The Composition of Faith

Nicholas Till’s book, Mozart and the Enlightenment: Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart’s Operas, is intellectually thrilling and emotionally engaging. Accepting social inequalities we would now find unpalatable, Mozart would hardly be mistaken for a man of our time. And yet his operas, Till suggests, provide a model for rigorous examination to advocates of social change in later 20th-century America.

Till is a British theater producer who "constantly comes across interpretive puzzles" in plays or operas. What should he do, he asks as an example, about staging the chorus of peasants in The Marriage of Figaro or the "tremendous damnation" scene in Don Giovanni?

Making dramatic sense of a troupe of peasants who appear in a nobleman’s household or the descent to hell of a libertine requires knowing what these things meant to Mozart. Such questions lead Till to a lively examination of Mozart’s operas in the context of biography, history, philosophy, and musical dramaturgy. He concludes that Mozart was "one of the most penetrating intellects of his age, and...undoubtedly one of the great religious artists of Western culture."

Peter Shaffer wrote a play and Milos Foreman turned it into a movie about a mythical figure they called Amadeus. These delightful fictions represent Mozart as an impoverished, misunderstood, slightly batty genius, whose last opera, The Magic Flute—loved by the masses—and its contemporary Requiem were written when he was drugged with alcohol and terminal illness. Shaffer and Foreman made Mozart into a sort of giggling rock star whose glorious music was both peerless and timeless.

Till describes an altogether different figure. His Mozart is rooted in time and place. He has parents and colleagues. Events and ideas affect and change him. His great musical gift, which is undeniable, informed and was informed by the intellectual ferment of the 18th century, particularly in Austria.

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Sojourners Magazine May 1994
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