Mozart and ‘Flow’

Sonata in Am (K310) W. Mozart (1756-1791)

Chorale Prelude on 'Breathe on me Breath of God" W. Zeitler

Toccata in Dm 'Dorian' J.S.Bach (1685-1750)

It’s hard to translate the value of money in centuries past to its equivalent in modern times. But by all appearances, Mozart did O.K. financially overall. To be sure it was ‘feast or famine’ — a large check on completing of an opera, and perhaps a while until the next one. But it is also clear that his genius did not extend to money management. (A rather common shortcoming of geniuses in general!) At the time of his death, Mozart’s finances were in ‘famine’ mode, and he was buried in an anonymous mass grave. Want to visit Mozart’s gravesite? Sorry, can’t be done. His bones lie with the nameless, the homeless and the destitute dregs of 1791 Vienna.

There’s a saying in the music recording industry: "the tape never lies." That is, you can talk a good game all you want, but what you lay down on tape in a recording session is ultimately the bottom line. That is always a combination of two paradoxical elements: on the one hand you need ‘chops’ — the many hours of practice necessary to master your instrument or your own voice. Once that is in place, you can put those 'chops' in service of ‘inspiration’. (It is 'paradoxical' because you need a lot of 'discipline' to achieve 'freedom'.)

One interesting description of ‘inspiration’ is by M. Csikszentmihalyi (I won't even try to pronounce that! B. 1933, former head of Psychology at the University of Chicago), who calls it ‘Flow’. Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.“ So perhaps what makes a great work of art (or athletics or gardening or cooking) is that the artist has captured and shares with us what it is like to be in that state of ‘flow’. (You know you’re in ‘flow’ when you completely lose track of time.)

In John 10:10 we find "I am come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly." But ‘abundantly’ (as it is frequently translated) can be misleading: some argue that this verse means we are meant to have more and more money and stuff. (Wait a minute, Jesus Himself was rather light in the money/possessions department). But the Greek word here (PERISSOS) has more of the sense of ‘exceedingly’. Perhaps something like "I am come that you might have life, and have it more intensely/fully."

So, in the case of Mozart, perhaps what we experience in his best music is a musical representation of what it is like to be in a state of ‘flow’. Since "the tape never lies" (or the score), Mozart had to be in ‘flow’ to portray it.

As measured by the notion that ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’, Mozart was a complete failure. And yet, Mozart apparently lived his life in a state of ‘flow’ far more constantly than the rest of us mere mortals, and died with no ‘toys’ at all. Maybe an 'abundant life' is not necessarily about yet more stuff after all.