I’ve spent the last week with Mozart. It turns out this research isn’t so useful within my PhD but the week hasn’t been fruitless...
Mozart (1756-1791) died young but left a huge amount of writing: compositions, of course, but also letters.
The great film Amadeus (Forman, 1984, adapted from the play by the same name by its writer, Schaffer, 1979) paints Mozart a colourful man. However this presentation was framed for our entertainment, even a little time with Mozart’s letters (there are a lot of them) provides the impression of a vibrant character: a character at odds with the prevalent school-like conception of Mozart as a composer somewhere between Bach and Beethoven.
The letters cover all sorts, from writing sweet words to his wife, Constanze,
Adieu—my love—my one and only!—catch them in the air—2999 and 1/2 little kisses are flying around, they are all from me and waiting to be snapped up.—Now I’m whispering something in your ear— — — —now you into mine— — —more—and more— —finally we are saying;—it’s all because of Plumpi-Strumpi—and you can imagine anything you want—that’s just what makes it so fun—adieu—1000 tender kisses and Forever yours,
(Vienna, June 6, 1791)
to requesting parts for a mass setting from a choirmaster in a different city. One of my favourite moments is found in this latter form: here a letter to Anton Stoll, in Baden, requesting, amongst other things, the quick dispatch of the voice parts for his Mass in Bb. The letter is normal enough: very familiar, friendly, direct. It gets especially interesting on the reverse side of the letter where you find written a further letter from Franz Süssmayr, Mozart’s student, echoing Mozart’s sentiment; only it is Mozart pretending to be Süssmayr: ‘my sensitive and delicate handwriting will attest to the truth of Herr von Mozart’s request’, he writes. But Mozart can’t help himself and, just to make things especially clear, signs:
I remain your
(Vienna, July 12, 1791)
In fact these are pretty tame examples of extremes in Mozart’s letters: there’s a considerable repertoire of them, known as his scatological writings. This side of Mozart is somewhat absent from scholarship. And it’s not entirely down to academic prudishness: how on earth can we put side-by-side the last movement of the Jupiter symphony and the letter to his cousin, for example, in which Mozart pens his ‘shit on your nose, so it runs down your chin’ (Mannheim, 5 November, 1777)? How do we sit such earth-shattering profundity next to such base profanity?
I’ll return to this soon because now I’ll share the highlight of my week which has been the discovery of Mozart’s scatological music.
In the eighteenth century it was common to write short canons that could be shared and performed with friends. A canon is an imitative form in which performers sing the same material but start at different times. It’s ideal to be shared amongst amateurs, for example, or to be sightread at a moment’s notice from a single sheet of paper since it consists of so little material and everyone more or less learns the same part; they’re also usually simple.
Speaking as a composer, they are, in fact, difficult to write since every note is dependent also on other notes in the same melodic line both earlier and later... That is, a note in bar 13, for example, might have to ‘work’ with notes in bars 1, 5, 9, 17, and 21 of the same melody (this is the case with an example later on). Writing canons is, in this sense, compositionally very restrictive; the real challenge, in fact, lies in crafting a genuinely interesting melodic line that, when superimposed with itself multiple times at various different intervals of time, not only sounds well but has enough textural interest to support all the lines (of itself) individually.
Today canons have retained their reputation as an academic form: Cambridge University music students who take the Advanced Tonal Skills paper in their final year of the Tripos, for instance, are required to write a 2-part canon over a free bass in a 2-hour exam sat behind a desk.
The canon by Mozart I’m about to show you is very different: it has six parts at the unison and no bass. It’s not necessarily more difficult to compose but to create a piece of such beauty and textural interest requires immense skill. I’ve reproduced a copy below which you are free to use (new voices or instruments should enter at 4-bar intervals).
This is just one of Mozart’s canons. It’s called Leck mich im Arsch. It’s better to get to know it with friends but, if inconvenient, I’ve linked a recording below (Chorus Viennensis). In this recording you’ll hear the canon in its entirety before the other voice parts join in for the second time around.
The canon itself begins with four notes of equal duration, giving equal emphasis to the four fateful words, leck mich im arsch. These are also the longest notes of the whole canon and Mozart engineers the canon so that at any point in its performance one part is singing these words.
For me this canon unites perfectly the supposedly opposite elements of Mozart’s scatological writing and his profoundly beautiful music. And before you say this is simply a joke that lacks the profundity of the Jupiter symphony finale why not listen to the opening bars (link below)? Because, across his letters to family, friends, city councils, and the rest, Mozart talks about his music in the most uncompromisingly human terms, rarely straying into technical language. Mozart’s musical interactions come across, above all, as social interactions. That this very academic counterpoint he writes in this canon is overpowered by four crude words to be shared amongst friends—and why not strangers?—is entirely fitting of Mozart’s preferred social outlook of music.
All translations from R. Spaethling: Mozart’s Letters: Mozart’s Life (UK: Bloomsbury, 2000).