The Way of Beauty We, the Gifted: A Case Study

Each of us is a unique person, willed into this world to fulfill a mission, one that is entirely ours.  The life of Mozart, whose commemoration has just passed, affords many insights into the mystery of the human person.

“Amadeus:” a Parable of Inequality

There will never be another Mozart.  Like a comet, he streaked across the horizon all too briefly and then burned himself out.  He had neither predecessors nor followers.   His gift has brought happiness to the world fulfilling his mission “to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16).
In his play, “Amadeus,” Peter Shaffer poses a gripping parable underscored by a metaphysical question: How can a just God bestow the gift of genius to a foulmouthed buffoon like Mozart while giving a devout man like Antonio Salieri just enough talent to recognize his mediocrity?  In the play, Salieri is portrayed as the patron saint of mediocrity.  He speaks for all mediocrity in the world.  He is their champion.  Is this not a mystery of gross inequality?

Alpha and Omega

He was born in Salzburg on January 27th, 1756 and died in Vienna on December 5th, 1791 before reaching his thirty-sixth birthday.  A man of rare talent and extraordinary fame gained in his lifetime, Mozart composed 626 full-length works.  He died a pauper of a complete nervous collapse brought on by overwork and tension; he was buried in a common unmarked pauper’s grave. He left behind a wife and two young sons.

Mozart’s Early Years

Mozart began composing music at the age of four and never stopped.  It was his natural language; he had a photographic memory. When Mozart’s father Leopold, himself an accomplished violinist and pedagogue, detected Wolfgang’s genius, he decided to publicize the boy’s talents in order to win an appointment at the court commensurate with his gifts.  It would bring honor to the Mozart family.    

At nine, Mozart composed his first symphony, and three years later, his first comic opera.  Between his seventh and seventeenth birthdays, he and his father went on tour to France, Holland, and England.  He sat on the lap of Marie Antoinette, played duets with Johann Sebastian Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian, and on the first hearing of Allegri’s Miserere in the Sistine Chapel on Good Friday, he was able to notate it completely and correctly from memory.  

Mozart’s Creative Process

As mentioned above, Mozart was never not composing.  He composed while traveling, while walking and riding in a coach, while playing billiards.  He composed in his sleep.  In fact at his bedside he kept a music notebook should he wake up in the middle of the night with musical ideas.   Recording his ideas was purely a mechanical task and one which he postponed until the last minute.  Few were the erasures on the final manuscript that rarely differed on paper from his original ideas. His music is a continuous, logical, and mysterious flow of effortless perfection.

At the end of a long description of his creative process, Mozart wrote:

“What has thus been produced [the music in his mind] I do not easily forget, and this is perhaps the best gift I have my Divine Maker to thank for.”  Only Mozart’s inner life is reflected in his music. External events had no effect on his artistic genius.  Outwardly he was full of fun with a saucy, off-color, sense of humor.  In fact, he never outgrew his adolescence.

Mozart at Twenty

Leopold, who was educated by the Jesuits and Benedictines, taught and tutored his son.  At twenty years of age, Wolfgang was a highly skilled performed and composer, at home in every branch of composition.  His music is never cute, trite, or folksy; it is deceptively simple, graceful, and elegant.  His slow movements however reveal an intense and complicated cosmos. The “Elvira Madigan” send movement exemplifies this. His musical jokes had bite. He mocked poor instrumentalists in Ein musikalischer Spass, (A Musical Joke) in which he intentionally composed into the music many wrong notes that mediocre musicians were prone to make.

At twenty, Mozart had been protected from all influences that would or could prevent him for total concentration in music.  He had few intimate friends at this time, and most of them, professional.

As a twenty-year old, Mozart needed a permanent position.  He was hired by the Archbishop of Salzburg, Hieronymus Colloredo, but they mixed like oil and vinegar.  Leopold, also employed at the court, had taken several absences to concertize with his son.  Second, Mozart proved to be insubordinate.  When the Archbishop ordered Mozart to compose a Short Mass (Missa Brevis), he was served a short Short Mass.  He wanted complete control over his music—its style, its length, and its content.  In a sarcastic letter to his father, he wrote, “The two valets sit at the head of the table; I, at least, have the honor of sitting above the cooks.” 

Eventually, he was dismissed, though he swore that he had quit with the final words: “I hate the Archbishop to madness.”  He wanted his freedom, and he got his freedom but paid a high price for it.  He was a jobless genius, the first freelance composer in music history.  Meanwhile, he had fallen in love with Constanze Weber.  

More in The Way of Beauty

Disgusted at the lack of musical appreciation among the rich, he saw through people but was continuously taken in by them. He suffered from his tenuous status.  The more he suffered, the deeper he entered into his soul.  It has been said that his growth as a creator was like that of a precious and rare plant whose inner secret remains a mystery.

Mozart observed people, knew them well, but did not mingle with them.  In his operas, he lampooned the high and mighty aristocracy.  They saw themselves in his sarcasm when his music mocked them, though the names had changed.  Irate, they ostracized him.  This black-listing meant fewer concerts, fewer students, less money for the support of his family.  Life began to close in on him.

Mozart’s Dark Side

When Mozart and Constanze were married in 1781, they settled in to a bohemian lifestyle. His irresponsibility in practical matters prompted Leopold to interfere and manage his business affairs.

Mozart was a musical thoroughbred. But genius can sap one of those personal qualities essential in a competitive world, filled with cunning and conniving.  Not one to compromise, he lacked discretion and tact, respect for the Office of the archbishop or for those of the aristocracy.  He sought to do things his own way and tolerated no criticism of his music.  When Emperor Joseph II, a fairly benevolent ruler, noted that “The Marriage of Figaro” contained too many notes which strained the ear, Mozart bristled, then corrected him: ‘Sire, the opera is perfect as it is.’ At the end, with his integrity intact, his music awaited immortality.

We, the Gifted

Too often children and young adults denigrate themselves as merely ordinary and with no special talents.  This self-image needs to be corrected. Every child is gifted in one way or another, a fact which every parent and educator ought to affirm and hold sacred. Today’s child is tomorrow’s adult who will shape our culture and pass on that culture to the next generation.  Among our youth are those who display artistic talent, whether in writing literature or poetry. How can they develop their gifts if they are not encouraged to do so?  Promoting guitars and Rap is not the answer.

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And what of adults and their talents?  So often, they discover their gifts later in life, perhaps after raising their families.  They too should be encouraged to pursue their talents.  Graduate and professional schools can boast of older students who pursue a second profession or discipline.  After a business career, they often turn to artistic pursuits.

The American Church needs Catholic writers, Catholic composers, musicians, dancers, painters, and sculptors who are also practicing Catholics.  We desperately need church leaders with educated taste to foster and support their pursuits, leaders who will acclaim these artists. 

How sad, that the secular artistic world is convinced that the Church is not a valid artistic identity; therefore, Catholics in the arts are not worth mentioning.   The few Catholic writers and poets, for example, who have been recognized have done so entirely in the secular artist world—with no support from within the Church.


The words of Antonio Salieri in “Amadeus” convey a caveat:  at all costs, avoid mediocrity; embrace excellence.  The life of Mozart is also a warning about talent, about molding and managing it in an otherwise indifferent and coarse culture. One, two, or five talents—all should be developed to build up the culture and the kingdom of God, as Mozart did.

The music historian Richard Taruskin notes that “celebrating Mozart means celebrating ourselves.  In him, we see our species transcendent, effortlessly bring forth with George Bernard Shaw called ‘the only music yet written that would not sound out of place in the mouth of God’” (NY Times, 9 September, 1990).

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