January 27. Hard frost, snow. All the vulgar, predictable tricks winter has in store are on display: city life has slowed down and pedestrians get stuck in bothersome snowdrifts. The mind also moves at a slower pace. Winter is a provincial illusionist, who has never mastered more than a single trick: that of turning water into ice and snow and back again, turning snow into dirty water.
For a while now – ever since realizing what powerful symbols share this date – I have been intrigued by a day that manages to encapsulate two key dimensions of a historical moment. 27 January is the anniversary of what we call the liberation of Auschwitz or Holocaust Memorial Day. But it is also Mozart’s birthday.
No, this is definitely not an error. It’s definitely not a coincidence either. It just so happens that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on 27 January 1756 in Salzburg, and it was on 27 January 1945 that the Russians reached the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Soldiers of the 60th army of the First Ukrainian Front, as the press release tells us, opened the gates of KL Auschwitz, which by then held no more than seven thousand prisoners. I prefer the phrase opened the gates – it suggests a dynamic action, a meeting of two kinds of energy, whereas the people they found on the other side of the camp fence were utterly exhausted, ill and dying. Earlier, as we know, the SS moved over fifty thousand prisoners out of the camp, condemning a significant number of them to death by exhaustion. That is why it is usually referred to as a death march.
One of those prisoners trudging along Silesia’s snow-covered roads (as a matter of fact, it is difficult to call it a march, it was rather a trudge to death) was the shy Italian chemist Primo Levi, who survived this march, this trudge along wintery roads, in spite of being a frail man, not at all athletic; he survived and later wrote his brilliant books. It would be hard to find a day that is more torn, more complex, more ambivalent, one that more perfectly reveals the nature of the reality in which we found ourselves.
Each year on 27 January politicians in warm clothes, TV journalists wrapped in thick sheepskins and a steadily dwindling group of old people – those who have survived the Holocaust – gather on the perimeter of the former Auschwitz camp. On round anniversaries political leaders of various countries also arrive, and the number of film cameras increases. On less round anniversaries the list of famous leaders diminishes, journalists find other topics, and famous reporters flock elsewhere.
And something similar happens with Mozart. In those years when the anniversaries are counted in prime numbers, the number of articles celebrating the great composer goes down steeply, television forgets about him or devotes the briefest of reports to his memory. Whenever a more memorable anniversary approaches, Mozart again becomes a genius whom we admire.
I know this is no joking matter, for 27 January is an extraordinarily important day, one that confronts us with the same question year after year: how is it possible for us to remember the horrors of Auschwitz so well, and not just to remember it but to have made it an integral part of our world view and of our way of thinking about the world, so much so that – to quote philosophers or theologians – we are willing to admit that the history of mankind is divided into two periods, before and after Auschwitz; and how is it possible for us to find, on the very the same day, the time and the peace of mind to enjoy Mozart’s exquisite music?
His music combines elements of rock and sometimes even entertainment, it combines moments that are witty, funny, cheerful, expansive and imaginative, with profoundly tragic moments such as, to name but a few, the gloomily dramatic finale of Don Giovanni or the breathtakingly beautiful Requiem. I cannot give a list – even the most subjective one – of Mozart’s compositions, this is not the place and I don’t have enough space for it and anyway, the point is not to present you with a catalogue of Mozart’s works.
It was only relatively recently that I discovered the Andantino of an earlier piano concerto, the 9th (K. 271) performed by Murray Perahia. And I have long been captivated by the 8th symphony for piano (K. 310), which Mozart composed in Paris in the spring of 1778, at a time when his ailing mother was on her deathbed, a symphony imbued with melancholy in the Andante cantabile con espressione but opening an inordinately perky and joyful way with something like a March of the Inspired (if we could imagine such a thing as a March of the Inspired – although this is really psychologically impossible, since the inspired do not march but rather run, and certainly not in orderly military columns – the Allegro maestoso from the 8th symphony would be it). I heard it played by Dinu Lipatti, in the famous recording of the last concert the Romanian pianist gave at Besançon when he was already very ill, shortly before he died.
But it is in the Requiem, particularly its seventh movement, the Lacrimosa, that the beauty and sadness of this music becomes almost unbearable: the whole world seems to be sobbing in Lacrimosa (in our more sentimental moments we like to think that this is how the world will mourn us but obviously we are quite wrong). The whole world weeps in Lacrimosa and it is not sentimental weeping. Mozart is a great tragic composer, basically one of the very few artists of whom we are not embarrassed to use the word beauty that we have recently begun to avoid.
However, when we talk or even just think of Auschwitz, we forget music completely, suddenly switching to another register, to a black-and-white film. We have many Holocaust specialists, historians, writers, survivors and non-survivors, film-makers, journalists, activists and archivists. I have the feeling that for many of them the word Mozart is empty, just like the word beauty. I might be wrong. But in principle, that is how it ought to be: the terms Auschwitz and beauty are uneasy companions.
And then we have scholars, Mozart specialists, professors who know everything about eighteenth century music, who understand the formal language of eighteenth century art. And there must be some amongst them who do not like to think too much about Auschwitz; after all, their field is – as they would certainly say – much more interesting. They bring back to life those people in powdered wigs, courtiers in those wonderfully chevronné silk costumes, and they bring back to life Mozart’s unusual story, for example his last years, when the Viennese public turned away from his music, and the sick Mozart was composing his Requiem which, as we know, he was not able to finish (after all, you cannot finish a Requiem you are writing for yourself).
If Auschwitz indeed brought to an end something in the history of mankind, if it indeed closed a certain chapter, removing a layer of sensitivity from our skins, we ought not to be marking any composer’s birthday on the same day. Particularly not that of Mozart, with all his rococo wonder, with his endless grace. Yet these layers cannot be removed, they have no intention of disappearing, they won’t crinkle like some sheet of paper thrown into a bonfire.
Mozart was born on the 27 of January. On 27 January Russian soldiers entered Auschwitz. And we are alive now, in January but also in May, in June, in September and in November; we are alive, endowed with memory, sensitivity and imagination, and we remember both Mozart and Auschwitz.
We are alive, we listen to music and sometimes, although not always, we manage to focus, to open ourselves sufficiently to be able to experience it profoundly and painfully, to experience its beauty that combines joy and despair, but also a premonition that is very rare, but very real nevertheless, a premonition of something that is much greater than us, something of a much higher order, something we might call divine, were we not embarrassed to use words like that. Yet we do not forget Auschwitz either, our musical sensitivity does not detach us from this horror, sometimes we are even able to feel elated and to remember the horror at the same time. But then, once we awake from this experience and try to combine it with our overall understanding of the world, we must conclude that those who claim that Auschwitz has ended something once and for all, that it has slammed the door on certain spheres are wrong, they don’t know what they are talking about, or perhaps they have succumbed to rhetorical overstatement, driven by noble motifs, trying to emphasize, quite justifiably, this enormity, the incredible brutality of this crime.
The world after Auschwitz will never be the same, after Auschwitz and all its accompanying crimes. The world is cracked and it has been glued together as a china vase.
And yet, it was on 27 January that Mozart was born in Salzburg and his music lives on, bubbling like champagne within great pianists, conductors, singers or violinists who enter it the way one enters a river in July or August, immersing oneself in it fully, up to one’s neck, but it lives on also in us, the dilettanti, those of us who are not capable of playing a single note but who can sometimes – at least sometimes – make sure that the music can settle within us: we offer it shelter, we let it stay within us for a while, playing host to it only to very quickly discover that it is exactly the other way around, for it is the music that has offered us shelter, that music is our host and we are merely its guests.
To shed these layers, these branches, these regions, to decree that beauty no longer exists or may exist, would be the same as to state, not directly but inductively, by means of a not very Aristotelian syllogism, that they have prevailed, they, the grim organizers of death camps, KL, the Nazis, that Hitler has prevailed, that they have succeeded in diminishing our humanity by ensuring that they are all we can think of, that we have exaggerated the duty of memory.
And that is why I believe that 27 January, with the two anniversaries it contains, is a day that gives us much food for thought, and that it contains elements of what makes us who we are, from the meanest to the most sublime, and that our winter calendar is not so accidental after all, that it is not as aleatory as it might seem to an observer from another planet or another continent. The winter calendar is harsh and demanding but it knows what it’s doing by making us stop and think who we are and why we have to live our lives in a duality, in this difficult, impossible duality.