssohn, Bartholdy, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, to name only a few). Each in their own way, they found what they were looking for, and responded to Mozart in their own idiom. Like many who came after them, they apprehended the »gentle sound«. If this is to be termed romantic, it has up to the present day lost none of its original validity.
Prof. Dr. Ulrich Konrad is Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Würzburg Mozart Festival. As a Professor at the Institute for Musical Research of the Julius Maximilian University in Würzburg, he is credited with numerous pathbreaking contributions to recent Mozart research.
Winner in 2001 of the Leibniz Prize from the German Research Foundation, and several times awarded the Best Edition Prize of the German Music Publishers’ Association, Professor Konrad is in addition a member of the governing bodies at internationally prestigious academic organisations, plus the Academies of Arts and Science in Göttingen, Mainz and
Munich, the Academia Europaea and the Leopoldina (National Academy of Arts and Science). Ulrich Konrad is also
Chairman of the Academy for Mozart Research at the International Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg.