Siouxland Observer

Master of Science

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Mozart's Beer Music*

Impossible?  Yeah, but not likely.  Mozart rarely drank to excess,according to several sources (and specifically a reference on Hacker News), which helps explains why some believe Mozart drank lots of almond milk.  But he also drank beer, and even visited beer halls.

In Vienna, and even Salzburg, it's safe to say beer was popular in Mozart's day; while almond milk, considered a "healthy" drink, along with candied fruit, jams and other confections from 1856 on, was very expensive.  Earlier in Mozart's life, and especially while touring, the safest drink was often beer.  In 1769, for example, the family stopped while on tour at Kalterl, in the Tyrolean Mountains, on their way to Verona.  

According to, Leopold and his family ate potted veal with a most fearful smell.  So fearful, in fact, Leopold said they “washed it down with a few draughts of good beer as the wine was no better than a laxative.”
Beer was made with hot or boiled water before being cooled, strained and filtered.  Once fermented it was ready to go, becoming a safe drink worthy of little concern.  Today, it is often served with merriment in beer halls, and apparently in Mozart's day too.  For beer-hall-like oompha music is readily heard in his Piano Concerto No. 16 in D Major, K. 451, and especially in the “allegro di molto,” which tells the orchestra to play the movement's music fast, upbeat and cheerfully.

While some have speculated Mozart drank heavily, the general consensus seems to be he worked far too hard to be a drunk, which is why he probably spent more time in places like Salzburg’s Café Tomaselli, a place where tourists, and reporters alike, learn he drank “lots of almond milk” when he visited.

The café is still open, and is kind of like a George-Washington-slept-here place, only Mozart didn't sleep there, he drank almond-milk lattes, or something.  Tomaselli’s almond milk tastes like marzipan, Peter Needham said, only not as sweet.  He wrote this for the Weekend Australian in 2006, but he also reported that Mozart “favored chocolate, coffee, ale and wine.”  Another tantalizing clue as to what Mozart was all about.  Because he most certainly drank beer.

And not just any beer—or, at least not for Leopold, anyway.  In London, for example, Ian Page, a conductor who launched a performance series showcasing (and recording) everything Mozart wrote for voice in 2015, shared an interesting anecdote with Ed Vulliamy of The (London) Observer.  Page said Leopold didn't like their British beer—all Stout in Mozart’s daybecause he had to have his German pilsner.  He drank wine and water, which at least reveals that London had good wine, and clean, safe drinking water.

Tracking Mozart through Austria is pretty easy. Jon, from Dallas, Texas, for example, crossed paths with Mozart at the Hofbrauhaus, Platzl 9, 80331 Munich, Bavaria, Germany, and said it wasn’t the beer and sausages, but the history and atmosphere that was so fascinating to him:

“It's so big, he said, they can serve 5,000 beer drinkers at one time....  (And) so famous that Mozart, Lenin and Hitler, not to mention princes, kings and queens, hoisted mugs here since 1589.”

If you look up the Hofbrauhaus, on line (or if you try to call, but can't get through), a major takeaway is that there is an important difference between a “beer hall,” and a “beer garden.”  The Hofbräuhaus is sometimes mentioned as a “beer garden” in editorial reviews about Munich—or published by various media—says the Hofbräuhaus’s webpage.

These are incorrect!  The beer garden, or Wirtsgarten is outside.  It is true, apparently, that Mozart wrote his Idomeneo opera after several visits to the beer hall, but not out under the trees, thank you.  Very important.

And, of course, Mozart was working while hanging out at the beer hall.  For Idomeneo, among other things, is about love, joy, physical and spiritual contentment, stoicism, heroic resolution and the ecstasy of self-sacrifice.  Just the kind of stuff you’d see in a bar

Mozart tells stories with his music 1, and identifies themes—often in third movements.  His Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219, for example, is called “The Turkish.”  But only when listeners get to the last movement, which is played “Rondeau – Tempo di minuetto” (i.e., alternate contrasting musical themes), does it become especially clear why it is called The Turkish.

It is true, it can be impossible to identify the various themes in Mozart’s work, and especially for those of us not trained in music.  But music was life in Vienna , and especially for Mozart.  He wrote his father October 23-25, 1777, trying to explain a gathering he attended.  He asked a guest there to give him a theme to play.  But Mozart didn't perform just to impress, or find variations in a theme, he wanted to take the music “for a walk," he said.

“… then in the middle of it—the fugue was in g minor—I changed it to a major and came up with a very sprightly little tune," he said, "but in the same tempo, then I played the theme again, but this time (backwards); in the end, I wondered whether I couldn’t use this merry little thing as a theme for the fugue?—Well, I didn’t stop to inquire, I just went ahead and did it, and it fit so well as if it had been measured by Daser.”  (Johann Georg Daser was a tailor, according to Robert Spaethling in Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life.)

Alex Rose said in The New Yorker that Mozart inhabited a middle world where beauty surged in and ebb away, where everything was contingent and nothing pure, where, as Henry James’s character, Madame Merle says, an envelope of circumstances encloses every human life.

“It is a place where genres meld; where concertos become operatic and arias symphonic; where comedy and tragedy, and the sensual and the sacred, are one. The golden mean runs through the Andante of the Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, from 1779-80. A beguiling four-bar melody appears twice, in E-flat major in the middle and in C minor at the end. The first time, the major mode is briefly shadowed by a turn into the relative minor. The second time, minor is flecked by major, creating the effect of a light in the night. The two passages are more or less the same, but the space between them could contain a novel.”

It is a remarkable piece of music.  Mozart's  Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola could even be a dialog between himself and his mother.   But there are much easier ways to enter Mozart's music than understanding what “a four-bar melody appearing twice in E-flat major in the middle and in C minor at the end” is: Just listen.

Take, for example, this excerpt from Paulina Osetinskaya’s performance of Mozart’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 24.  Again, clues can be found in Mozart’s 3rd movement that indicates what may have inspired the work.  Here, for example, it could be autumn's falling leaves twisting and whipping around in swirls of gusting wind:

Play Me

here are lots of myths about Mozart, but his genius seems to have come from raw talent, hard work and a love for what music could do.  Alex Rose said it best: those who think listening to Mozart will bring genius—specifically, parents who played baby Mozart videos for their toddlers—may be disappointed to learn that Mozart became Mozart by working furiously hard, and, if Constanze was right (when asked about her husband), by working himself to death.

The Köchel Catalogue lists 626 individual compositions written by Mozart, for example, and starts with Köchel listing K. 1, and ends at K. 626, Mozart’s Requiem.  And this does not included everything on the list, such as K. 1a: Andante in C for Piano, or K. 1b: Allegro in C for Piano.  Even undiscovered compositions are still being found today.  Unbelievable.  For those who have thought about following in Mozart's footsteps by becoming an "immortal" in music, or a genius in general, good luck.

* Or "The Beer Hall" music (Allegro di molto).


 1 Insight to Mozart’s storytelling ability comes from a most remarkable interview on 60 Minutes. Scott Pelley interviewed Alma Deutscher.  Deutscher is an accomplished British composer in the classical style. A professor of music at Northwestern in Chicago who worked with Deutscher said she speaks “Mozart-style,” and that at age six had already mastered his musical language as if she were a native speaker. This is what the 12-year-old composer said: “Sometimes when I get the melodies I hear them just sung, or I hear a melody for an orchestra, but then actually sitting down and developing the melodies—and that is the really difficult part—having to tell a real story with the music.” Scott Pelley selected four musical notes for her to play from a hat.  She thought about the notes for about 90 seconds and played her story on piano.

 2 John N. Burk said, in Mozart and His Musicthat the finale (the third movement) of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 16 in D Major, K. 451, is for show and designed to please any social gathering.  But “before anyone puts the outside movements down as surface music,” Burk said, he should listen to development sections in each.”  Which, of course, is no easy task.

 “It's intriguing … to imagine Mozart's own voice represented by the viola,” says Thomas May in an article for the LA Phil (since removed): Here we find an emotional depth that, as Maynard Solomon speculates in his notable biography, may reflect the composer's experience of loss in coping with the recent death of his mother.  Specifically, the duality of the violin-viola sound contributes to another aspect of the piece's stunning beauty: listen as the solo violin takes up its plaintive aria of grief and the response from the viola, now providing a sudden but believable consolation.