Great things can happen when talented people collaborate. Take, for example, the 1992 U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball Team, made up of the best players from different NBA teams who had never before played together as a group. Among the greatest athletic units ever assembled, point guard Magic Johnson once said of this patchwork squad, “I look to my right, there’s Michael Jordan … I look to my left, there’s Charles Barkley or Larry Bird … I didn’t know who to throw the ball to!” The so-called “Dream Team” went on to dominate the Olympic tournament and helped ignite global interest in basketball. They would later be enshrined together in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Meanwhile, “Barcelona,” a song co-produced by Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and opera star Monserrat Caballé, was performed at the Opening Ceremony of the same Olympic Games. It became a worldwide hit that is now remembered as one of the great mixed-genre recordings. And the painting shown above is, itself, a joint creation between Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, taking the Olympic rings as its central theme. By combining Warhol’s use of repetitive imagery with Basquiat’s graffiti-inspired technique, the painting embodies something that neither individual could have independently conceived. Across disciplines, these types of collaborations open the door to new possibilities and provide fresh insight into each artist.
In music, one partnership that famously did not materialize involves composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, whose creative paths nearly merged. There is some indication that the younger Beethoven traveled to Vienna around 1787 in hopes of studying with Mozart. Some have speculated that the two may have briefly met. However, Beethoven hastily returned to his hometown of Bonn, Germany upon learning that his mother was ill. He spent the next several years tending to family affairs, by which time Mozart himself had passed away, and so the opportunity was lost. Beethoven would later end up studying with the (also great) composer Franz Joseph Haydn.
Still, it is hard not to wonder how Beethoven’s artistry might have evolved under Mozart’s mentorship, or to what degree some of the influence might have traveled in the opposite direction. Although we will never know the answers to these “what if …” questions, the two men did leave us with a collaboration of sorts. Around 1796, five years after Mozart’s death, Beethoven wrote a set of variations for cello and piano that used as its theme a song from Mozart’s final opera, The Magic Flute. Theme-and-variations structure calls for the DNA of Mozart’s original music to permeate the entire piece, thus ensuring that both composers have their fingerprints on the finished product, as if to reclaim a lost opportunity. Later, in 1810, Beethoven would write another set of variations on a different song from the same Mozart opera.
You can hear both compositions in the clips below. As you listen, try to imagine the cello and piano less as instruments, and more as two friends who are carrying on a conversation – the way Mozart and Beethoven might have done, had serendipity taken a different twist.
Performers: First video – Sayaka Selina (cello), Thomas Hoppe (piano). Second video – Matt Haimovitz (cello), Christopher O’Riley (fortepiano).
Compositions: First video – Ludwig van Beethoven, Seven Variations in E-flat major on Mozart’s “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,” WoO 46. Second video – Ludwig van Beethoven, Twelve Variations in F major on Mozart’s “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen,” Op. 66.