[Paleopsych] Normal Lebrecht: Too much Mozart makes you sick

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Fri Jan 6 03:45:04 UTC 2006

Too much Mozart makes you sick

[I think I'll pass on the 172 CD set of the "complete" Mozart. It costs $300 
but most of the performers are unknown to me. I didn't get the Philips 
"complete" Mozart in 1991 on 180 CDs. The "complete" Bach on Hännsler took up 
171 CDs. I got that for $200 and have wanted it ever since I bought a copy of 
the big Schmieder BWV in 1964 directly from the publisher. I slogged through 
them all, but I must report that none of these pushed aside any of my 
favorites. But the Robert Levin performance of the first klavier concerto was 
quite exciting. And the four discs of organ music played by Bine Katrine 
Bryndorf were almost as good as Walcha.

[Why are the best performers today all women? Bryndorf on the organ, Lara St. 
John on the violin, Helene Grimaud and Mitsuko Uchida on the piano, and Marin 
Alsop holding the baton?

[Mozart mostly cranked out music for others, as was common in those days, Haydn 
and Telemann being other examples. He composed great masterpieces, esp. the 
piano concerti, of course, but he wrote little just for himself. Beethoven did 
crank out stuff, but he wrote more for himself than any composer before or 
since. And Brahms is right up there. Bach was a big cranker-outer, esp. the 
cantatas, but he also wrote a great deal of music for himself, much more than 
Mozart did.

[Lehbrecht, however, ignores the timeless masterpieces that Mozart wrote. And 
recall Mr. Mencken's remark that Mozart (and Wagner) could not avoid genuine 
music creeping into their operas. But it's good to have some balance in the 
discussion. Charles Murray, an obvious Beethoven lover, had to decide from the 
sources he used to rank human achievement in his book by that title, whether 
Beethoven or Mozart was the greater. It was a toss up, but he came down on 
Beethoven's side.

[Norm's a little overheated. I'd rank Mozart in the top ten and put him ahead 
of Shostakovich. But his corrective is badly needed!]


They are steam cleaning the streets of Vienna ahead of next month's birthday
weekend when pilgrim walks are planned around the composer's shrines. Salzburg 
rolling out brochures for its 2006 summer festival, which will stage every 
in the Kochel canon from infantile fragments to The Magic Flute, 22 in all.
Pierre Boulez, the pope of musical modernism, will break 80 years of principled
abstinence to conduct a mostly-Mozart concert, a celebrity virgin on the altar 
musical commerce.

Wherever you go in the coming year, you won't escape Mozart. The 250th
anniversary of his birth on January 27 1756 is being celebrated with joyless
efficiency as a tourist magnet to the land of his birth and a universal sales
pitch for his over-worked output. The complete 626 works are being marketed on
record in two special-offer super coffers. All the world's orchestras will be
playing Mozart, wall to wall, starting with the Vienna Philharmonic on tour 

Mozart is the superstore wallpaper of classical music, the composer who pleases
most and offends least. Lively, melodic, dissonance free: what's not to like? 
music is not just charming, it's full of good vibes. The Mozart Effect, an
American resource centre which ascribes 'transformational powers' to Austria's
little wonderlad, collects empirical evidence to show that Mozart, but no other
music, improves learning, memory, winegrowing and toilet training and should be
drummed into classes of pregnant mothers like breathing exercises.

A 'molecular basis' identified in Mozart's sonata for two pianos is supposed to
have stimulated exceptional brain activity in laboratory rats. How can one 
with such 'proof'? Science, after all, confirms what we want to believe - that
art is good for us and that Mozart, in his short-lived naivety, represents a
prelapsarian ideal of organic beauty, unpolluted by industrial filth and loss 
faith. Nice, if only it were true.

The chocolate-box image of Mozart as a little miracle can be promptly banged on
the head. The hard-knocks son of a cynical court musician, Mozart was taught 
first principles to ingratiate himself musically with people of wealth and 
The boy, on tour from age five, hopped into the laps of queens and played 
consolations to ruthless monarchs. Recognising that his music was better than
most, he took pleasure in humiliating court rivals and crudely abused them in
letters back home.

A coprophiliac obsession with bodily functions, accurately evinced in Peter
Shaffer's play and Milos Forman's movie Amadeus, was a clear sign of arrested
emotional development. His marriage proved unstable and his inability to 
the large amounts he earned from wealthy Viennese patrons was a symptom of the
infantile behaviour that hastened his early death and pauper burial. Musical
genius he may have been, but Mozart was no Einstein. For secrets of the 
seek elsewhere.

The key test of any composer's importance is the extent to which he reshaped 
art. Mozart, it is safe to say, failed to take music one step forward. Unlike
Bach and Handel who inherited a dying legacy and vitalised it beyond 
unlike Haydn who invented the sonata form without which music would never have
acquired its classical dimension, Mozart merely filled the space between staves
with chords that he knew would gratify a pampered audience. He was a provider 
easy listening, a progenitor of Muzak.

Some scholars have claimed revolutionary propensities for Mozart, but that is
wishful nonsense. His operas of knowing servants and stupid masters were
conceived by Da Ponte, a renegade priest, from plays by Beaumachais and 
and, while Mozart once indulged in backchat to the all-high Emperor Joseph II, 
knew all too well where his breakfast brioche was buttered. He lacked the rage 
justice that pushed Beethoven into isolation, or any urge to change the world.
Mozart wrote a little night music for the ancien regime. He was not so much
reactionary as regressive, a composer content to keep music in a state of
servility so long as it kept him well supplied with frilled cuffs and fancy

Little in such a mediocre life gives cause for celebration and little indeed 
done to mark the centenary of his birth, in 1856, or of his death in 1891. The
bandwaggon of Mozart commemorations was invented by the Nazis in 1941 and 
by post-War rivalries in 1956 when Deutsche Grammophon rose the from ruins to
beat the busy British labels, EMI and Decca, to a first recorded cycle of the 
Ponte operas.

The 1991 bicentennial of Mozart's death turned Salzburg into a swamp of bad 
and cupidity. The world premiere of a kitsch opera, Mozart in New York, had me
checking my watch every five unending minutes. The record industry, still
vibrant, splattered Mozart over every vacant hoarding and a new phenomenon,
Classic FM, launched in 1992 on the Mozart tide, ensured that we would never be
more than a fingerstretch away from the nearest marzipan chord.

What good all this Mozart does is disputable. For all the pseudoscience of the
Mozart Effect I have yet to see a life elevated by Cosi fan tutte or a criminal
reformed by the plinks of a flute and harp concerto. Where ten days of Bach on
BBC Radio 3 will flush out the world's ears and open minds to limitless vistas,
the coming year of Mozart feels like a term at Guantanamo Bay without the
sunshine. There will be no refuge from neatly resolved chords, no escaping that
ingratiating musical grin.

Don't look to mass media for context or quality control. Both the BBC and
independent channels have rejected any critical perspective on Mozart in the
coming year, settling for sweet-wrapper documentaries that regurgitate familiar
clichés. In this orgy of simple-mindedness, the concurrent centenary of Dmitri
Shostakovich ö a composer of true courage and historical significance ö is 
shunted to the sidelines, celebrated by the few.

Mozart is a menace to musical progress, a relic of rituals that were losing
relevance in his own time and are meaningless to ours. Beyond a superficial
beauty and structural certainty, Mozart has nothing to give to mind or spirit 
the 21st century. Let him rest. Ignore the commercial onslaught. Play the
Leningrad Symphony. Listen to music that matters.

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