Friday, January 27, 2006

The Boy Who Taught the World to Dance

I have a story to tell tonight, about the best musical concert I have ever attended, and it weaves together two historical moments that are being observed today.

It will have been 20 years ago, about three days from now. It happened at Carnegie Hall here in New York, and the artist was Rudolf Serkin, the magnificent Austrian pianist. He played, as well as I can recall, two Beethoven sonatas (The Tempest and Waldstein?), maybe a Brahms piece, and then at the end of the program, the Mozart C Minor Fantasy. He walked onstage for this last piece, and before sitting down to the keyboard, he faced the audience and humbly announced, "This is for the astronauts."

If there was a dry eye in the house by the time he finished, I would not have noticed, for mine were streaming. It was one of those moments in which art and prayer merge; where you felt as if a hidden world was speaking directly through the hands and heart of an artist and his audience.

People say that language is the greatest and most uniquely human gift. I would answer, "well maybe, to the extent that it is a particular form of music." Perhaps, in the realm of non-form, the dimension of being that some must call heaven, everyone speaks and communicates in pure music, and all movement is dance. If so, it is no wonder that death is such a mystery—if it weren't, then we'd all be far too anxious to reach the blessed realm that the Buddhists call "the pure land."

For many of us, no artist in human history has ever brought us so near to that bliss-dimension as the man whose 250th birthday is being observed around the world today, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. For anyone who has ever experienced the sound of Fate breaking over the raging body of Don Giovanni; who has heard the mournful cantabile of the A Minor Clarinet Concerto; who has felt his heart melt to the prayer of the Ave Verum Corpus—Mozart is as alive today as he ever was in the Vienna or Salzburg of some two and a half centuries past.

Sure, much of what you may have heard and seen of his personality and life (most notably in Milos Forman's marvelous 1984 film, Amadeus, a link to the trailer of which is at the graphic above) is true. He was vain, often arrogant, childish and sometimes infantile (probably because of his truncated childhood, in which he was treated like the proverbial circus monkey), rude, impractical, and subject to bizarre mood swings. And it should also be noted in passing that much of what is told of him is pure bosh (and, incidentally, that the unfortunate Salieri probably had as much to do with his death as I did).

In the midst of it all, this little man with a crooked wig and a near-obsessive taste for women became the vessel of an art whose like had never been known, and never will be again. His music has inspired every musician who lived after him, whether or not they had ever consciously felt or acknowledged his influence. He moved the human race forward, by reminding us that it is our nature to be musical; by showing us that, no matter how fraught with pain a human life may be, it can still dance.

So in this moment of planetary peril and seemingly irreparable human suffering and institutional ignorance, it may not be a bad thing to pause for a moment to listen to the music of this man whose life, though a mere breath of 35 years upon the endless web of time, somehow received and recreated the song of all Life.

Hear Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus(3MB, 2:45 playtime)

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