The German Style of Expression in Mozart’ Music
Mozart is not generally thought of as one for innovation or experimentation or creation of new forms or structures. He died too young. It was only in his last year that he began to show what he could do outside of the existing forms.
He is known more for taking what existed and perfecting it, and showing the possibilities of what could be done with it. The piano concerto became a mainstay of concerts, because he sold subscriptions to his own concerts and almost always had a piano concerto to play himself.
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His operas took the recent reforms initiated by Gluck, straight forward story telling, drama and music wedded and welded to each other, with just enough showmanship for the singers to be satisfied, but not so much that it became tasteless or ridiculous, overwhelming the entire work.
One very important element he expanded on in his operas were the ensembles and finales. The second act finale to The Marriage of Figaro is something of a miracle in every way, and all opera composers afterwards tried to emulate it, from Rossini, to Nicolai, to Donizetti, to Verdi. Mozart set a new standard for cohesiveness of plot and music with that.
And Mozart was the first to imbue his opera characters with realistic personalities and psychology. You get the first sense of it with Idomeneo, and a bit more with Abduction – Osmin in particular – but from Figaro onward, when you see a performance of a Mozart opera, you know and remember the characters. Mozart’s characters are distinct from each other and memorable. The shining example of this is in Don Giovanni, where the three characters essential to the drama (Giovanni, Leporello and the Commendatore) are all bass or bass-baritone. The singers can all sing the same notes as they are all in the same vocal range more or less, but Mozart’s music for each of them creates three distinctly different characters, most evident in the scenes where all three of them sing at the same time: you can still pick out each one of the three.
And one last point – he showed that operas could be sung in German, if the music were composed to follow German speech patterns. Italian and French, romance languages, tend to put stress on their vowels, which allows for long passages and vocal runs on a single syllable or single vowel. The German language is much more consonant oriented, and consonants are almost impossible to elongate in singing. But with Abduction From The Seraglio and The Magic Flute, Mozart demonstrated that music could be composed to fit the German style of expression. In addition to that, The Magic Flute incorporates a lot of different forms, from folk song to religious music, from dramatic solo arias to goofy chorus numbers, from simple melody and accompaniment to a contrapuntal chorale in the style of Bach.
The Magic Flute is where Mozart really began to shake things up and do something different and new. The sad thing is that he died two months after its premiere, at age 36, and we have no idea in what directions Mozart might have gone had he lived to a mature old age. The Magic Flute hints at it, but it really was his first step in a new direction. Mozart died just as he began to branch out with a new voice and new ideas, and at an age where other composers (Verdi, Wagner) were just getting started.