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It's this less than authentic I struggle with in Krafft's portrait. Simply put, I make out in her portrait only one Mozart, not the whole of him. I want to know, having been given this portrayal as my guide by my classical-music culture, what is missing and what of him could ever be rendered. Where in her rendition, for example, is the man who, in 1781, was adding to his brilliant instrumental compositions equally brilliant operas? Where is the self-authenticating composer we treasure, the maker of the Symphony No 40 in G minor and the G minor Piano Quartet, K478; the Piano Concerto in E flat, No 9, Jeunehomme, and the unfinished Requiem; the Piano Sonata in A Minor K310 whose first-movement development spins out with an obsessional, near joyless drama? Where is the man who wrote the Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola, and orchestra, whose Andante, perhaps the most rhapsodic eleven minutes of music ever composed, was written to memorialize his mother, whom Mozart comforted as she died? Where is the man who a week after her death said in a letter, 'I wished at that moment to depart with her'? That composer, whose sorrow is sutured into the Andante's melody, which he extends and varies and lingers on and won't unleash until it has exhausted listener and performer with a grave sublimity, is nowhere evident in Krafft's painting.

It's the president's-head-on-the-coin problem: Mozart is being represented in everyman fashion. Which is fine for a bull-headed president who seeks such representation, but it doesn't fit Mozart: an everyman prodigy is meaningless. Krafft gives us static, not dynamic, clichéd, not native, manservant, not man. She seems to have thought that by casting him with the air of a landowner (you can almost smell the hound sleeping at his feet), she could deliver him to the nobility in whose company even he longed to be. Did it occur to Krafft that there was an actual Mozart -- difficult, fiendish, scatological, vulnerable, ill -- whose blend of traits and conditions she might imagine before her execution? I don't think she imagined anything. She painted what she was commissioned to paint. (Of all composers, how strange that this version of Mozart from a painter who had no psychological insight is the one we would celebrate.) Here is a picture of the composer who cannot be seen or summed in a single image, and yet here is the picture we have come to regard as him. We are to believe what we don't believe.

Detail of Mozart's clothing from Barbara Krafft's portrait
Detail of Mozart's clothing from Barbara Krafft's portrait

(An analogy may help: the problem of representation is much like the problem of God for atheists. Disbelief in a supreme being does nothing to cancel the fact that God has existed for billions of people who have lived and who live now, convinced that He, a bearded old white, black, or brown man, walking on clouds, is real to them because He has been imaged through centuries of still-accruing mythic, historical, literary, musical, and churchly glosses.)

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Copyright © 8 April 2007 Thomas Larson, California USA


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