You know the feeling when the music just flows. Every note has its place. Every note belongs there. There are surprises, yet you constantly find yourself stunned by how natural the music feels.
There is only one composer whose music is like this. But where does his genius lie? Is it in the details? Is it in the melodies, the harmonies, or the structure? Is it in the use of the various instruments?
The uniqueness of playing Mozart
Bach had his counterpoints. He had his intricate harmonies and precise articulations.
Beethoven had his grand themes that he would repeat over and over. He had his overwhelmingly emotional and dark chords. He had his tough passages and big jumps.
What makes Mozart unique? Some musicians will say it’s the timing of the piano with the orchestra. They’ll tell you that Mozart is so precise that any off tempo note will throw the listener off. Other musicians will tell you how difficult the trills and intricate notes are to play. Most musicians realize when they first play Mozart just how exposed they are. Any wrong note played by any instrument — piano, cello, horn — will throw off the entire melody. Every instrument has a role, and every note matters.
I think all these points are valid. Take the video below at 1:12, and hear how deceptively difficult the scale is. It’s not just a scale. There are a few hidden grace notes. Listen to how bad the single misnote at 1:25 sounds. Take in mind that this concerto is one of Mozart’s easier ones.
Anybody who decides to play Mozart must understand what a monumental responsibility they burden on themselves. With Mozart, you either completely master the piece, or you don’t perform it. One wrong note, one wrong tempo, or one wrong dynamic will throw off the entire performance.
What follows are equivalent musical errors made playing Bach. An extra beat is taken at 0:47, but the music stays intact.
The precision required to play Mozart is unbelievable. This brings us to the first Mozart principle: clarity. Mozart doesn’t like when small instruments are overpowered by others. Each instrument is equal in importance. Near the end of the 41st symphony, five major themes are played simultaneously. Amazingly, each of the themes is clear. Even with five different themes, Mozart is extremely light. At no time does the listener feel overwhelmed.
Listen to this musician describe the perfection of mozart’s music (2:30).
Some composers such as Schubert were masters of using layers. They would pile layers upon layers of notes until the music sounded thick. “Thick” is not a word you can use to describe Mozart. Probably his most “thick” piece is Sinfonia Concertante K 364.
The internal rhythm
In the first video, listen to the elongated phrase from 14:08 to 14:40. It’s comprised of one melody repeated three times, and then a resolution to tonic. The tempo is slow. The music is quiet. The theme repeats. But at no time do we feel like we’re being dragged along. The music just flows. It moves forward.
I call this an “internal rhythm”. Never will you get a moment where this 1-2-3-4 rhythm is missing. Not even in rubatos. Not even in the dramatic moments of silence at the beginning of the Magic Flute Overture. Sometimes, the timpani will lead the beat as in the opening of the 39th symphony. Sometimes instruments will come in on each beat 1-2-3-4. Most often the rhythm comes from a chord progression.
In the most famous Beethoven themes, such as the beginning of the 5th symphony, you will hear this internal rhythm. But too often Beethoven takes it away, and leaves us stranded. At 9:23 of the video below, we suddenly get a loud note out of nowhere. A bear has jumped out of the trees. We have now lost a sense of direction. At 14:08 we have completely lost any rhythm. When rhythm is lost, we lose our sense of direction, and we can’t predict what happens next.
If Mozart saw that, he would immediately throw it in the garbage.
The most important factor
There is one thing that only one person can do. Mozart is a master of the transition.
At 3:20 in the first video, notice how the orchestra sneaks in on the third beat of bar 74 to help the piano transition back to the theme.
Beethoven occasionally does this, but when he doesn’t, the listener feels a jolt. In Mozart’s music, sometimes whole sections are devoted to transitions. From 7:01 to 7:19 on the first video is one elongated transition back to root. Nobody does transitions so elegantly.
This is probably how our brains work
The Mozart Effect is real. Salieri said (1:46 below) “Misplace one note and there would diminishment. Misplace one phrase and the structure would fall.”
If you’re a classical music buff, you might argue that Mozart’s music is quite amateur. You might say that he lacks the depth, and “darkness” that was in Beethoven and subsequent composers. Looking at the young age at which Mozart passed (35), I would agree. Most of Mozart music jumps between various themes and ideas within each piece; he rarely sticks with one theme throughout a single piece. His music is like speech where each sentence is constructed with precision and the words flow with grace. The transitions in the speech are flawless. But the speech rambles on, and has no focal point. This might be how our brains work: we jump from idea to idea, association to association. Most of the time we don’t notice the grand theme that connects all our ideas. We hold on to five word soundbites and small ideas, just like we focus on a single tune in a symphony.
Mozart understood the core fundamentals of all classical music — instrumental clarity, an internal rhythm, and seamless transitions. No subsequent composer was able to master these fundamentals. No subsequent composer has been able to make each and every note of equal importance.
But I hope we will see one in the future. I hope in my lifetime we will see another composer who intuitively masters these fundamentals.