5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Mozart

We asked Mark Hamill, Condoleezza Rice, Mitsuko Uchida and others to pick the music that moves them. Listen to their choices.

Credit...Angie Wang

In the past, we’ve asked some of our favorite artists to choose the five or so minutes they would play to make their friends fall in love with classical music, the piano, opera and the cello.

Now we want to convince those same curious friends to love Mozart, whose mastery spanned genres and whose influence was profound. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your choices in the comments.

So much of what I love about Mozart tends toward the poignant: his ability to express both the pain and beauty of the human condition, the way his music “smiles through the tears,” as the musicologist H.C. Robbins Landon put it. But he also offers moments of pure, unbridled joy, none more overwhelming than the finale of his “Posthorn” Serenade. It’s a reminder that Mozart, as the conductor Colin Davis once said, is “life itself.”

I was in the first national tour of “Amadeus,” then I finished my run on Broadway. I did it for 11 months, the longest run I’ve ever had in a play. Beforehand, my wife and I went to Salzburg. You can tour Mozart’s house, and they even had a lock of his hair; it was a sort of reddish brown. That was chilling, hundreds of years later, to be so physically close to him.

So much of the play is underscored with his music, which is more common to do in film. I never got tired of the sound; I could use it to inform my performance. And to underplay, because the music was doing a lot of the work. Particularly at the end, when he’s on his knees, wondering whether he’s really been so wicked. He’s so vulnerable, and his Requiem is playing.

I have a long history with this concerto, having played a movement — and won with it — in competition at the age of 15. And when I was secretary of state, I had a chance to play a few lines from it on Mozart’s own piano at the festival in Vienna celebrating the 250th anniversary of his birth. Needless to say, the piece means a lot to me. The restlessness of the first movement, the simplicity of the second and the playfulness of the third are for me quintessential Mozart: genius. And Martha Argerich’s rendering is incomparable.

Mozart didn’t write a note that isn’t worth hearing. But recently I watched the stream of Glyndebourne’s 2006 production of “Così Fan Tutte,” conducted by my wonderful colleague Ivan Fischer, and was reminded that the trio “Soave sia il vento” is one of the most sublime things I know. The text is “May the winds be gentle, and the sea calm,” and you can almost feel the breezes gently blowing and the waves lapping in the violins as it starts. Such beauty, tenderness and longing, all in the space of just over two and a half minutes.

I love when Mozart swerves from the comic, just for a bit, and opens his heart. In “Le Nozze di Figaro,” an ensemble is burbling along when a few voices break out in soaring longing: Just let us get married. And here, in the Piano Concerto No. 25, the orchestra is cheerfully marching, the barest dusk over its bright spirits, when there’s a sudden burst and then an aria of aching loveliness: The cello gently warms the piano from beneath; the melody is passed to the oboe, then the flute. The ensemble is briefly gripped by tension before Mozart passes his magic wand over the music and merriment returns.

“Amadeus” made my childhood, and I have performed the forgiveness part of “The Marriage of Figaro” for 12 hours straight, twice. But this time I choose “Ave Verum Corpus.” It is just such a glorious short piece. It is the length of a pop song, but with the epic mass of sunrise. Just think of 35-year-old Mozart writing this in the summer of 1791, to thank his friend for setting his wife Constanze up at a resort while she was pregnant with their sixth child. He wrote it in the summer, then was dead in December. He was probably the ultimate “verum corpus”: I think few human bodies have brought as much joy to the world as Mozart.

Despite being quite content as a violinist, the bassoon is my favorite instrument, and a major reason is this serenade. During the trio, the second bassoon operates as the bass of the group and is suspiciously late to everything; I cannot get enough. Fortunately, I don’t have to give up the violin to play it, because in 1787 Mozart composed the glaringly similar but still totally individual K. 406 String Quintet. He knew this piece was too good not to write it twice.

The Act I finale of “The Magic Flute” has special resonance in these seemingly interminable days of quarantine. We watch our hero, Tamino, search for his lover, Pamina, after she has been kidnapped. At the door of a temple, Tamino sings “O endless night, when will you be gone? When will the daylight greet my sight?” and an unseen chorus whispers “Soon, soon, soon, fair youth — or never.” I love Mozart’s operas because they connect us not only to him but to all of humanity, reminding us that we suffer the same heartbreaks, giggle at the same dumb jokes and feel the same grief as audiences through the centuries.

There are so many moments. “Giovanni” has everything. “Figaro” is perfect. And “Così,” that is one piece I would take with me to a desert island: the duet for Fiordiligi and Ferrando, which I do not think is cynical music, and the trio “Soave sia il vento,” which brings tears to my eyes every time the strings start playing.

But K. 545, the “Sonata Facile,” is one of the most amazing pieces, and I have always loved it. The slow movement is the twin of the aria “Dalla sua pace.” I play it as an encore when I want to say, “Sorry, my performance wasn’t good enough.” The whole thing blossoms, and out comes the truth. I played it for the Kurtags — Gyorgy and Marta, when she was still there. They lived the life of music, totally together. I went to see them just for the day, and when I arrived they wanted to hear Mozart. I played the “Sonata Facile.” I didn’t need to explain; they knew.

Modernist complexity and Classical-era transparency are often presumed to be at odds. But the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s bright, buoyant way of conducting this Mozart flute concerto puts the lie to that assumption. And in a cadenza he wrote, Stockhausen communicates affection for Mozart’s motifs — even when stretching phrase durations to lengths generally associated with the avant-garde. (This performance is on CD 39 of the Stockhausen edition available at stockhausencds.com.)

Before Mozart, ensembles in operas were typically occasions for characters to summarize their feelings. Mozart turned them into action scenes, as in the beguiling sextet in Act III of “The Marriage of Figaro.” Figaro has just discovered that Marcellina, who has been angling to marry him, and the scheming Dr. Bartolo are actually his long-lost parents. A tender moment of reunion begins, while Count Almaviva, who is after Susanna, Figaro’s bride-to-be, mutters that he has been outwitted, a sentiment affirmed by his lawyer, Don Curzio. Susanna arrives, sees Figaro embracing Marcellina, assumes the worse, and stirs up the sextet with her fury.

The scoring of this work, for 12 wind instruments and a double bass, is already extraordinary. But the slow movement is absolutely breathtaking. After four simple unison chords, a steadily pulsating, slightly syncopated accompanying figure in the lower instruments heralds the entry of the first of three solo lines: oboe, clarinet and basset horn, which share between them the most sublime melody. There is a feeling of infinite serenity in this music, of a quiet and radiant joy, and perhaps also a little shadow, so prevalent in Mozart’s music, which brings us to that fine edge between euphoria and sorrow.

Of all the things to love in Mozart’s music, I’m most often drawn to the economy of his emotional intensity. Not just in furious outbursts like the Queen of the Night’s famous aria. I’m talking about the leaner soloist entrances in his two minor-key piano concertos — whispered phrases of teeming drama. Or his Rondo in A minor (K. 511), a transparent masterpiece of keyboard writing that looks ahead to Schubert’s wistful lyricism and Chopin’s ornamented turns of phrase.

The clarinet held a special place in Mozart’s heart. Inspired by Anton Stadler, an instrument maker and brilliant player, he wrote music for the instrument that was unprecedented in both its lyricism and jubilant virtuosity. One of these groundbreaking works is the quintet for clarinet and strings, which contains a slow movement of weightless, bittersweet perfection.

In the beginning, the clarinet unspools long, placid lines over an undulating haze of strings, setting a mood of pastoral peace. Then a solo violin breaks free and engages the clarinet in a pas-de-deux full of playful runs and graceful ornaments. When the violin melts back into the background, the clarinet returns to its opening theme, the atmosphere now subtly changed and clouded with melancholy.

A scene that has always made my heart stop and brought on the goose bumps is the finale of “The Marriage of Figaro.” The philandering Count Almaviva thinks that he has caught his wife cheating, only to realize that it is he who has been ensnared, in front of his whole household. With no escape, the count finally comprehends his shame and asks the countess for pardon. The magical moment comes when we all expect the countess to have her revenge, and she does just the opposite: She forgives him. She embodies the morality and strength that has been lacking throughout the opera. I love her being the bigger person.