Tuesday, 27 January 2009


“The prudence of the best heads is often defeated by the tenderness of the best hearts” – Henry Fielding

Today marks the anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) the Austrian composer whose works represent one of the greatest peaks of Western music. His works, written in every one of the possible forms, combine beauty of melody, harmony and orchestration with classical grace and technical perfection. Mozart learned to play the harpsichord, violin, and organ from his father, Leopold Mozart, (1719–1787), also a composer and violinist. A remarkable prodigy, the young Mozart was composing by the age of five and presenting concerts throughout Europe as a child.

His Idomeneo (1781) is one of the best examples of 18th century opera seria. The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782), a singspiel combining songs and German dialogue, brought some success to him. He turned to the Italian opera buffa, creating the comic masterpiece The Marriage of Figaro (1786). Don Giovanni, considered “difficult” in its day but now recognized as one of the most brilliant operas ever written, followed in 1787. Eine kleine Nachtmusik (1787) is an example of the elegant occasional music and begins with one of the most well known melodies in classical music.

In 1788 he wrote his last three symphonies, Numbers 39–41, which display his complete mastery of form and intense personal feeling. In Vienna he produced his last opera buffa, Cosi fan tutte (1790). In The Magic Flute (1791) he returned to the singspiel, bringing the form to a great height. He then worked feverishly on a Requiem commissioned by a nobleman; it proved to be Mozart's own, and the work was completed by his pupil Franz Süssmayr. The composer died at 35 in poverty and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

The birthday plant for today is the tobacco flower, Nicotiana alata. The genus (named after Jean Nicot, the 16th century French Consul to Portugal) also includes the tobacco plant. Many species contain in their leaves the deadly poison nicotine, which in small doses is addictive. The plants are native to the Americas and the Amerindians used to smoke the dried leaves of the plant before the arrival of the white conquerors. Sir Walter Raleigh introduced tobacco to Europe in the 16th century. The flower symbolises forbidden pleasures and deadly addictions for obvious reasons...

Today we had a temperature of 39˚C. The weather bureau predicts temperatures above 40˚C in the next four days with a cool change on Sunday bringing the expected maximum down to 31˚C. These temperatures on consecutive days have not been seen for decades in Melbourne. Our climate is definitely changing and we had better get used to extremes of temperature and the breaking of weather records from now on. These weather extremes are not unprecedented, they have been recorded by palaeometeorologists who have found evidence of several changes in our climate over the millions of years of earth’s existence. Several of these climate changes may have been responsible for extinctions of species and one of them nearly wiped out the human species.

This particular disaster happened 70,000 years ago and was caused by a massive volcanic eruption on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. The volcano was Toba and where a tall mountain was in the past, now all that remains if a large lake. The eruption was a cataclysmic event which must have happened suddenly (so the geological records indicate). It spewed 2800 cubic kilometers of volcanic material into the atmosphere, making it the most violent eruption of the last two million years (The mount St Helen’s eruption, being the largest in living memory produced only one cubic kilometer of material in its 1980 eruption).

Scientists have traced Toba’s volcanic dust throughout the world, but worse over Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, with some deposits of ash as high as 6 metres in some digs in India. The dust and ash in the atmosphere caused immediate effects on climate, with about six years of a volcanic winter. Plant life and animal life was wiped out by the billions as global temperatures fell by an average of about 12˚C. A few tropical areas in Africa with high rainfall were able to sustain life.

It has been suggested that total human population was reduced to about 10,000 individuals. This is supported by genetic data and explains why the genetic diversity of today’s human population is so narrow. For centuries, each new generation of humans could have easily been the last. We owe our survival to those few thousands of resourceful humans that managed to survive the geological disaster that nearly wiped out our species. Sobering, isn’t it? Trouble is, it’s happening all over again and this time we only have ourselves to blame…

Well to cheer you up here is some Mozart! First the virtual “Mozartkugel”, a delicious chocolate bonbon of Salzburg with a centre of pistachio marzipan, almond nougat and dark chocolate. Now made to the same recipe in several cities it is available around the world. Secondly, here is a delicious musical bonbon by the master himself, the Andante from his Piano Concerto No 21, “Elvira Madigan”.

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