For regular readers of this blog, the following comment will come as something of a shock, but in the music section of this Sunday's New York Times Arts & Leisure section, chief music critic Anthony Tommasini has a first-rate piece on Mozart with much of which I find myself in complete agreement. To wit:
[L]ike Mozart lovers everywhere, I’ve been hearing a lot of his music in this Mozart year, the 250th anniversary of his birth, and two trends in the later works, two paths Mozart seemed to be exploring, jump out at me.
One suggests where Mozart was heading as an opera composer. By the time of “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Don Giovanni” and “Così Fan Tutte,” the three masterpieces he wrote with his librettist sidekick Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart had become a master of the theater. Among other achievements, in these works he transformed the comic-opera genre into a vehicle for sublime, complex and profound dramas. That Mozart so deftly balanced comic and tragic elements in these works is wondrous enough. What stands out more is the emotional ambiguity that comes through in scene after scene, thanks to Mozart’s uncannily elusive music.
The other compositional trend in Mozart’s late works is harder to grasp and difficult to describe. It involves his increasing preoccupation with motifs and the technique usually called motivic development.
Motivic development, which reached a zenith in Viennese Classicism, allows a composer to generate an entire score from a small pool of motifs, the little components that make up a theme or a phrase. These components can be a cell of pitches, a snippet of a melody, a short rhythmic figure.
Composing music this way did not come naturally to Mozart. He had an intuitive gift for melody, a keen ear for searching harmony and a hard-won but complete mastery of contrapuntal writing that allowed him to tuck intricate, multivoice passages into his operas, even in the midst of some bustling comic ensemble. Yet he was by nature a man of the theater. His piano concertos come across like operas for instruments, as do many of his piano sonatas. Generating a string quartet or a symphony through the technique of motivic development took a special sort of focus and effort.
[I]n the summer of 1788, Mozart worked simultaneously on his last three symphonies: No. 39 in E flat, No. 40 in G minor and No. 41 in C (“Jupiter”). [...] Why did he undertake them? ... [M]y guess is that he wanted finally to come to terms with this matter of motivic development.
His work paid off. Almost every bit of the G minor Symphony, for example, can be heard as emanating from the motifs that make up the first phrases of the first movement....
These matters are difficult to describe in words. The point is that for all its tumultuous shifts, this symphony sounds inexorable and of a piece from beginning to end. Mozart worked long and hard to make it so.
I think I can imagine where Mozart was heading as a theater composer. But with this business of motivic development and the symphony he was just getting started. What a loss. Forget reaching his sister’s age. If only he had made it to 50.
If only, indeed. It's long been a deeply held and cherished conceit of mine that had Mozart lived to reach his sister's age at death before death too overtook him, he would have made Wagner entirely unnecessary as an operatic innovator having long before Wagner began writing his two theoretical treatises on opera — Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (The Artwork of the Future) of 1849, and Oper und Drama of 1851 — already firmly established music-drama as opera's new form and ultimate realization.
A Mozart music-drama — a music-drama as Wagner ultimately conceived music-drama. The mind reels at just the thought of the transcendent possibilities.