Lili Kraus

The background music since last week, up here in the High Doganate, has been Mozart, mostly, oddly enough. He is not usually associated with Lent. But five CDs of his solo piano music fell into my hands the day after Ash Wednesday, and you know how superstitious I am. The organ is shut down till Easter in my church; and I haven’t been tempted to Mozart’s grander “operatic” and “symphonic” works — with one exception “proving the rule.” That is a small chamber transcription of his insuperable D-minor Requiem, by Peter Lichtenthal (1780–1853), performed by the Quartetto Aglàia on four very old string instruments. By subtracting the choral grandiloquence, and pulling away Mozart’s scintillating orchestral special effects, it makes the Requiem meditative and more shockingly Christian. And yet it does not reduce the terror in the Dies Irae, and rather enhances the dialectic of the whole piece, in which the proud soul is humbled to divine submission.

Lichtenthal was an accomplished musician and composer in his own right, of Hungarian origin, Viennese taste, and Milanese settlement. He was also a medical doctor, and a hack journalist — softly proselytizing against the melodramatic trend in nineteenth-century Italian music. His many transcriptions from Mozart and others appealed to keyboard and chamber players performing in their own homes, “under the radar,” as we say. His most ambitious literary work combined all his interests. It was a treatise on how music effects the human body, and can actually cure certain diseases.

From the album notes, I paraphrase this interesting observation on the nature of genius as gift. Lichtenthal is explaining Mozart’s accomplishment in a memorial pamphlet:

“Genius is present at birth. It does not provide the structure, however; only the base. Sometimes the genius strays from the path of hard study. He finishes by making disastrous mistakes. But if he is going to accomplish something truly great, he will need even more than diligent study of the classics. He will need, in addition to this and going beyond it, a remarkable focus: the ambition or will to accomplish something that is very great, that is universal.”

And this of course Mozart had. There are no “untutored geniuses,” there never has been, even one. This is something I have tried to communicate to the class I teach on Shakespeare, to arm my students against the extraordinary volume of plain rubbish that has been written about The Bard, all premissed on the Victorian heresy that, “Shakespeare is a god.” The same is usually applied to Mozart, and as falsely. Consult the ancient Greeks, who perfectly understood that human genius explains nothing. It is what the human has done with that gift that counts. Hence, Christ’s Parable of the Talents.

As in nature, so in art. Notice that there is nothing murky about any of God’s creatures in nature; that, as we have been recently reminded in biological discovery, there is no such thing as “junk DNA.” Every living thing is designed to close tolerances that beggar the human imagination. The flaccidity of “Darwinism” is a total lie, an idiot lie.

Likewise, the greatest works of human craft are not vague, slurred, messy, or “visionary” in the cheap popular sense. They are extremely sharp: not only in physical execution but in what it is that they embody. A “soul” underlies the work, so particular that even in translation — and in transcription — the work carries into new realms, reassembling or resurrecting itself in new ways. It may be interpreted, too, in many different ways, but only because it has the power to be interpreted. It has dimension, such that it may be seen only from one angle at a time. It has movement, or in other words, it is alive.

Mozart’s solo works for piano — about one hundred of the six hundred or so entries in the Köchel catalogue — are strange entities, in effect transcriptions of themselves. There is — I am struggling to describe this — an untouchable interior precision; a self-enfolding emanation of wit. I would almost say, an impenetrable transparency, for (it seems to me) he is enunciating many things very clearly, but not to an audience. Often he seems to be sharing brilliant private jokes, but not with us. I will dare to call them prayerful. The shape is classical, but the spirit is high baroque. The fantasies are inward, the sonatas outward-facing and declamatory, but in both modes an audible conversation, behind our backs. And we eavesdrop on only the half of it.


The early pianos on which Mozart played were much crisper instruments than modern grands, which drown us in tone colour, and turn us all into lounge lizards. They were, in a sense, half-way back to harpsichords. He writes to his father about the joy he has found in Stein’s instruments:

“When I strike hard, I can keep my finger on the note or raise it, but the sound ceases the moment I have finished producing it. In whatever way I touch the keys, the tone is always even. It never jars, it is never stronger or weaker or entirely absent. …”

Stein’s pianos, he explains, have an escapement mechanism that other piano makers can’t be bothered with: he can completely avoid “jangling and vibration.” This is so, likewise, with the draughtsman’s exact implements, or for the colourist with his sable-hair brushes (the importation of which into the States, incidentally, is currently stopped by environmentalist whackos). Mozart is drawing lines, in music, that are not “approximate.” There is dimension in the lines themselves. We are dealing here with a form of chastity that only an artist can fully understand. A sparkling, and not a grim chastity.

That they can be played on any sort of piano, I will take on the authority of any sort of piano player, and Lili Kraus plays them on what sounds like a very modern piano, but the spirit of them is of the age and instruments on which Mozart composed, or if you will, inhabited. He was the last of the non-Romantics. Everything I hear in him that “prefigures” Schubert, Beethoven, and so forth, is dry. Not once does he grab us by the lapels. I like how he gives us space; and how Lili Kraus lets him.

This pianist (1903–86), who lived an heroic life, is not only an exceptionally clear player, but one of incredible “dash” and “poise.” (I’ve lifted these words from Bernard Jacobson.) It is not her virtuosity alone but something more: that very quality Lichtenthal identified in Mozart himself. She was a woman who did not rest on mere study. The discs I have are aciculate remasters of her Haydn Society recordings from sixty-plus years ago, and possibly rare. I’ve heard some of her later recordings of the same repertoire, but I think there is an aloofness in these — a Mozartean aloofness — that could not be recaptured. These were not for the big concert hall, but from a moment when we were briefly free of all that. They are performances of an astounding cleanliness. I was lucky to find them (especially where I did).

It seems to me (and remember, I know nothing about music) that Lili Kraus found access, not “generally” to Mozart, but to what is most Catholic in him, through these solo compositions. They are a purposeful constriction, a self-limitation, on a character who is normally outgoing and social, a mixer and charmer of the dramatic muse, a master of the comedy of manners. But there is nothing fastidious or self-conscious in them. The music is something in its nature Lenten, yet joyfully and playfully so; carried off with dash, and poise. It is as if, operating almost entirely in major mode, without shadowing or concealment, Mozart had at intervals composed a hundred meditations on the theme, “According to Thy will.”