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Mastering Mozart

Notes from Vienna

By Richard Benedum | HUMANITIES, March/April 2004 | Volume 25, Number 2

“What’s a fugue?”

“How is The Magic Flute a reflection of Enlightenment thinking?”

“Why were the Viennese so afraid of a Turkish invasion throughout the eighteenth century?”

“Once again, what’s the difference between the Habsburg and the Holy Roman empires?”

“How can I teach the Queen of the Night's rage aria to my tenth-grade English class?”

Alan Kimbrough and I wrestled with questions like these each day for a month with thirty of the nation’s most gifted teachers. The classroom sessions were part of a four-week institute in Vienna, “Mozart’s German Operas in Context,” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The participating K-12 teachers, chosen from throughout the country, gathered last June to begin their study of two Mozart operas, The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Magic Flute.

We began with walks through Vienna to get acquainted with the city that would be our home for four weeks--and more importantly, to experience what remains of Mozart’s Vienna--Schönbrunn Palace, where he first played before Empress Maria Theresa; St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where he was married against his father’s wishes; the apartment tucked behind the Cathedral, where he wrote The Marriage of Figaro; and some of the other places where he lived, the churches he knew, and the palaces where he mingled with nobility. Through his eyes, the entire city was our library.

In the Historical Museum of the City of Vienna, a large section of the second floor is devoted to the Vienna of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including a display of maps, artifacts, and paintings depicting the unsuccessful Turkish invasion of 1683. The exhibit proved the perfect background against which to study Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, written ninety-nine years later as an almost centennial observation of the defense of the city. Two of the history teachers taking part, Celia Goedde of Palos Verdes Estates, California, and David Swickard of East Hampton, New York, supplied detail about the Ottoman ambitions and Viennese fears.

Another part of the museum is dedicated to Freemasonry. Mozart became a Freemason in 1784, and in the last year of his life wrote Die Zauberflöte, partly in defense of the movement. This display led us not just to consider the music of the opera, but the important role of Freemasonry in Enlightenment thought.

In spite of 90-plus temperatures, Christian Otto of Cornell University, one of the guest faculty members of the Institute, introduced us to the architecture of the city. He helped us see with new eyes the great buildings that Mozart saw--churches, palaces, public squares, and streets.

After Otto’s introduction to the city, we met daily from nine to noon in a classroom that was part of Vienna’s Schottenstift, literally the “Scottish monastery,” although it was Irish Benedictine monks who founded it in the twelfth century. Our classroom had, of course, been remodeled since then, but it had no air conditioning--one teacher fainted from the heat--and the narrow, winding stairway that we climbed each day transported us back in time.

Another guest scholar was Thomas Fröschl, historian on the faculty of the University of Vienna. He gave three lectures on “Vienna under Maria Theresa and Joseph II,’ “Mozart and Vienna,” and “Mozart Travels.” For his first lecture we met in his classroom at the University--a nice change from our regular classroom. Mary Beth Blegen, a participant in my 1994 Mozart seminar, a former national teacher of the year and now a curriculum consultant for the St. Paul, Minnesota, schools, led us through the development of curriculum projects. Her mantra: “Know what you want your students to learn!”

Afternoons were for individual projects and some organized museum tours. Participants had time for reading, held many small-group discussions which began over lunch and continued for the rest of the afternoon, or spent time on their own in this historic capital.

The class came from varied backgrounds. There were history teachers, English and humanities teachers, music and language teachers, and two curriculum supervisors. There were young teachers with only a year or two of experience, and veteran teachers with more than twenty-five years in the classroom. They were enthusiastic and eager, and retu ey approached every question from many perspectives, and turned the Institute into a truly multidisciplinary experience for us all.

This enthusiasm has carried into the school year--not only for Mozart, but also for teaching in general. Luisa Cruz, a music teacher from New York City, sent me an e-mail: “I am so excited about this school year--I LOVE my kids! Even the ones I've had five times because they keep failing seem like they may have finally matured! Yeah!” Margot Armine of Ann Arbor wrote, “Not only did I learn a great deal from the exceptional faculty, but the other twenty-nine teachers became new colleagues of mine. I returned from Vienna inspired, refreshed, and encouraged.” Participants saw the mix of disciplines as a plus. One commented: “Studying the operas and the historical background of their creation was interesting and will enable me to present to my students a much fuller picture of the social and artistic world of the eighteenth century. . . . Certainly one of the highlights was getting to know the other participants. There was a wonderful mixture of disciplines and interests within the group, among history teachers, literature and humanities teachers, language teachers, and music and performing arts teachers.”

The sense of place and historical context helped in studying the operas that frame Mozart’s years in Vienna: The Abduction from the Seraglio, written in 1782 and The Magic Flute, written in 1791, the year of his death. Our study of The Abduction from the Seraglio allowed us to consider the historical relationship between the Turks and the constantly threatened Habsburg lands. We saw the Turkish map that showed the battle plan in the 1683 siege of Vienna. We listened to the music that Mozart wrote in imitation of the Janissary bands of Turkish military musicians. We considered the roles of the opera’s principal characters. The Pasha, for instance, acts with the same Enlightenment qualities espoused by the Austrian emperor, Joseph II--tolerance for all, wisdom, and forgiveness. We pondered, collectively, why Mozart conceived the Pasha as a speaking rather than a sung role. And when we switched gears to The Magic Flute, Robin Tessereau, a German teacher from Delafield, Wisconsin, noted the relationship between the names of Papageno, the bird catcher, his beloved Papagena, and the German word Papagei, or “parrot.”

A University of Dayton colleague, Julane Rodgers, led some presentations during the Institute, and was the unofficial librarian. We had shipped fifty or sixty books over from Dayton so that participants would have access to a small core of resource materials. Jill Mange, a Spanish teacher from Selma, Alabama, wrote afterwards: “I’m so glad to have Dick’s great bibliography. Now if I just had that little Dayton Mozart library down the hall and around the corner. . . . We’re going to get started in class soon on Don Giovanni. I know it’s going to be fun.”

We shared experiences and had an unbelievable amount of fun in Vienna, too. We stood in line waiting to get standing-room tickets for the State Opera’s production of Don Giovanni with Seiji Ozawa conducting. We saw Ozawa and French composer/conductor Pierre Boulez walking along the streets of Vienna, but didn’t have the nerve to talk with them. We ate together and drank wine together. But the thing that bonded us together was the music--and Mozart. Kate Ritchie, from Hickory, North Carolina, sent an e-mail: “Luisa is not the only one who gets teary-eyed now when hearing a special piece of music. I wrote to Jim S. that I was listening to “Soave sia il vento” [the exquisite trio from Mozart’s Così fan tutte] the other day and got all choked up. Of course, the Moonlight Sonata is out of the question.” Kate referred to our tour of the musical instrument collection in the Hofburg, when Richard Fuller, a forte-pianist in Vienna, demonstrated pianos owned by Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. When he played the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata with the hushed but sustaining tones of Beethoven’s own instrument, there wasn’t a dry eye. We all knew that we were in touch with Beethoven, and that his music, like Mozart’s, was timeless.

The impact of the Institute continues. Ten of us got together in New York last fall to see two Mozart operas. The participants have just finished their unit and lesson plans; I hope some will ultimately be available to teachers everywhere through the EDSITEment website. I tell everyone who asks that teaching NEH seminars and institutes has been an extraordinary experience for me personally. I’ve been privileged to share Mozart’s music with one hundred and thirty-five teachers so far. They in turn are reaching thousands--perhaps tens of thousands--of students.

About the Author

Richard Benedum is alumni chair in the humanities at the University of Dayton in Ohio. He and his fellow professor at Dayton, R. Alan Kimbrough, professor of English, taught “Mozart’s German Operas in Context” as a summer institute for thirty schoolteachers with $177,260 in NEH support.

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