By: David Shavin
The world pauses on Jan. 27 to commemorate, and reflect upon, the blessing of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Born 250 years ago, in 1756, Mozart would come to epitomize the miracle of the child prodigy. However, more miraculous is that this child prodigy, as an adult, between the ages of 21 and 29, fought and won the battle to master the inner workings of his genius.
It is one thing for a natural blessing to amaze and inspire with its promise of the hidden capacities of humanity. But to examine the inner workings of natural miracles, and to mine the wealth that lies hidden there, is to redeem that promise. Mozart’s scientific investigations—most concentrated, from 1782 to 1785, on J.S. Bach’s contrapuntal musical language—allowed him to address the common genius in all of humanity that makes our love of beauty possible. For that reason, Mozart should more properly epitomize for us today that temple of liberty and beacon of hope, that same republic, newly established between the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the 1787 U.S. Constitution. The radical idea, that man is endowed by his Creator with the mental and moral capacities to discover how a nation-state might act for the general welfare, is the type of systematic miracle that Mozart proved was possible.
It is for this reason, more than the happy coincidence of the tricentennial of Benjamin Franklin’s Jan. 17, 1706 birth, that this commemoration of Mozart’s birth will focus on the overlooked link between the two hard-working geniuses. France Joins America, 1778
In the spring of 1778, France joined as America’s ally against the British Empire—the fruit of the sustained work of Benjamin Franklin and his long-time ally, Louis, the Marechal da Noailles. In 1752, Louis had arranged for King Louis XV to premiere Franklin’s electricity experiments at his estate—thus breaking the blackout by the British Royal Society, and triggering European-wide excitement over the possibility of harnessing the power of lightning.
Louis, the head of a powerful French family was, among other things, a long-time supporter of Beaumarchais in his republican schemes, including the provision of vital military supplies for the Americans. And, a year before France joined the war, the husband of Louis’ granddaughter Adrienne joined General Washington, making LaFayette the living symbol of the Noailles’ family commitment.
On April 6, 1778, Mozart’s father, Leopold, wrote to his son, who had arrived in Paris two weeks earlier: “Write and tell me whether France has really declared war on England. You will now see the American Minister, Dr. Franklin. France recognizes the independence of the 13 American provinces and has concluded treaties with them.” Within weeks, the 22-year-old was offered the position of the court organist for the King and Queen. His “Symphonie Concertante” for violin and viola, gives a sense of what he was able to offer the French court at that time.
However, Baron von Grimm—who edited an Enlightenment intelligence/gossip newletter for the European courts on behalf of the Duke d’Orleans—instructed Mozart to stay away from the Court (despite Leopold’s written instructions to Grimm in favor of the position). Instead, Grimm sent Mozart to curry favor by playing background music while the aristocrats played cards. Mozart bolted from Grimm’s control, going to the Noailles estate at St. Germain for ten days. Over Mozart’s strenuous objections, Grimm bought the young composer a coach ride out of the country. Thus, France’s loss became Austria’s gain. Mozart: Vienna’s Republican Leader
It is provably the case that during his last ten years, from 1781-1791, Mozart’s role in Vienna was that of the key public spokesman for American republicanism. The political, social, and cultural reforms of Emperor Joseph II, strenuously promulgated from 1780-1785, attempted to wrench the Austro-Hungarian Empire out of feudalism, and to develop a healthy middle-class citizenry. The Franklin networks that Mozart worked with there—including Joseph II, Ignaz von Born, Dr. Ingenhousz, and Moses Mendelssohn’s team—designed the policies and wrote the words. But Mozart’s unique role was to reach into men’s hearts and pull out their sublime qualities, a capacity developed because he loved the world more than he loved his own natural genius. Voltaire or Mozart?
When Mozart was born, the world was still reeling from a horrible catastrophe a few weeks earlier, on All Souls Day, Nov. 1, 1755. The earthquake and tsunami in Lisbon, with 60,000 deaths, horrified civilized Europe—shaking people’s confidence in their world and their Creator. Voltaire famously used this incident to launch his “Candide” assault upon Gottfried Leibniz and his cultural optimism, his confidence in the powers, grace, and beauty of the human mind.
Today, the horror from the destruction of the December 2004 tsunami, or from the August 2005 flooding of New Orleans, or from the ongoing deaths in Iraq, gives rise to anger that can so easily slide into rage and pessimism. However, if we take seriously the miracle of Mozart and the miracle of the founding of the American republic, the babies that are being born today, should all rise to Mozart’s level or above. Bending our thoughts and actions to any level below that makes a mockery of Mozart’s birthday.
Ben Franklin not only posed that the worth of new scientific discoveries was in the category of the worth of a new baby. He also posed to us that they had created a republic, should we choose to do the work to keep it. Long live Ben and Wolfgang!