Happy birthday, Mozart! How this musical genius summed up the universe in three notes

January 26, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) in his study in Kahlenberg, Vienna

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: genius in three notes.

Tomorrow marks Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthday.

We celebrate with a conversation Jeffrey Brown had recently with composer and pianist Rob Kapilow, who deconstructs music for us from time to time.

They met up at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia.

JEFFREY BROWN: Happy birthday, Mozart, right?

ROB KAPILOW, Composer/Pianist: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome, Rob Kapilow.

Let’s start by acknowledging this is one of the world’s great musical geniuses, right?

ROB KAPILOW: So true. I mean, just, whenever you think of musical prodigy, who do you think of but Mozart? Writing simple keyboard pieces at 5, violin sonatas and orchestral music at 6 and 7, first symphony at 9. It’s really disgusting, if you’re a composer like me. You just don’t even want to think about Mozart’s birthday.


JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so there’s a whole world of Mozart to choose from. You picked Symphony Number 40, right, the famous G minor, and the beginning of that. So, first, remind us a little of how that…

ROB KAPILOW: Right. Yes. This is on everybody’s cell phone ring tone.


ROB KAPILOW: Everyone has heard this, even if you think you have never heard a note of…



ROB KAPILOW: … music, this is the one you have heard.

For many generations of kids, this was actually ruined as, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s Mozart. And now I have ruined it for generations of television viewers as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes. So, why pick that? Why? Why?

ROB KAPILOW: I picked this because, for one, it’s the most famous or one of the most famous themes that Mozart ever wrote.

But what happens to it is amazing. I often say that classical music is really about becoming, not being.


JEFFREY BROWN: Becoming, not being.

ROB KAPILOW: Yes. It’s not what a musical idea is when you first hear it, what it is to be, but it’s about what it can become or how it transforms over the course of a piece of music.

Now, in and of itself, while that’s a famous theme, it’s not that amazing, in and of itself. It has got a three-note idea. That’s not so great. He does it once, does it again, a third time, and then leaps up.

So, I’m now going to ruin this again for a new generation. I’m going to call it, do it once, do it twice, and then leap up. In and of itself, that’s not so fantastic by itself.

The second half sounds completely different. It just goes down a scale. Though the two halves are actually connected, they rhyme, they have the same rhythm.


ROB KAPILOW: Now, in and of itself, if Mozart had stopped there, we wouldn’t be celebrating his birthday hundreds of years later. It’s not that great.

But what happens to it over the course of the piece is amazing. Let’s skip ahead to the middle of the piece. All of a sudden, we end up here. This is a normal place to end. All of a sudden, three abrupt chords take to us a completely different place. Where are we? We hear our opening.

Now, originally, it was here. We are now starting on a different note, what we call transposing, and we do it here. All sounds normal.


ROB KAPILOW: Everyone expects to hear this, but, instead, we get first shock.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s through the key change first, yes? Yes.

ROB KAPILOW: Absolutely, first three key changes, and then change the melody. Then we do it again.

Everyone expects — but, no, we get second shock. Then we hear it again, third time, even lower. And then the piece just takes off.

Now, this is like a character in a novel who you think you have met. You think you understand them. But now, all of a sudden, what he’s going to do is almost Beethovenian. Now, Beethoven was actually only 18 years old and still a babe in the woods, but this is fundamentally Beethovenian.

What’s he’s going to do is take an eight-measure melody, reduce it to four measures, reduce it to two measures, 10 notes, seven notes, and finally the whole universe will get summed up in only three notes. So, watch this.

JEFFREY BROWN: The whole universe.

ROB KAPILOW: The whole universe in three notes, a cosmic essence.


ROB KAPILOW: We hear Mozart think out loud. What I can do? And he says what if I just…


JEFFREY BROWN: Even those three notes, what…

ROB KAPILOW: Yes, what can I do with these three notes?

And it’s not much. Right? This is not great. He says, what if I just take the ending and put it down here in the flute and oboe, and overlap like this? Try it up higher, even higher.

Trying to find out, what does the idea mean? And then the ultimate final step is, we reduce the whole thing to nothing but the first three notes. Who would dream that this could be the topic for an entire piece?

JEFFREY BROWN: We started, though, this conversation about genius. Your case is that that is sort of the essence of it, is taking something simple, creating a whole universe in a sense.


There’s that quote from Ezra Pound, genius is the capacity to see 10 things where the ordinary man sees one. We just hear that opening idea, but he sees, as you have just heard, at least 20 things in an idea that we never could have imagined.

A great Mark Twain quote: “There never was yet an uninteresting life.”

Inside the dullest exterior, there is a drama, a comedy and a tragedy. And Mozart heard the drama, comedy, and tragedy in all of us, and turned it into music.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, happy birthday, Mozart.

Rob Kapilow, thanks so much.

ROB KAPILOW: Thank you.