Over the years for various personality tests, job interviews, and self-help programs, I’ve been asked this same question: What three historical figures would you most like to have dinner with?
I usually start the list with Mozart. He’s a natural choice for me, because I wrote my dissertation on him. I’m also very curious about his creative process. He wrote in letters that he composed pieces completely his head and only later wrote them down. How was that possible? And I’d like to see what kind of person he was—the child-man as depicted in the play and film Amadeus, or a more serious sort who only sometimes indulged his silly side?
When I’m asked the dinner question during interviews, there’s never enough time to talk about the actual dinner conversation. We hurry on to the next question, as if the interviewers were just checking to see if I’m clever enough to name worthy and interesting people.
So, okay, let’s do this. What if I did get to have dinner with Mozart?
Let’s be concrete about how this meal would go down. Here are my assumptions.
I’ll time-travel back to him, not have him come to me.
It will be late in his life, when he’s sick and fearing the worst, i.e., he’s 35 years old.
We’ll understand each other’s language.
The dinner is vegan. Hey, this is my fantasy dinner.
He’s been briefed ahead of time about this visit, and he’s wrapped his head around the fact that he’s going to meet someone from over 200 years in the future.
Maybe for starters I’d tell a personal story. I’d relate how the slow movement of his Piano Concerto in A Major (K.V. 488) meant so much to me at a particular time in my life. My favorite music professor from college gave me an album of two Mozart piano concertos for a wedding present when I was 23. I couldn’t stop listening to that slow movement. My pulse leapt each time I heard the melody in the woodwinds soar up then drift slowly down, with aching chords underneath moving from dissonance to warm resolution.
I’d been so heads-down in college either practicing the piano or studying scores for my history or theory classes that I hadn’t learned to luxuriate in music, to let it feed my soul. Mozart’s slow movement was my first love in that respect—it quieted my mind and resonated with emotions I felt but still couldn’t identify.
I’d give Mozart some time to ask questions, sure. The story I just told would likely prompt questions about the history of recording technology, the evolution of musical instruments, changes in performance and concert practices, and the evolution of musical styles. It’d be a hoot to play him some music that came after his time—Wagner! Stravinsky! Glass! The Beatles!
Then I would have my chance to ask him about his creative process. But now that I consider how I’d want to use my time, I think I’d much rather help him understand how his art has deeply touched many, many people.
I would first tell him that The Magic Flute, which had premiered in Vienna just three months before he died, went on to have a run of 223 performances, the most popular opera at that theater ever.
Then I would sketch out how his reputation grew after his death. His operas quickly made their way across Europe, to London, and even to the New World within a decade or two after his death. Joseph Haydn and other composers passed along their high esteem for Mozart to anyone who would listen. Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and most other 19th-century masters paid homage to Mozart’s talent. The growth of public concerts in the 1800s spread his works to many more people than just the highbrow circles Mozart was used to.
What would race through his mind as I sketched out how famous he became over the next 200 years, how his name is now known the world over, how millions of people love his music, how Mozart Festivals are held around the globe every year? I’d tell him he’s even in outer space. An aria from The Magic Flute is imprinted on a golden record aboard the Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977, now about 12 million miles from Earth.
Did Mozart compose for the future? Did he dream of immortality? I could ask him that. All the artists I know get excited just to see their work bring delight, inspiration, or comfort to people right now. Sure, like all of us, they hope that something they’ve done will escape the grave and have a life of its own. It seems cosmically unfair that artists can never know whether their works will make a difference after they die.
Just looking around my house I see that I have lovely pottery, paintings, prints, and jewelry that I’ve bought over the years at arts and crafts fairs. I usually don’t keep the cards or receipts. That’s too bad, because I should contact each of the artists and tell them that their creation brings me joy when I look at it or use it. I’ve read countless novels by people who have died too young—they’ll never know how many pleasant hours they’ve brought to me and others.
My husband drafts and revises his exuberant novels for hours and days on end. I have a photographer friend who wakes up in the dark every day, weather permitting, to get to his position beside a lake where he captures the sunrise and the day’s unique play of light, clouds, and atmosphere on the water and trees. What keeps them going? Perhaps the urge is actually the quiet voices of future admirers telling them that their efforts will bring moments of insight and joy to people they don’t know, in ways they can’t imagine.
But during my dinner with Mozart, I’ll be able to right this wrong in at least one case. Time will be overcome so that he’ll know his art made the world much richer and more beautiful.
I guess the only other thing I’d want to do is ask Mozart if he and I could play one of his four-hand piano duets together. I sure hope Instagram Live Video works in a time machine.