Mozart, Giver of Pain

There’s an episode of the original “Star Trek” (OK, you’ve outed me as a “Trekkie”–that wasn’t hard, was it?) in which the crew finds itself on a planet populated entirely by primitive, downtrodden men dressed in bearskins and such.  Where are the women?  Turns out they’re around–up in the hills–and running this unfortunate world.  (They’re armed with electronic torture-gizmos that enable them to keep the male populace under their heel.)  They do come down to the male precincts occasionally to reassert their dominance and, when necessary, procreate.  Turns out the men have no word for “woman” in their lexicon; they denominate the female of the species, rather, by a phrase of several words: “Giver of pain and delight.”

What does this have to do with Mozart? I’ll tell you, but it will take a minute. Last week we took a look at his “advanced” side–which often has dissonance at its heart. And it occurred to me that if it’s dissonance you’re after in Mozart, you may as well go to the single most piercing instance of it in his work (and, arguably, in music).  It’s found in the slow movement of his String Quintet, K. 614.  The movement begins with about as innocent a theme as Mozart was capable of cooking up (at 10:38 in this clip).  The two note “pickup” that starts the theme is then used to start a similar (and similarly untroubled) theme that comes in at 13:46.  But at 16:10 Mozart takes this new theme’s pickup and, in an exercise  of something bordering on musical sadism, repeats it three times in settings of increasing (and, in the third instance, almost unendurable) dissonance.  This kind of anguish is the last thing one may think of Mozart as inflicting–though as you get to know his music better, you realize that this is hardly the only case of his having a whip in hand ( just the most extreme one).  Not only could Mozart be a “giver of pain” when he wanted to, but when he really wanted to, he could give it like no other. (Not, of course, that he couldn’t give supreme delight as well when, as was far more frequently the case, he was of a mind to.)

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