Beguiled By Mozart's Image Print

Krafft(Cadillac Cicatrix Issue 2.0, Winter, 2008)

In 1819, an unknown artist, Barbara Krafft, painted what has become the most recognizable and beloved image of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that exists. Commissioned by Joseph Sonnleithner to hang in the newly opened Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society for the Friends of Music), a conservatory in Vienna, Krafft's posthumous oil painting is based on (some say plagiarized from) another painting, The Mozart Family, by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, a work in possession of Mozart's sister, Nannerl. (Among the other few renderings are Mozart at seven and fourteen, in which he's portrayed as a pasty aristocrat; there are facial profiles as a boxwood medallion and a silhouette.) In the Croce work, dated 1780-81, Nannerl and Wolfgang are playing, perhaps improvising, a duet at the piano; the father, Leopold, is holding a violin and looking on; and the scene is countenanced by a trophy-head-like portrait of the composer's mother, Anna Maria, who died in 1778. In 1781, Mozart would have been 25; he would have just married Constanze and premiered his first opera seria, Idomeneo.

The Croce portrait idealizes a family in which Mozart appears a smothered member; the Krafft portrait idealizes the composer as perspicacious and ennobled. (Two 1789 paintings [two years before Mozart's death], one by Joseph Lange, another by Doris Stock, have much in common—thicker hair, larger head, pudgier face, a mystical or transcendent gaze, almost archbishopric.) The Croce portrait carries antic perspectives: the head of Leopold, who stands behind the piano, amorously fingering the violin's neck, is at the same level as his son's head, who is seated at the piano; the mother's portrait is way too big as is Nannerl's hairdo, a frizzed-out, beribboned coiffure, a flag flattened by the wind. Brother's and sister's hands are like claws. By contrast, Krafft's image—its yellow-white light upon the red-coated composer exudes sophistication and hauteur—resembles Mozart's slightly turned and slightly embarrassed face (it was said, he didn't like front-facing portrayals) in the Croce. Unlike the Italian artist, the German painter makes something of the composer. But what?

In Krafft's depiction, some 28 years after her subject's death and nearly 40 years after the time of the portrayal, we see the clean, perhaps dusted skin of Mozart's face; the silver-grey wig, like fur of a domesticated mink, its twin curls stacked and slanted rakishly above his right ear; that bold, giddily repressed look on his face, sauced by his own genius or surprised, as we are, that the painter has intercepted a smirk whose target will always elude us. Krafft seems to have posed and dressed Mozart just so. His outfit, hair, and bearing are imperial—the puffed-up chest also feels intended, though untrue to the composer's scrawny physique (he did balloon up from living high in his thirties); the marks from smallpox that disfigured his face are gone. Still, she embodies the gallant boy-man well. The pronounced nose anchors an indomitable face; the sexualized lips speak of recent baby-making with Constanze; the forehead is cleared of its headache; the arching eyebrows slough off his stubborn depression; and the eyes, wide awake and steely clear, are more confident than his letters let on: Mozart was bedeviled by a lack of confidence others had in him, though he himself was supremely self-assured. He had soaked up the wild adulation and bitter jealousy his talent inspired; no one, after all, really knew how to regard his genius for improvising melody. In later life, he was plagued by debt, not only because he was profligate but also because it took far too long for him to receive a paid position as a composer. He was—and he grew to loathe the circus act even as he free-lanced it—a reliable showman who composed and played concerti that spotlighted his facility, who wrote arias to flaunt singers he liked and who, for a song, over-adored him. One of Mozart's desires, so he told his father, was to write performable music for orchestras and be paid a princely sum as a Kapellmiester or court organist for his labor.

Krafft's image cannot be the person, of course. Such a view of any artist, let alone one as mercurial as Mozart, is unpaintable. And yet, just as the photo of Albert Einstein with his electric shock of white hair is him or the duplicated silk-screening of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol is her, Krafft's rendering has become the image we accede to—less for its psychology and more for its commercial appeal: a useful image that appears on CD covers, Mostly or Mainly Mozart festival programs, Viennese lager labels, relaxation tape boxes issued by "Mozart for Mothers-To-Be", and so on. Perhaps Constanze, who outlived her husband by 50 years and would have known Krafft, urged the artist to recall Amadeus as she had treasured him from 1781, the idealistic, vain, flowering composer in his mid-20s. Krafft upholds this family-promulgated myth about Mozart—the Christ-like pippin, eternally on tour, be-wigged by Papa. All her adult life Constanze continued Leopold's infantilization of the composer. The reasons that she exaggerated Wolfgang's puerile nature are numerous, Mozart biographer Maynard Solomon writes, but they boil down to her profiting off his legend and his music's growing public adoration while her second husband prepared a massive two-volume "official" biography of the man he had replaced. But never mind these speculations. Mozart has stopped by the artist's atelier to bestow something less than authentic about himself on the painter's eye.

It's this less than authentic I struggle with in Krafft's portrait. Simply put, I make out in her portrait only one Mozart, not the whole of him. I want to know, having been given this portrayal as my guide by my classical-music culture, what is missing and what of him could ever be rendered. Where in her rendition, for example, is the man who, in 1781, was adding to his brilliant instrumental compositions equally brilliant operas? Where is the self-authenticating composer we treasure, the maker of the Symphony No 40 in G minor and the G minor Piano Quartet, K478; the Piano Concerto in E flat, No 9, Jeunehomme, and the unfinished Requiem; the Piano Sonata in A Minor K310 whose first-movement development spins out with an obsessional, near joyless drama? Where is the man who wrote the Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola, and orchestra, whose Andante, perhaps the most rhapsodic eleven minutes of music ever composed, was written to memorialize his mother, whom Mozart comforted as she died? Where is the man who a week after her death said in a letter, "I wished at that moment to depart with her"? That composer, whose sorrow is sutured into the Andante's melody, which he extends and varies and lingers on and won't unleash until it has exhausted listener and performer with a grave sublimity, is nowhere evident in Krafft's painting.

It's the president's-head-on-the-coin problem: Mozart is being represented in everyman fashion. Which is fine for a bull-headed president who seeks such representation, but it doesn't fit Mozart: an everyman prodigy is meaningless. Krafft gives us static, not dynamic, cliched, not native, manservant, not man. She seems to have thought that by casting him with the air of a landowner (you can almost smell the hound sleeping at his feet), she could deliver him to the nobility in whose company even he longed to be. Did it occur to Krafft that there was an actual Mozart—difficult, fiendish, scatological, vulnerable, ill—whose blend of traits and conditions she might imagine before her execution? I don't think she imagined anything. She painted what she was commissioned to paint. (Of all composers, how strange that this version of Mozart from a painter who had no psychological insight is the one we would celebrate.) Here is a picture of the composer who cannot be seen or summed in a single image, and yet here is the picture we have come to regard as him. We are to believe what we don't believe.

(An analogy may help: the problem of representation is much like the problem of God for atheists. Disbelief in a supreme being does nothing to cancel the fact that God has existed for billions of people who have lived and who live now, convinced that He, a bearded old white, black, or brown man, walking on clouds, is real to them because He has been imaged through centuries of still-accruing mythic, historical, literary, musical, and churchly glosses.)

Which music in Krafft's portrayal does she intend us to hear? Perhaps it's the entertaining Mozart of the serenades and divertimenti. The John-Phillip-Sousa Mozart of the German dances and cassations. The Tin-Pan-Alley Mozart of the Italian arias. The juvenile Mozart of the toilet humor and butt jokes. The Amadeus movie-Mozart, the celluloid image not unlike Krafft's single frame, an actor in buckled shoes staked to depravity, sexual and otherwise, who must endure Salieri's rules and his poisoned cup. Cue the Haffner Symphony and roll the credits. What I want to know is where does Mozart's obliging transparency come from? And then, thinking of the Mozart tourists, who are lining up right now to tour his birth home in Salzburg, enraptured by little Wolfie and his feet dangling above the pedals, who are buying Krafft's portrait on a postcard, I get stuck. I get stuck on Krafft because she may have groked the adulterous side of Mozart's genius. In a word, his persona. In her rendering, there is a reluctant truth: he is the one-dimensional dandy I don't want him to be. In her, he is maddeningly untroubled, Mozartean to the bone. And why not. All of us hear this Sunday in the park quality, bicycling through him. It is accessible and sincere, without effort or guile. It's a quality in passing in Brahms and never in Stravinsky. (Brahms always sounds Brahmsian, which is to say nurturing a grand effect that, to our delight, he seems incapable of curbing, such as the opening movement of the Violin Concerto.)

Does that easy-sounding Mozart, then, allow us to hear the well resound, what we his pure-at-heart lovers swear by: his contrapuntal, orchestral, and operatic adventure? In the Jupiter Symphony. In the Haydn Quartets, especially K464. In what a friend calls the "tragic passion" of the G minor String Quintet and the Piano Concerto in D minor, No 20. In the harrowing pulled-down-to-Hell combat, 'Don Giovanni, a cenar teco m-invitasti', of Don Giovanni's penultimate scene. Tuned to those astonishing pieces, is it even fair to contrast their emotional ardor with the croquet-play of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik? How could it be fair? And why? Why comparison shop? On rare occasions does Mozart combine felicity and the fiend, such as in the opening Allegro spiritoso of the Piano Concerto in C minor, No 24. The angrily leaping melody, the rifle shots between soloist and orchestra, the maniacal cadenza (at least in the version I prize: pianist Robert Casadeus with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, 12 January 1954), are contrasted by the piano's second theme, as though Mozart, unsettled by his own impetuosity, needed to calm himself down. (The subsequent Larghetto sounds even more placid than normal.) Taking his compositions together, his brooding masterworks, like this concerto, are consistently inconsistent. But what do we learn by separating them from his beloved hits? Weren't the latter the means by which Mozart liberated himself from the puerile excesses of his own talent?



All this, I think, begins to dethrone Mozart from the untouchable, to bring him down closer to be one of us, un-divine. In Opera As Drama, while discussing The Magic Flute, Joseph Kerman wrote, "Mozart never saw man's will as inevitably opposed by the will of God. He conceived an essential harmony expressed by human feelings; his terms were brotherhood and sympathy and humility, not damnation and defiance." Here is a mensch, who is not belligerent like Beethoven, who is not ruthless like his father. This Mozart is of the chamber not of the cloister. While Bach wrote for God's glory, Mozart wrote for ours. His music is not interested in God, but rather in human perfectibility. His self-development is spiritually ascendant without being religious. At the end of his long-short life, Mozart joined the Freemasons, a polytheistic and benevolent group who had briefly supported him and his family with money and lodging. Their beliefs echoed his—the rights of man, liberty, tolerance, the significance of reason, the necessity of love. His egalitarian writing, which emphasizes balanced voices and passionate restraint, is Masonic in its dedication to and demonstration of the most difficult democratic concept of the Enlightenment, brotherhood.

Perhaps Krafft paints the arrogant spark from which the noble idea of brotherhood must spring. He's composed: there's a cessation of hostilities, a will to nonviolence, that glimmers in the face-full moment of her brush. His beaming confidence hovers beyond the uncoiling worry we find so often in Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich. Idealized portraits of those bedeviled egotists do not exist; their images bear no Krafft. In the music of the post-classical masters we are attacked by the unexpected and the dangerous; few possess Mozart's composure, his decorousness, his panache. Propriety in Berlioz? Sunshine in Shostakovich? Composers coming after Mozart battle with God, with tradition, with themselves. None of them is Mozartean, for they are grounded in wild, beautiful despair. The man who transcended the ego of his successors initiates the inevitable rushing away from his brief reign. Our end is his beginning.

By here, exhausted by my search, I put on the earphones and listen. The piece—the Andante of the String Quartet in F, K590—brings me into it as music, where at once I'm thrust inside the rhythmic hill-and-dales, the melodic gracefulness, the bobbing hesitations, the pauses for breath and rest, hurrying and hurrying less and hurrying not at all, the incantatory tonal balance that keeps arriving in predictable waves until the next moment in which all those things I'm hearing and been thinking I've been hearing (in my calculating-writing mind), are lost to and seduced by another beginning (a slow, a sudden onset, I can't tell) that pans a landscape, rises to mountains behind fields—and I leave the music, my thoughts straying to Big Sur, California, a place from which I've just returned, amid the beach-close islands of white rock, cliffs of white sand, the fog-dripping boughs of the cypress trees, a hot sulfur-spring creek cascading into the ocean, where in a pool the gulls bathe, the end of America, the end of dreaming. And yet you say all music allows this drift into and away from itself. It is music's nature. I can't deny it. But music history includes Mozart as much as it culminates in him, as Aristotle embodies philosophy. What rings clear to me—once the Andante has ended—is that music of the twentieth century demands we listen, for in lacking the terra firma of tonal structures it requires more (often too much) attention, while music of the eighteenth century and before, in its harmonic simplicity and stasis, demands our attention less. Mozart was the apex of a music whose duality combines our directed and undirected attentions. It is a music that makes us conscious and unconscious as we listen. It gives birth to a self, playful and sober, who confesses and masquerades. And it says that the self can be the persona, which "I" must go through to get to myself. Wolfgang c'est moi.

And so, in Krafft's portrayal, I see him, I don't see him. Hide and seek. In the same way I do and do not see myself. One element, finally clear, is Krafft's ironic implication has come home to roost. To understand the composer is to reach for such maxims—"While Bach wrote for God's glory, Mozart wrote for ours"—in which I, like Krafft, arrange him, for my sake, to a pose. The analytical tempest in me, which Mozart awakens and sets moving, wants him enlarged by his tempestuousness and his enigmas. And yet that is my way of posing him, my way of portraying him. So that he obliges my ambivalence about his fame. So that his certainty opens up my uncertainty about him.

The foregoing I have paced with for a year now until one day I realize that all this may have been Mozart's conundrum, too, namely, that he was taken in as much as he cultivated his own sincerity and approachableness. An idea of Mozart existed for Mozart himself to follow—to laugh with and at those others who posed him. And this, I'm eager now to admit, may have been the thing Krafft has painted, that is, if a painting can still be finished after it is done. If the essence of Mozart is to cover and reveal in equal measure, then Krafft nails him. In her brush, she has copied the copier. While I don't want the copy or the copier to be the original, while I don't want Mozart to be Krafft's common notion but, rather, a kind of ravishing imp in the aesthetic woods, still I must accept the man Krafft has captured. Through her comes Mozart's magnanimity, which bridges the eighteenth and the twenty-first centuries and is constantly becoming the way a world in need of his music demands he be.

The urge of the postmodern, which distinguishes our age, is to demythologize legends. And yet were we to demythologize Mozart we would lose that irresistible quality which prompted us to fall in love with him in the first place. Which prompted Constanze to fall in love with him and to have Krafft, many years after his death, paint him just so: a Mozart, reflecting not his—for they cannot be found—but our limitations: to see in the creator as much a brother as an entertainer. That limitation may have been resonating in Gustav Mahler, in 1911, when he died. Consumed by a streptococcal blood infection, carried to bed, given oxygen to breathe, Mahler was watched over by his wife, Alma. She reported that during his final moments she watched his fingers, bouncing in the conductor's supple way, direct what seemed a jaunty melody. She leaned in close, placed her ear close to his mouth, and heard his final words: "Mozart. Mozart."