This week celebrated the 265th birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He might have died hundreds of years ago, but his genius was so incandescent, and his output so prolific, that his work still features almost constantly in our lives. Advertising jingles, movie soundtracks, song samples, elevator music, ringtones, doorbells – it can be argued that you will hear a Mozart tune at least once a week, whether you are aware of it or not.
But Mozart is not the only one whose work has endured to the extent that it has become part of our collective unconscious. There are a few musical icons that so mastered a genre in which they worked, that it was almost as if divine inspiration brought them together. So here – for those of you who know the tune but just cannot think who wrote it, is a very potted guide to classical music.
Mozart died at the age of 35, but in that short time he wrote down more than 600 major works. Thousands of piano pieces are lost, mainly because he composed as he was playing, and then dashed off into so many variations that writing them all down would be like catching a waterfall in a bucket.
He is famously quoted as saying that he ‘writes music the way a sow piddles’ and almost everything he did is regarded as a pinnacle of musical achievement in that particular genre. It would be almost impossible to select just one piece, as he excelled in every single field. And his music is used so often (Eine Kleine Nachtmusiek being about the most ubiqitous) that almost everything with a dum-diddle-diddle-dum is ascribed to Mozart.
However, what is arguably the most beautiful piece of music ever written is the Andante from his Flute and Harp Concerto. Here it is, performed by the St Petersburg Conservatory ensemble, pretty much the way that the angels in heaven would play it.
A second piece, widely parodied and misunderstood, is the Queen of the Night Aria from the Magic Flute. To the unitiated this sounds like a happy little bubble of a tune. In fact, the Queen of the Night is ordering her daughter to assassinate the High Priest Sarastro in order to seize the Circle of Light.
While Mozart mastered every single genre, there are some art forms that were tailor-made for certain composers. In Russia, the flowering of the ballet was matched exactly by the genius of Tchaikovsky – who, if he had lived today, would have been one of the world’s foremost movie composers. The man really knew how to tell a story!
It is just a pity that the most perfect of artforms, the ballet Swan Lake, which is arguably the finest melding of dance, story, music and mood, had to be ruined by the enduring mash-ups of its most famous scene: the dance of the little swans.
But the prize for best piece of ballet music has to go to the Pas de Deux from the Nutcracker ballet,
Opera-wise, few people owned the opera the way that Puccini did. Tunes from Madame Butterfly, La Boheme, Turandot and Tosca have become part of our lives (Olympic theme songs, anyone?). But possibly his most poignant work comes from a comic opera, Gianni Schicchi, where a young girl pleads with her father to allow her to be with the man she loves.
And finally, the man who put the class into classical – Beethoven, who dominates the symphony like no-one else. His Fifth is so well known that people have stopped listening to it, which is a pity as it is really one of the greatest pieces of all time. But it is the second movement of the Emperor piano concerto that stops hearts everywhere.