Mozart and Me: Stories of the Supernatural Oct22

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Mozart and Me: Stories of the Supernatural

By way of introduction may I say my doctoral dissertation was on the early Mozart Symphonies, I have worked on editorial problems of an urtext edition of Mozart piano sonatas for Universal Editions in Vienna, I have co-authored articles on Mozart compositions in the leading European journals, including the Mozart-Jarhbuch, Music and Letters and the London Musical Times and I have lectured on Mozart performance style in Hungary, Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, England, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Peru and the US.

But for all that, my real personal connection with Mozart is the same as that experienced by everyone who has performed his music. There is in his music such a universality of feeling as to make him seem an intimate friend. Mozart belongs to us all. While I, therefore, would not want to claim any special relationship with Mozart beyond that felt by all musicians, I nevertheless have some unsettling stories I wish to share.

In 1968 my wife and I moved to Vienna in order for me to study conducting at the famous Akademie of Musik. We both felt that if we were going to live in Vienna we wanted to live in Vienna, right in the middle and not out in the 25th district. We were fortunate to find a small apartment on Kartnerstrasse just one block and a half from the great cathedral, Stefansdom, which is the heart of the city.

From the first moment I stepped into this apartment I had a strong feeling of the presence of Mozart. Of course I immediately attributed this to the basic excitement of being, on my first trip to Europe, in the city of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler. But this feeling of the presence of Mozart in this apartment continued for the entire year. Of course when my mind was otherwise  involved in perhaps conversing with my wife, or studying scores, etc., the ‘Mozart Effect’ was not apparent. But in moments of reflection the feeling returned. It was always there.

Twenty years later, in 1988, I read a new small book by Robbins Landon called The Last Year of Mozart’s Life. In this book he had reproduced a map of central Vienna dating from about the time of Mozart’s death. In these old European cities the basic blocks of building remain the same but the streets tend to change names over the centuries. It was, therefore, only when I saw this older map that I realized that my apartment was in the same building and on the same floor as the apartment in which Mozart died! The reader will understand the utter sense of shock as I thought back on those feelings of 1968. Indeed for some weeks I had the circumstances of the death of Mozart constantly on my mind.

To free myself from this obsession I decided, as a kind of exorcism, to write a Requiem for Mozart, who did not have one performed when he died. Fortunately I was on sabbatical the Spring of 1988 and could devote myself completely to the composition of this my second symphony, the Sinfonia da Requiem. There are a number of curious things about this work, beginning with the fact that the act of composition was almost without a sense of labor. Indeed the first and fourth movements came to me faster than I could write them down. As a novice composer (this was my Opus 3) I found this rather startling but I attribute it to the fact that my feelings were so unusually focused. It is when the feelings are not engaged that composition becomes difficult.

The performance of this Sinfonia da Requiem has always had a strong impact on the audience, especially in concerts throughout Europe. I attribute this to the music drawing upon the listener’s own love of Mozart and thoughts of his early death to the surface. Indeed, on more than one occasion I have turned to face the audience at the end of a performance of this work in Europe to find numerous audience members crying. Not many band compositions can do this.

Even more startling are some of the things which have happened during the performance of the third movement, the ‘Dies Irae,’ or ‘The Day of Judgment.’ One of the earliest performances was given in a beautiful Baroque Church in Switzerland, where the altar had been removed and the wind ensemble sat in its place at the front of the church. Although I had paid no particular attention to it beforehand, behind the ensemble was a gigantic Baroque painting of the Day of Judgment. There was Jesus in the center of the painting, with hands reaching out as some persons were floating up to Heaven and others sinking down into Hell. At the conclusion of the performance some 25 persons, listeners from various locations in the church, listeners unknown to each other, came running up to me declaring that during the performance of the ‘Dies Irae’ they saw the figures in the painting moving! These audience members had the most urgent need to tell someone about this and all I could do was listen for I certainly did not know what to say to them.

The following evening we performed this work in a concert in Brescia, Italy. Here, being a hot summer evening, we performed in a lovely outdoor setting, a stage surrounded by seats for the audience and behind them ancient buildings. The acoustics were wonderful, the audience very attentive and appreciative and the sky clear without a single cloud. That being the case, the entire audience, as well as myself and the ensemble, were stunned when during the performance of the ‘Dies Irae’ there occurred a single, very loud clap of thunder! I actually have recording of this and on the tape one can hear people saying, ‘What was that?’

The reader will understand that after these two adjacent experiences, I have always somewhat on edge when conducting this movement in public. Several years ago I conducted this symphony in Taiwan in a great concert in a very large concert hall in Taipei. The members of the ensemble were somewhat nervous because of the large audience so to calm them down a bit, intending to be humorous, I told that of the strange things which had happened in earlier performances of the ‘Dies Irae,’ and warned them that anything could happen and to just keep playing! During the performance of this movement the players were startled and took it as a sign of the power of music that an earthquake occurred!

I have mentioned above my unsettling experience in Vienna with the spirit of Mozart. In 1991 I experienced an even more vivid confrontation with–shall we call it–Mozart’s ghost. In 1991 all the civilized people of the world were holding festivals in honor of the 200th anniversary of the death of Mozart. In Los Angeles, of course, this event went unnoticed. I determined that someone in Los Angeles must acknowledge this anniversary, so I decided to organize an event in which the students could participate.

Mozart died at 5 minutes before 1:00 AM in the early morning of December 5, 1791. My plan to celebrate this anniversary was to have a party for the students on the evening of December 4 during which we would watch the movie, Amadeus, together, followed by my reading of some personal reflections of Mozart by his friends in order to give the students a better sense of what Mozart was like as a person. I had this all timed so that my readings would conclude just in time for us to observe a moment of silence at exactly 12:55 AM, December 5–200 years to the minute after Mozart’s death. Then we would have coffee and donuts and conversation about Mozart.

Accordingly, I arrived early to clean the rehearsal hall, where the party would occur. I brought over from the faculty lounge a giant coffee maker which made 60 or 70 cups of coffee as I had expected that this party would be enormously popular with the music students. Earlier in the day I had purchased some 9 or 10 dozen donuts.

When the time came I was greatly disappointed when only about 8 or 9 students appeared. I had forgotten that juries and final exams were in progress, not to mention the vast competition of other things to do in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, because of my determination to honor Mozart, I decided we would go ahead with the evening as planned even though there were so few of us present.

These few students who attended were very moved by the evening as it progressed, but after the moment of silence at 12:55 AM they all immediately departed, leaving me to dispose of some 100 donuts and a river of coffee. So, I was feeling somewhat sorry for myself for having gone to so much trouble for so few students and for now having to clean up by myself so late at night.

After securing the video equipment, the next order of business (it was now well past 1:00 AM) was to empty and wash out the giant coffee maker. In order to drain and wash out the coffee maker it was necessary to carry it out of the rehearsal room, across a courtyard and into another wing of the music building where the faculty lounge was located. I picked it up by the handle on each side and began duck-walking this very heavy vessel across the courtyard. I remember that as I approached the other wing of the building I realized I was going to have to set the big coffee maker on the ground in order to open the two heavy industrial-type doors on that side of the building to make it possible to carry the coffee maker through. At the very moment I was about to set the coffee maker on the ground both doors swung open of their own accord. I walked through, carrying the coffee maker, and the doors closed behind me. Needless to say, I was quite startled by this.

But there was something even more significant which accompanied these doors opening. At the very moment I walked through the open doors I experienced a mild kind of cold chill together with a very vivid mental suggestion that it was Mozart who had opened the doors and that it was a gesture of thanks for my having gone to the effort to plan this celebration. This thought disappeared as suddenly as it had occurred. While I could not explain any of this, it certainly served as an antidote for self-pity.

There occur from time to time in life things for which there are no rational explanations. For my part I can only assure the reader that the ‘unassisted’ opening and closing of these doors occurred exactly as I have described it.