Ashes to Ashes: Notes upon Hearing Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto


November 1, 2006

How shall we speak of Mozart? We are always struck by his sprightly lyricism, of course, which offers us immeasurable delight but at the same time brings tears to our eyes—the tears that arrive when we find ourselves hailed with pure beauty. Grandeur, hilarity, bliss, poignancy, joy—what words suffice?

I was listening to Mozart the other day, which I do on most days. Upon hearing this particular concerto I found myself contemplating an oddity. On the one hand there is joy for us all. But on the other, if you think about it, the whole thing proceeds upon the most unrelieved slavery. For a start, Mozart himself must “obey” the rigorous pattern imposed upon his genius the moment the work begins to take shape in his imagination. He is very far from being free to “express himself.” That will be the furthest thing from his mind, since “himself” is nothing at all to the purpose here. And we, his audience, are not a group met to “share.” We want to hear the concerto. Once his quill had started across the staff lines on the paper he found himself less and less free to follow mere whim. The thing itself supersedes all. (How any artist’s genius collaborates with the materials—marble, gesso, pigment, words, notes—and with the pattern that is taking shape, opens up questions that seem intractable.) And then we have the conductor—the maestro. But again, he is bound to obey the score, no matter what sort of prima donna he may suppose himself to be. He must obey a sostenuto here and a vivace there if that is what Mozart has indicated.

Things only get worse when we come to the orchestra. Here is the concertmaster, a man bringing to his task weary decades of toil (“I can’t get that interval”), renunciation (“No, I can’t swim this afternoon; I have to practice”), and fidelity (“Pay attention, boy! Can’t you see that e-flat?”). He, if anyone, merits some freedom, surely? Not to mention all the other musi­cians: Questions of each one’s own dignity and achievements, or of what­ever “issues” he may lumber around with, are utterly taboo on this stage. But surely this is an outrage? Don’t they know who I am? they all might shout. Wouldn’t they like me to share my identity with them?

No. No, no, no. It seems brutal. What can be said to ameliorate this serene interdict that seems to ignore the musicians themselves? Very little, actually, at least on this level. It is to point out the obvious, of course, to remark that all good musicians, from Mozart to the drummer, scarcely think of the problem, having long since been drawn into the higher en­terprise of the music, and away from the attitude that insists on itself as the cynosure. As long as it is a ques­tion of me, then that is all we will get—not, really, what we came for. It is, eventually, hell—where ennui, bickering, anguish, jealousy, hatred, and futility preside.

The paradox is that when one has been drawn into an enterprise so great that he is no longer the whole point, there arises for him, and for the audience, a joy unimaginable so long as he insists that it is he who finally matters.

But there is more. Oddly, this clamorous self is transfigured at the far end of the wearisome years of obe­dience to the demands of catgut and horsehair, or reed, or mouthpiece, or score. So long as he supposed that the whole enterprise was principally a matter of discovering some elusive “identity,” then very little music would have appeared, and no joy for any of us. But when that me is sacrificed in the interest of something else, then we get Vladimir Ashkenazy and Den­nis Brain and Jean-Pierre Rampal and Itzhak Perlman.

The saints seem to speak of some­thing like this.


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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