Johann Chrysostomus and the Beautiful Incomplete

Leopold and Anna Maria Mozart were determined to have family, with a daughter named Maria and a son named Johann.

It took them seven tries.

Johann Leopold was born in August of 1748 and lived almost six months. Maria Cordula was born the following June but lived less than a week. Maria Nepomucena was born the next May, and lived two-and-a-half months. One year later Maria Anna was born, became known as Nannerl, and emerged from the biological gauntlet of 18th century childhood to live to 78 years old. A son, Johann Karl, and a daughter named Maria Crescentia followed, but neither would live beyond three months. Their seventh child and final child was born on January 27, 1756 and they named him Johann Chrysostomus Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He would live 35 years.

Leopold and Maria determined themselves to push past the world’s most unimaginable pain five times to finish the family they started. The Mozarts were finishers. The Mozarts could close the deal.

Maria was irrepressible and funny. She encouraged little Johann Chrysostomus’s love of scatological humor. So much so that when he composed his 1788 canon Difficile Lectu in F Major, he included the quasi-Latin lyric “lectu mihi mars,” which, when perceived phonetically in German, became “Leck du mich im Arsch,” or lick my ass.

Leopold was phlegmatic and unemotional and cried in front of Johann Chrysostomus only once.

Johann was sitting at his father’s desk, composing his first concerto. Being five years old, he repeatedly mashed the pen into the bottom of the inkwell, thus dripping globs of ink onto the page as he attempted to write. Undeterred, he smeared them with his palm and continued to scribble his notes on top, so that the page at first glance was just a big blue-grey circle of ink. When his father came home with his friend herr Schachtner, little Wolfgang showed him the composition, and the men laughed at the sopping gallimaufry of ink.

But then Leopold examined the smears and the smudges, and he realized the chords his son had scribbled on them were perfect, they were in key with one another, and the music was complex and beautiful. In a time when, to Leopold’s great chagrin, the notion of miracles was generally ridiculed, here he had one living in his house. His son, the survivor, the boy who lived, was a prodigy. And he burst into tears at the glory of it.

Thereafter, to Johann Chrysostomus, life was incomplete without music.

When he and his sister Nannerl would carry toys from room to room in their house, he demanded that they accompany themselves with a march on the fiddle. When his father brought him around Europe, demonstrating his prodigious skills to wealthy merchants and princes, Johann demanded to play exclusively for music experts.

And somewhere in his childhood, perhaps when he got a taste for eliciting emotion from his otherwise stoic father, he realized the opposite was also true.

Music was incomplete without life.

At night, after dinner, Johann would practice concertos both he and his father knew. Leopold was an early-to-bedder and liked to drift off listening to Johann’s ever more miraculous ivory tickling. But Johann, knowing how his fastidious father ticked, and perhaps encouraged by Anna Maria’s love of a good joke, would build to a crescendo at the end of a piece, deploy a dramatic ritardando to stick the landing… and then leave off the last note, close the lid, and go to bed.

And reliably, Leopold, tortured by this, indecent in nightcap and gown, would stalk down the stairs, slam open the lid and pound the last chord.

The Mozarts were finishers. The Mozarts could close the deal.

But Johann Chrysostomus learned in childhood, that there is a difference between when something is finished and when something is complete.

He learned to forcibly crash space into Leopold’s listening experience and in so doing, impel him to participate. Emotion, he realized, was teased out in the negative space, in the spaces between notes that only became complete when heard by a human.

Years later, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as Johann Chrysostomus became known to the world, deployed this technique as he wrote what many believe to be the greatest human document, The Marriage of Figaro. The count and the countess are larger than life aristocrats, always accompanied by a melodramatic scraping of bows. The count brings whole bass notes into every scene he enters. But Figaro and Susanna, the servants we’re all meant to fall in love with, glide and float over roomy and plucked staccato. He seemed to use pizzicato, the muted, deadened plucking of violin strings, to indicate the notes that our hearts should play.

In De Vieni, Susanna’s fourth act aria, we know that Susannah knows that Figaro is watching her wait for the count, but we also know that Figaro doesn’t know that she knows, and it’s all a touching rouse to win his love back. And the pizzicato notes below her voice work the tumblers in the locks around our hearts, and they crack open to help her.

The Pizzicato Effect occurs when an artist deploys sudden negative space, a muted note at the most surprising moment possible, to yank us in by the hearts. Right when they have earned the right to cash in, they instead blast a hole in their work and yank the audience in by the short and curly hairs of their souls. Wolfgang learned early that to merely finish a work was nothing when compared to allow for its completion only when it was witnessed. The best artists aren’t saying “I matter,” they are saying “you matter.” Johann’s nightly concertos were incomplete without his father flying down the stairs to play the final note, accompanied sweetly by the giggles of Anna Maria.

The Mozarts were finishers. The Mozarts closed the deal.

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