It turns out that a decent cure for the post-turbulence blues is to take a healthy dose of semiquavers. There is almost no way that this cannot cheer you up, either as writer or as listener, and sitting down over the weekend to add plenty of these effusively inked beings to my latest piece has helped me reset after a wonky time in real life.
I have been listening to Mozart’s incomplete Mass in C minor this week, unequivocally a great work, rich in contrapuntal complexity but also vibrant and alive with the kind of melodic richness of the later Da Ponte operas. By any measure it is an extraordinary piece, but it is also the direct response to his discovery and study of the music of Bach and Handel – at the house of Gottfried von Swieten, and in the company of Haydn, he would study these works, imitate them, and then assimilate the techniques he discovered.
If this contradicts the view of Mozart as the fully-formed composer springing from the womb of his mother with quill and manuscript in hand, then so it should. Wolfgang studied hard, wrote a huge amount, and acquired his skills through sheer hard graft, admitting as much himself, and that is why he could write the properly spiritual as well as the complex side by side in a work such as the Mass.
In this modern age of wafty and slow choral music, the Radox school, I do wonder if a large part of the style is simply due to many composers’ inability to understand how notes work when moving at any kind of speed. The intricacies of passing notes, auxiliaries and cambiatas presuppose a knowledge of harmony and how it works, how it is articulated, and that is sadly lacking these days.
That does not mean that it cannot be acquired, though, and if persistent study was good enough for Mozart, then it is surely good enough for the rest of us. We will not all be able to pop over to a baron’s house of a Sunday and have Haydn sitting a few desks along, but them’s the breaks.
Part of study, of course, is admitting to oneself the need to study, and it is a proven phenomenon that those who know the least are those who think they need to learn nothing, precisely because they lack the critical ability to discern what they lack. Mozart had his Sunday meetings, Beethoven sought out Albrechtsberger to sharpen up his technique, while Bruckner did eight hours of counterpoint work a day – a day! – and if that is not argument to work out how individual notes react with each other then I do not know what is.