Most child prodigies flame up brightly then settle back into normality as they mature. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart not only bloomed early as the greatest musical genius, but he was still going strong when he died at age 35, having produced over 600 compositions. “Music history is littered with former child prodigies who fade out,” says Richard Kogan, a psychiatrist and concert pianist who has studied the relationship between the life experiences of composers and their music. “What is amazing with Mozart is his transformation from wunderkind to mature master.”
Kogan believes that Mozart’s innate musical ability was even greater than Beethoven’s. “Beethoven would fill up a wastebasket with discarded rough drafts, labor, and tear his hair out,” he says. “Mozart composed so effortlessly it was almost supernatural, as if he was taking dictation from God.” It was almost as if music operated in a segment of his brain that was active even as he lived his daily life: “He could work out a complex string quartet while playing billiards.”
Kogan will perform and discuss the mind, music, and genius of Mozart at “A Night Out with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Mercer,” a concert followed by dinner and a silent auction on Sunday, January 7, at the College of New Jersey. NAMI is an organization that educates, supports, and advocates for the mentally ill and their families in Mercer County. In the past, Kogan has presented lecture concerts for NAMI about Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and George Gershwin.
In a sense, Mozart is the standard by which all prodigies are measured, says Kogan. At five, someone gave his father a quarter-size violin, and without a single lesson, Mozart played it flawlessly. He composed and improvised, performed, and even did musical “tricks,” like playing a piano with its keyboard covered.
His father, Leopold, a musician himself, assumed an enormous role in his son’s music, life, and career, says Kogan. After discovering his child was a phenomenon, Leopold retired to become Mozart’s manager, not unlike a modern day “stage mother.” He capitalized on his son’s musical talent by parading Mozart and his sister, a talented pianist, around Europe for nine years, starting when Mozart was six. “Mozart was the star attraction,” says Kogan, “and she was part of the act.” They played for royalty and nobility.
Being a child prodigy, however, has a big downside. Because prodigies miss all the learnings of an ordinary childhood, they often lack the skills for leading satisfying adult lives. “They don’t get the unstructured play that other kids are allowed, they are overpraised, and they have too much time with adults,” says Kogan. They develop their one amazing gift, often losing out on a general education, and their experience is so different from other people’s that they are often fairly isolated.
Mozart’s father controlled his son’s life, trying to make all the decisions about how to cultivate Mozart’s talent. Kogan likens Leopold to the parents at his own alma mater, the Juilliard precollege, which his daughter, Rachel, now attends (and who will accomapany her father on the cello at the NAMI event): “It is full of parents waiting in the wings looking to promote their children,” he says, because they realize that developing a musical career requires an enormous investment of time during childhood.
As Mozart moved toward adulthood, the struggle to free himself from his controlling father began. “The real challenge for Mozart, once he became an adult, is that his father was not willing to let go,” says Kogan. Leopold Mozart wanted the same control over his son’s professional and private life as a 25-year-old as when he was 10. The older Mozart would tell the younger Mozart what sort of music to write — generally the more popular music that was more remunerative.
Mozart’s father was also concerned that Mozart would develop a romantic relationship with a woman, attach to her, and detach from him, and didn’t approve of his relationships or his marriage.
In order to establish his own personal and artistic identity and find his own voice, Mozart finally made a clean break from his father by moving from Salzburg to Vienna. The move earned the disapproval of his family; after his sister defended their father and accused Mozart of being disloyal, their relationship fell apart, and his sister didn’t go to his wedding and never saw his children.
In some ways Leopold must have felt that his desire to control his son’s life was justified and apparently warned him: “You won’t be able to make it without me.” And there is indeed evidence that Mozart never really grew up: he was irresponsible with money, gambled, and didn’t meet deadlines on commissions. Apparently after his father died, these behaviors worsened, as if he were living out his father’s prophecy.
In the end, says Kogan, Mozart frittered away the family money to the point that, when he died, he was dumped into an unmarked grave, with a pauper’s burial; his music had not been tremendously appreciated during his life. His last words on his deathbed expressed regret that he had left his family in terrible shape financially. Luckily his widow managed the family estate well and did generate money from his music posthumously.
Although Mozart and his wife apparently loved each other, he did have a lot of trouble relating to other people. His judgment about people was often poor: he trusted the wrong people, and he offended people he didn’t mean to offend. Kogan attributes his social ineptitude in part to having always been the center of attention in childhood. “With huge ovations, moving from palace to palace, he simply didn’t understand how other people lived and wasn’t prepared for adult life,” Kogan says. People didn’t appreciate him as much as an adult, and he didn’t like the reality of having to earn a living, of being relatively ordinary.
Psychiatrists who have investigated Mozart’s psychobiography have suggested different diagnoses for Mozart, but Kogan says, “it’s hard to do a diagnosis on someone who is a historical figure. The range of possibilities suggested include: Asperger’s, because of his problems in social relatedness; Tourette’s, because he used obscenities frequently; and mood disorder, possibly bipolar, because he was very depressed toward the end of his life (although this may have been the consequence of a disease process), and he also exhibited elevated mood.
Though other people were problematic for him, Mozart used music as the vehicle for expressing his relationships with and knowledge of other human beings. Kogan says, “he was able to express character in musical terms better than anyone who ever lived. In his arias, through music, he created memorable portraits of people.”
Particularly in “Don Giovanni,” excerpts of which Kogan will be playing at the NAMI event, Mozart expressed his passions. The opera is about a man who is licentious and a compulsive seducer of women. The father of one of these women, who is also Don Giovanni’s army commander, challenges him to a duel, and Don Giovanni kills the man. Later, in the graveyard, the commander’s statue knocks on Don Giovanni’s door and orders him to repent and then drags him down into the grave. Kogan believes that the scene between Don Giovanni and the father was inspired by Mozart’s relationship with his own father. He wrote the opera when his father — an implacable force in his life — died and used it to express the passion and emotion of that struggle.
According to Kogan, Mozart’s musical style was, from the beginning, “extremely elegant, sublime, refined, with no excess sentimentality, and with perfect proportions.” As Mozart got older his music gained much more nuance, complexity, passion, and drama. Mozart was, on the one hand, a man of his century, perfecting the style already in the air, which Haydn had developed, traveling all over Europe and picking up styles like a sponge.
“But,” says Kogan, “he was able to synthesize and create a level of complexity so much greater than what others were writing at the same time. His genius had its own laws. He wrote music that transcended his era.”
Kogan is the son of a gastroenterologist from Elizabeth, New Jersey, the second of five children. For his mother, music was a way for harnessing the exuberance of her clearly talented son, who studied piano with Nadia Reisenberg in the precollege division at Juilliard. At Harvard, where he studied music (his major) and pre-med, Kogan; his Juilliard friend, Yo-Yo Ma; and violinist Lynn Chang formed a trio. Kogan earned both a bachelors from Harvard in 1977 and his M.D. in 1982.
He lives in New York City with his wife, son, and two daughters. He is a clinical instructor in psychiatry and an assistant attending psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, as well as having a private psychiatric practice. He is affiliated with the Weill-Cornell Medical School as Director of its Human Sexuality Program.
For Kogan, music is “totally vital.” He explains: “I find music an unparalleled modality for expression and communication to others.” Similar to psychology in a way — both are about communication, healing, and expression.
Kogan rues the fact that Mozart died in 1791 when Beethoven was 21, fantasizing about what might have happened if the two men were composing at the same time and influencing one another. And as great as Mozart was early on, he got even better as he aged. “His death at 35 was the greatest tragedy in the history of music. It boggles the mind at what he would have produced.”
Night Out with NAMI, Sunday, January 7, 3 p.m., NAMI Mercer, Music Building, College of New Jersey, Ewing. Benefit lecture recital features pianist and psychiatrist Richard Kogan, who performs the music of Mozart and discusses his life. Concert only, $60; concert and dinner, $175. 609-777-9766.