Sprezzatura Thursday: Practice Makes Mozart

Today we continue exploring the idea of sprezzatura, as the deadline to enter my blog’s birthday contest rapidly approaches [N.B. have you entered yet?]  The patron of this blog, Count Baldassare Castiglione, coined the term sprezzatura to express the seemingly unstudied, effortless nonchalance that one should try to develop in how one goes about the business of life.  Among the great composers no doubt all would agree that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is perhaps the most obvious example of this ideal in action, what with his seemingly effortless ability to produce extraordinary, timeless music that is still beloved today.  And yet it is important to remember that by sprezzatura Castiglione does not mean something superhuman; nor was Mozart some sort of a god.  Rather, here we looking at the maxim of “practice makes perfect.”

Last evening I attended a gathering arranged by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, to discuss an essay on the nature of beauty by the influential German philosopher, theologian, and writer, and had the pleasure of chatting with the Legacy Project’s Founder and Director, John Henry Crosby.  Professor Crosby described how the project is seeking to translate more of von Hildebrand’s work from German to English, given how relevant much of what the German thinker wrote remains in the present day, decades after his death.  As Professor Crosby put it, the work that he and his colleagues are doing is not a  “museum project,” but rather one which sees the relevance of von Hildebrand’s ideas for a wider, contemporary audience still very much in need of hearing his voice.

So this morning, it was interesting for me to spot a tie-in between von Hildebrand’s thinking and that of this blog’s patron, when it comes to the ideal of sprezzatura in the work of Mozart.  In an essay by von Hildebrand and translated by Professor Crosby, which the latter shared with me today, the philosopher considers the life and work of Mozart, surely one of the most naturally-gifted artists which humanity has yet witnessed.  Although he lived long after Castiglione, there is no question but that Mozart’s work embodies fully the ideal of sprezzatura which Castiglione wanted the ideal courtier to strive for.

Indeed, as von Hildebrand points out:

Along with an extraordinarily ability to give a definite spiritual shape and precision to his works as well as his masterful sureness of touch [Treffsicherheit], there is in Mozart’s work a unique effortlessness.  It is a special sign of the possession of a virtue when the good is done effortlessly; however painstaking the acquisition of a virtue, its possession is distinguished by its effortlessness.  The effortlessness of virtue presents itself in Mozart’s art.

In other words, without actually using the term, von Hildebrand is describing the sprezzatura that is clearly inherent to Mozart’s work.  From his earliest days traveling around Europe with his father and sister, performing for kings and queens, and packed houses of doting admirers, Mozart was a genius blessed with an undeniably great talent. He delighted his listeners with his compositions and performances, and made a name for himself as a result of his facility at both.

Yet even though Mozart was a child prodigy, that fact alone would not have ensured his lasting fame. In our contemporary society we can think of dozens of tragic examples of youthful performers who never successfully transitioned to adulthood, or who, upon becoming adults, sank into utter obscurity. It has happened so frequently as to become a truism – the term “former child star” carries with it connotations of a kind of seediness and despair, as a result of both real-life examples and films such as the classic “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

Despite the misinformation spread by films like “Amadeus”, as naturally gifted as he was Mozart still had to work out his compositions on paper, in draft form.  They did not spring fully-formed from his mind, like Athena from the brain of Zeus.  That he had a natural talent for improvisation, or for working out some elements of his compositions in his head before putting them down to paper, does not mean Mozart did not have to work hard.  Had he not continued to push himself as an artist, the little boy who hopped playfully into the lap of the Empress Maria Theresa after a private concert would never have gone on to become the composer of such powerful compositions as the choral sequence of the “Dies Irae” in the Requiem Mass.

The “virtue” which von Hildebrand speaks of in his essay on Mozart, and what Castiglione means in advocating “sprezzatura”, is one in which the talented individual not only recognizes his talent, but fosters it, without making a big fuss about it. If Mozart spends time in the mental gymnasium, working out his compositional muscles, it is because he believes that by the time he is to present a composition to a patron who has commissioned a piece, it should be in as perfect a shape as he can get it, not something all sweaty and slapdash.  The man possessing this virtue of a seemingly effortless grace realizes that he has been given a great gift of facility, in anything from gardening to software programming to musical composition, and in nurturing and caring for that gift, he becomes better and better at it.  He embraces his God-given ability and, like the good and faithful servants in the parable of the talents, takes what he has been given and invests in it.

Needless to say, I can certainly empathize with the Legacy Project’s work, given that their goal is not dissimilar from what I am doing on a considerably smaller scale, i.e. encouraging others to read the work of a great thinker for good, particularly when there is so much meaningless garbage that people have been forced to read and absorb into their thinking.  The forgoing is an example of not only why von Hildebrand is still very much a man worth reading, so is Count Castiglione.  Both recognize that a lazy, half-arsed approach to life is one in which the individual will ultimately fail in the eyes of man, possibly, but more importantly in the eyes of God.  And both are still very relevant writers for us today, if we will but pick them up and read them – and perhaps do so while listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21.


Portrait of Mozart attributed to Joseph Hickel (c. 1783)
Private Collection

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