[Paleopsych] Meme 057: Mozart 250 Package
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Fri Jan 27 21:44:45 UTC 2006
Meme 057: Mozart 250 Package
First off, has anyone bought the 172-CD "complete" Mozart that is floating
around on e-Bay? (In light of what I am about to say, you might wonder
that I'd be interested in getting small beer Mozart. It's just that I am
addicted to collecting. I bought the 171-CD "complete" Bach, the Hannsler
set, for $200 and took a year to get through it. Nothing replaced any
favorites. The first klavier concerto played by Robert Levin was the most
exciting in the set, and Bine Katrine Bryndorf is a great organist, the
best alive today afaik. Men have run out of things to say, and it's the
women who are taking over. There's also Marin Alsop, conductor; Hélène
Grimaud and Mitsuko Uchida, piano; and Lara St. John, violin.
My question: How much space does this set take up? The Bach consists of
two boxes, 11 inches (28 cm) long (and the height and depth of a compact
disc). I most definitely do NOT want 171 individual jewel boxes. What is
not included in the set among the Köchel numbers. (I have three CDs of
fragments that were not in the 180-CD "complete Philips edition of 1991. I
got a copy of the 6th edition of the Köchel catalog exactly a year ago,
but I haven't used it beyond an initial look-over (lots and lots of great
appendixes), while my Schmieder gets heavy use and my Kinsky less.) And,
of course, what about the performances? Which labels did they come from. I
recall a Fanfare article that the Brilliant set of sonatas is very good,
and I believe this is these are in the "complete" set? I don't even know
who publishes it. I placed a bid for the set on e-Bay. My bid of $80
lasted until the last day, but then the bids went up close or even beyond
the "buy it now" price. So I dropped out of the bidding. I seems there
were quite a lot of people like me who were hoping to get a set cheaper
than the "buy it now" price. The postage for "buy it now" is $30 but for a
bid upon set $40.
Now to my reflections:
Mozart is uncontestably a great composer, but my feelings are ambiguous.
Basically, he did not sweat. He is the only great composer whose
personality eludes me, even though we have a quite detailed knowledge of
his life. But it's impersonal knowledge. We don't know what his music
meant to him. We don't know what Bach's music meant to Bach, at least from
the writings of him and his contemporaries, of course, but it's not the
Mozart was a great genius, but I sense that his superbly intricate music
just gushed out of him, though several of the writers below insist that
this is a myth. We do have fragments of abandoned works, but not, it
seems, complete works movement of works that were never finished, like
Schubert's Unfinished symphony and the Relique sonata. And there is the
draft of the first movement of the sixth piano sonata, which is quite a
bit different from the one we all know. Even here, there's no reason to
think that Mozart sweated over the revisions.
The authors below concentrate almost entirely on his operas to justify
Mozart's greatness. Opera is not for me, as I find the essence of great
music in large scale abstract forms, not those that follow someone else's
plot. Whether it was Mozart of Da Ponte who was the most responsible for
the plots of his three great Italian operas (argued below), Da Ponte is
another man whose genius came too easily for him. After he settled in the
United States, he wrote no more libretti, though he still kept up
promoting music, that of others. At least he's better than Korngold, who
allegedly wrote a masterpiece at age 12 (Mendelssohn, more an earlier
achiever than Mozart, wrote his Octet and MSND at ages 15 and 16, while
Mozart's first memorable works were his first piano sonatas at age 18), he
chucked it all when he came to the United States and gave up serious music
for film "music." The excuse he needed it for the money does not wash.
Faulker wrote for Hollywood to make money, to be sure, but he kept on
writing literature all the while. It makes me think that Korngold (and
several other refugees to Hollywood, but *not* Schoenberg) did not really
care about music. They were highly talented and did not sweat. And the
inner Puritan in me suspects that their music was not genuine.
And this is what clouds my appreciation of Mozart. I do champion art for
arts sake (a later notion), and Mozart's music certainly is art and on a
very high level. After all, he is one of the greats, Norman Lehrbrecht
below to the contrary notwithstanding. He died at age 35, the whole world
knows. He would have been but 47 when the Eroica symphony was written.
(Beethoven was 33.) Who knows how he might have responded to the wave of
romanticism. We get four hints from works composed in his last year after
the Jupiter: the last piano concerto, the clarinet quintet, the clarinet
concerto, and the Requiem. New directions all of them, along with a lot of
pure hack work and some very good work, like his last two piano sonatas,
but which do not suggest new paths.
Why do I insist that artists sweat, that genius is not enough? I am not
sure. I don't think it's envy. I myself am a point in case, though on a
much lesser level. I had outstanding abilities in mathematics, but never
the sheer diligence to make use of them, which I failed to do by age 25,
by which time most mathematicians have made their most outstanding
contributions. I've coasted through life, doing very little actual work,
but following down a wide number of paths to my own liking, though not
adding up to a concrete whole. I can only hope that my gaining a knowledge
of diverse areas and following them to their roots by Checking the
Premises allows insights across disciplines, which insights I share with
others, now that there is an Internet. I might have been an inspiring
teacher, like the University of Chicago economist Frank Knight, for a very
select bunch of students, for most of them did not like him at all. Here's
hoping that I've imparted in some of you ideas--questions, really--that
will set you afire.
I want a moral insistence in music, one we find in Beethoven preeminently.
Glenn Gould put it best: "This is not to say that the aspiration to
transcend the human condition would be forever lost to art--certainly it
is the essence of the work of Beethoven, for instance, that we feel him
struggling to strike beyond the realization of human potential--but the
grandeur of Beethoven's art resides in the struggle rather than in the
occasional transcendence which he achieves...." ("Bach the Nonconformist"
(1962), John P.L. Roberts, ed., _The Art of Glenn Gould_ (Toronto: Malcolm
Lester Books, 1999). I find a moral insistence in Bach and in the
Romantics, but not in Mozart and Haydn. It is true that Bach deeply
understood human feelings, but only those that were to be found in
Christian worship, not in those emotions of defiance that are so abundant
in Beethoven but were only socially constructed at a later date. Mozart
did not know the emotions of Beethoven either. Had he lived, he might not
have given us music of Beethoven's depth. It was Schubert's early death,
at age 31, that was the greater loss for art. Like Mozart, he was forging
new paths before he died. Beethoven lived longer and never stopped
reaching. Neither did Brahms. Bruckner stopped. Dvorak and Tchaikovsky had
their say. Mendelssohn did not really develop any further depth after his
first masterpieces. But Schumann's early death was a loss. I don't know
about Franck. Bartok's last compositions took him in new directions.
It is too much a commonplace to say that an artist's life is not tied to
his music. This is widely used to excuse Wagner's political opinions. I
see them as of a piece. It matters not that I share or don't share these
opinions. It does matter that he had grandiose visions, but I don't
appreciate opera (see Mr. Mencken's thoughts on them below) and wish he
had composed instrumental music beyond some early works. By all accounts,
Wagner was not a pleasant man. Neither was Mozart. He never grew up, and
the evidence for this is well supported (if not intended) by Edward
Rothstein, "Mozart: In Search of the Roots of Genius," _Smithsonian_, 2006
February (not yet online). I can surely understand: an exploitative
father, a confining environment in Salzburg. But we don't know what how he
would have followed the new directions he was forging in his last year.
Mr. Mencken is like me. He more appreciated Mozart than really loved him.
I find tributes to his greatness scattered in _H.L. Mencken on Music_ but
no sustained appreciation. I cannot do any better toward appreciating his
instrumental music than the authors below. If anyone has, send it to me!
The transhumanists, those that want to reach beyond the merely human, are
rare. Beethoven was one, Nietzsche another, and so was Cézanne. I'll have
to considerably reflect and name others. None in religion, surely none in
That Mozart was not among them, though well enough a genius to have been
one, is what causes my ambiguous feeling about him. Let us, instead, just
enjoy his music.
My Favorite Recordings of Mozart
* means especially outstanding; **head and shoulders above all others.
**Sonatas. Glenn Gould, then Reine Gianoli (Westminster mono) for the
whole cycle. I do not worship this music and love the way these two artists
play around with it. Backhaus also, esp. the electric no. 11 and the mono
LP. Serious, of course. Schnabel ditto. The combination of a Frick Museum
concert of 1945 and a U.S. Armed Forces recording of 1944 by Schnabel is a
miracle of music making. Once on a Discocorp LP, I don't think it has ever
been transferred to Compact Disc. Wilhelm Kempff is surprisingly weak here.
Gieseking is the first set I bought, but now I find it dull, as do a lot
of folks. Mr. Walter Klien (Vox Box) is better. I have an unopened
original LP box from 1954! (Bids accepted.) I eyed it in the Schwann
catalog as soon as I first started getting them. It was $75.00 back then,
a lot of money. I don't know what the e-Bay price is.
Gould, Schnabel, Backhaus, and Kempff are my favorite pianists. I collect
Gianoli, long forgotten but emphatically herself.
Rondo in a, K. 411. Wilhelm Backhaus and Artur Schnabel.
Variations. Reine Gianoli, Westminster mono
Sonata in D, K. 448. Alfred Brendel and Mr. Walter Klien, Vox stereo. The
most enthusiastic recording of anything in my entire collection, along
with the Serkin's cadenza to the Casals (not the Busch) recording of the
Sonata in Bb, bassoon and cello, K. 292. Benjamin Cohon, bassoon, and
Joseph Schuster, cello. Victor.12149, electric. This is a trifle, but the
performers reversed the parts for reasons that I don't know. A delight.
Violin Sonatas. Joseph Szigeti, esp. with Schnabel (live) and Andor Foldes
(live). The studios for Columbia and Vanguard are not so good. Also Adolf
Busch and Rudolf Serkin No. 25 in F, K. 377 (1937); Albert Spalding and
Andre Benoist on 28 in Eb, K. 380 (electric); and Jacques Thibaud and
Marguerite Long for Nos. 26 in Bb, K. 378, and 34 in A, K. 526 (late
electrical 78s or early mono LP)
My favorite violinists are just these four. One never knows if, coming
across just one recording, one would really like it. But I love hearing my
favorite artists grind away on everything. Music is a *performing* art and
should be half composer and half performer. In the case of the piano
sonatas, it's about 9/10 Gould, but that's okay for Mozart. It is most
definitely not okay for Gould's Beethoven.
Quartets. I am not fond of these pieces, though I have inevitably
collected lots of recordings of them, including several acoustics.
**Quintet 3 in C, K. 515. Pro Arte and Alfred Hobday, 2nd viola, 1934
electric. All other recordings make this piece like just one more Mozart
Quintet, clarinet, in A, K. 581. Leopold Wlach, Vienna Konzerthaus
Quartet, mono 1951 for Westminster. Wlach is my favorite clarinetist.
Mellow, depressing even.
**Quintet, winds, in Eb, K. 581. Brain Ensemble, 1954 mono. Within one
minute of hearing this for the first time, I knew all other recordings
were headed to the garbarage heap.
Serenade 10 in Bb, K. 361 (13 instruments). Stokowski, stereo 1966. This
is lively, bouncy Mozart.
Clarinet Concerto. Wlach, Westminster mono
Horn concerti. Brain. I prefer the 78s of Nos. 2 and 4 to the remakes with
Piano 9. Kempff, mono
**Piano 10. Brendel and Klien
Piano 14. Serkin, Busch
*Piano 15. Kempff, mono
Piano 17. Dohnanyi, electric. First recording of the work. **Mvt. 2
Schnabel, live. Miraculously probing.
Piano 19. Schnabel, electric
Piano 20. Schnabel and Kempff, both electric
*Piano 21. Foldes, mono. Best articulated playing of the work I know of. I
**Piano 22. Serkin, Casals, mono. I listen to the entire first movement in
anticipation of the dissonant clashes of the magnificent cadenza.
**Piano 23. Kempff, stereo. Limpid, weightless, cool. Kempff at his very
*Piano 24. Gould, stereo. Exciting
Piano 26. Backhaus, electric; Ingrid Haebler, mono Vox
Piano 27. Backhaus, stereo. Schnabel too, sure. All Schnabel is superb.
Kempff, too, mostly, but 21 and 22 were late recordings that I found weak.
27, not early, but also weak. Don't know why.
I am not denigrating the other concerti 9-27. It's just that I don't have
any clear favorite.
All piano concerti. Listen to Mitsuko Uchida more.
Violin 3. Thibaud, Enescu, ORTF live 1951.
Violin 4. Szigeti, 1934 electric.
**Violin 5. Arthur Catterall, Hamilton Harty, anon. orch. 1924 acoustic.
First recording of the work. How often it is that the first recording is
never improved upon! Catterall is forgotten; too bad.
Symphony 25. Klemperer, both Vox mono and Angel stereo. Minor music, but I
was in a store for over an hour and the Klemperer stereo was played over
and over again. I came to like the last movement, especially. I do like
minor key Mozart, but there's very little of it. In the Baroque era, it
was much the reverse, a good majority of the music being in the minor key.
Don't know why. With Brahms, it doesn't seem to matter.
**Symphony 35. Toscanini, NBC, mono. He really whips it up.
Symphonies 36 and 38. No decided preferences. Walter (stereo) and Casals
(stereo) as good as any.
Symphony 39. Furtwängler and Toscanini, both mono. Mravinsky, stereo. I'd
say Richard Strauss on the last three are good.
**Symphony 40. Second Klemperer (both are stereo). I was burnt out on this
until I came across this recording.
Symphony 41. Schmidt-Isserstedt, Mercury stereo. I am burned out on this
work. The S-I I got in junior high and it holds up well, very nice
pointing out of details. For a while, and on the basis of this record, I
thought Mozart was greater than Beethoven! I am fond of the Albert Coates
acoustic, but he plays the first movement ridiculously fast.
It is telling that, of my four favorite conductors, we have no symphonies
from Mengelberg, just the Jupiter from Coates, just the 33rd, 39th, and
40th (which I have not heard) from Mravinsky, and only early recordings,
that is before he reached his stride, from Scherchen (namely 29, 35, 36,
**Requiem. Scherchen mono. Westminster WL 5233. This performance is sheer
perfection. I say this about only an handful of recordings: Fritz
Lehmann's Brahms German Requiem, Hermann Scherchen's mono Handel's
Messiah, Fricsay's Zauberflöte. Scherchen's stereo remakes of both the
Requiem and the Messiah are too drawn out, too much of a good thing. But
if they were his only recordings, I'd love them.
**Don Giovanni. Rosbaud on Vox OPBX 162, 1956.7.12 live and 1956.9
(?studio). Be sure it's this one. It has Teresa Stich-Randall, Suzanne
Danco, Nicolai Gedda, etc., a stellar cast, but the singers don't matter.
Miraculous performance. The orchestra usually rests in the background, but
here Rosbaud subtly and quietly makes you listen past the singers to the
*Zauberflöte. Fricsay, mono. My favorite opera (along with Fidelio). Sheer
Cosi and Figaro. I am not an opera lover, as I have never been able to
develop any real appreciation for the interplay between text and action
(to my loss, for those I respect for other reasons do like opera). A lot
of opera is written to show off the high notes of the singers. There is no
actual meaning conveyed if the singer goes up five notes or ten at some
dramatic point. My favorite singer, by far, is Helmut Krebs, but he was
Mozart on the Web
Posted on Sun, Jan. 22, 2006 [topstory_fromthe_txt.gif]
Mozart on the Web
You can't have an official holiday anymore without an official Web
site, right? For Mozart, information on the 250th birthday year in
Austria, including lots of tourist information, is at
www.mozart2006.com. The site first appears in German, but it has a
translation. Once you enter, go all the way to the bottom of the
screen and click on the word English.
Mozart at 250: No Signs of Slowing Down
As Birthday Nears, Composer Is the One Bestowing Gifts
By Tim Page
Washington post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 22, 2006; N01
It is now 250 years since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg,
Austria -- and some 245 years since this prodigy among prodigies fashioned
his first little pieces for keyboard under the helpful eye of his father,
Leopold. The world has changed radically since 1756 but Mozart remains a
constant -- we continue to regard the mixture of clarity, grace and formal
balance in his music with undiminished awe. He seems to have been
incapable of vulgarity or overstatement: In his mature works, there is
hardly a wasted gesture or a note out of place. And yet it all seems so
effortless, so absolutely spontaneous.
Indeed, because Mozart's music is so flowing, direct and eloquent,
many listeners think it must be easy to perform. Nothing could be
further from the truth. Although almost any third-year piano student
can read through the Mozart sonatas, it is a different matter entirely
to play them well . Many other composers demand more in terms of
muscle, pyrotechnics and flashy virtuosity, but there is an
extraordinary transparency to Mozart's music, and any imbalance, no
matter how slight, is glaringly obvious. As such, the interpretation
of Mozart remains one of the supreme tests of any great musician.
Friday marks the anniversary of Mozart's birth and -- not surprisingly
-- there are a number of celebrations planned for our area. They
include the National Symphony Orchestra's semi-staged rendition of
Mozart's early opera "Abduction From the Seraglio," which will be
presented Thursday, Friday and Saturday, under the direction of
Leonard Slatkin. The cast will include Jennifer Casey Cabot, JiYoung
Lee, Richard Clement and Robert Baker, with newscaster Sam Donaldson
in the speaking role of the Pasha Selim. The staging design will be by
Douglas Fitch, who previously participated in the Kennedy Center's
semi-staged production of Ravel's "L'Enfant et les Sortileges" in the
2004 Festival of France.
Also on Thursday night, Misha and Cipa Dichter will play Mozart works
for piano four-hands as well as for two pianos at the Kennedy Center
Terrace Theater, as part of the Fortas Chamber Music Series. And the
Embassy Series will present two Mozart programs this week at the
Austrian Embassy: On Thursday, the mezzo-soprano Elisabeth von Magnus
will sing lieder not only by Mozart but also by his great teacher,
Franz Joseph Haydn, and by his supposed "rival," Antonio Salieri (who,
the film "Amadeus" to the contrary, was both a solid composer and a
Friday night, the Minetti Quartet will play music by Mozart and Franz
Schubert (who would have celebrated his 209th birthday Jan. 31). (For
information: http://www.embassyseries.com/ .) Meanwhile, at the Tivoli
Theater, the In Series is offering a drastic, controversial revision
of "Le Nozze di Figaro," updated and set in Las Vegas.
Every composer's stock rises in notable birthday years. In 1970, the
Beethoven bicentenary, it seemed that every other new recording was
devoted to one of his symphonies or sonatas. In 1985, we were served
helping upon helping of Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel
and Georg Philipp Telemann, the tricentenary birthday boys
(esotericists also made note of the 400th anniversary of the birth of
the Renaissance composer Heinrich Schutz).
And now it is Mozart's turn. Yet he is always a familiar presence in
the concert hall and opera house, even when it isn't "his year." Up in
New York, Lincoln Center has presented an annual festival,
appropriately titled "Mostly Mozart," for the past 40 years: No other
composer could fill the house so reliably.
I suspect that a principal reason for Mozart's popularity is his
universality. He speaks to almost everybody (the only convinced
Mozart-haters who come to mind are Noel Coward and Glenn Gould) and he
never pushes us. If all you want from one of his compositions are some
good tunes and seraphic harmonies, he will surely provide them. If you
want much, much more, Mozart, in virtually all of his mature pieces,
will provide that, too.
This sets him apart. Charming composers such as Vivaldi and Telemann
offer a good deal of pleasure but usually -- usually -- not much else.
And there is necessarily work involved in coming to terms with the
greatest music by Bach and Beethoven; it is impossible to imagine,
say, a late Beethoven quartet or Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" playing
as background music. But it is not so impossible with Mozart --
indeed, turn on your television late at night and prepare to shudder
at the uses to which this composer's music is put.
In no way am I trying to justify such debasement, nor am I suggesting
that Mozart is somehow less deep than Bach and Beethoven. But Bach and
Beethoven tell us exactly what they want to tell us, while Mozart lets
us find what we want in him, on our own levels of need and
understanding. And -- as sorry as this fact makes professional
musicians -- a good percentage of any classical audience merely wants
to sit back and be entertained. So be it. The depths will always be
there for those who are ready to plumb them.
For example, I first heard "The Marriage of Figaro" as a 12-year-old
boy and found it sweet and pretty and ever so much less impressive
than, say, "Tosca" or "Cavalleria Rusticana," which had blood and guts
and bawling and mad passion. But then I heard "Figaro" again, and then
again, and I heard more and more in it, until it became my favorite
opera. Now, almost 40 years since my first encounter, every time I
play "Figaro" -- or even more happily see it performed -- I marvel
anew that one of my fellow human beings actually managed to pull
himself far enough out of the mud to create this miracle of order and
civility. Yet it's such a friendly masterpiece -- warm, funny,
forgiving, even downright silly -- and if there is an important
universal emotion that is not explored, musically and dramatically,
over the course of the opera's duration, I don't know what it is.
The legend of the eternally cheerful, periwigged boy wonder to the
contrary, Mozart worked hard throughout his life. From earliest
childhood he was a breadwinner for his family, a crushing
responsibility for any child, as the example of artists ranging from
Jackie Coogan to Michael Jackson can attest. He suffered first from
parental exploitation, later from a certain immaturity that comes from
being detained in childhood too long, and finally from melancholia,
dissipation and frail health that led to his death at the age of 35.
He was buried in an unmarked grave -- a not-uncommon practice in
18th-century Vienna, and certainly no disgrace. Still, many have
always found it deeply disturbing that we have no way of locating the
remains of this great genius.
And yet he need not be sought, for he is all around us. In 1906 the
pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni was asked to write a series of
aphorisms to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Mozart's birth and --
100 years later -- most of us would echo what he had to say. "Up to
now he is the most complete manifestation of musical gifts," Busoni
began. "Every genuine musician looks up to him, happy and disarmed. .
. . He disposes of light and shadow, but his light does not pain and
his darkness still shows clear outlines. Even in the most tragic
situations he still has a witticism ready; in the most cheerful, he is
able to draw a thoughtful furrow in his brow. He is young as a boy and
wise as an old man -- never old-fashioned and never modern, carried to
the grave and always alive.
"His smile, which was so human, still shines on us transfigured."
Rethinking Mozart - Newsweek: International Editions - MSNBC.com
On the 250th anniversary of his birth, a more realistic picture of the
composer's musical genius is emerging.
By By Andrew Moravcsik
Jan. 30, 2006 issue - Mozart has overtaken Beethoven, the favorite son
of the 19th century, as the most admired composer in the history of
Western music. He has the most recordings. Classical radio stations
run a morning Mozart hour. Before the sophisticated audiences of
Manhattan, he alone gets his own annual festival: Mostly Mozart. Many
believe (despite meager scientific evidence) that if one plays
Mozart's music to babies in the womb, they will grow up smarter and
more musical-perhaps even a genius like Wolfgang.
In our minds, Mozart has become the archetypal genius, a divinely
inspired wunderkind for whom composing came easily. He was talented
and therefore-so the Hollywood script of "Amadeus" tells us-a
counterculture rebel who wore crazy clothes, told racy jokes and
slummed with the downtrodden. Eventually he suffered the inevitable
martyrdom of being misunderstood. Lesser minds, led by imperial
composer Antonio Salieri, plotted against him. In the end, his
audience deserted him. He died penniless, and was cast into a pauper's
Yet what we know of Mozart's life suggests that all these
preconceptions are false. He was neither poor nor underappreciated.
Composing did not always come easily to him. And he was not a
scatological social misfit. But he was a genius.
Mozart was an astonishingly productive composer. In 35 short years, he
wrote more than 600 works-enough music to fill nearly 200 CDs. Nearly
every year, Mozart wrote more music than the Beatles recorded in their
entire career. He excelled in every leading musical form of his era,
composing 41 symphonies, 27 piano concertos, 26 string quartets, 21
operas, 17 piano sonatas, 15 masses and a host of other pieces. And
had he not died young, what we have would be known as mere "middle
It is strikingly original music. Mozart invented the modern piano
concerto, in part to show off his own virtuosity. His late symphonies,
grand in scale and sonority, pointed the way to Beethoven. His string
quartets won praise from his friend Joseph Haydn (who invented the
genre) as "the greatest composer I know." At his best-above all in his
mature operas-Mozart ranks with the likes of Shakespeare and Rembrandt
as creator of some of humankind's most moving art. He was, the
authoritative New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians concludes,
"the most universal composer in the history of Western music."
Mozart was a piano virtuoso at 6; a great composer at 18. He was
legendary, above all, for his ability to improvise. His memory was
extraordinary, and included the ability to sit down after hearing a
piece for the first time and write it down. He could compose while
doing other things: he wrote one piece while playing pool, another
Yet while most great musicians were prodigies, only a small percentage
of prodigies become mature musicians, let alone transcendent
composers. Mozart beat the odds because he had everything else going
His father, Leopold Mozart, was a professional composer and one of
Europe's leading music teachers. Surely he ranks among history's
pushiest stage dads, giving up nearly all his outside activities to
manage his son's extraordinary talent. Leopold promoted the young
prodigy by spreading myths about Wolfgang's ability to play piano and
violin without any lessons, but behind the scenes he made his young
son practice hard. The same goes for composing. Of Wolfgang's early
minuets, Princeton musicologist Scott Burnham quips: "It's pretty
clear Papa was helping him with his homework."
Mozart was also in the right place. His birthplace of Salzburg was
small, but it lay in the musical epicenter of Europe. Young Wolfgang
spent most of his youth traveling to the top cultural spots-Italy,
Germany, Austria, France, England-where he learned all the current
Even in his maturity, and despite a gift for melodic invention, Mozart
often struggled for musical breakthroughs. His greatest string
quartets-the six he dedicated to Haydn-required three years of work.
Before producing his first great German opera, "The Abduction From the
Seraglio," he started three successive operas and left them
incomplete-though he already had 12 others under his belt.
In his prime, living in Vienna, Mozart was no starving recluse, but an
18th-century Yuppie who spent money compulsively. He remained
practical about his livelihood, never writing a piece unless he
expected to earn some cash. He spent his income-$100,000 a year or
more in current dollars-on fancy apartments, fine food, servants, a
comfortable carriage, fancy clothes and his family. His favorite
possession was a flashy red silk coat. Far from feeling contempt for
aristocrats, Mozart wanted to fit in with them.
In his last years, war and recession interrupted Viennese concert life
and medical problems plagued his wife, Konstanze. He was forced to
borrow from friends, giving rise to the myth of his poverty. Had he
lived just a few more years, however, he almost certainly would have
followed his friend Haydn to lucrative London. His music was already
popular across Europe, and Mozart might well have emerged as its
pre-eminent composer. When he died, he was cast into a common grave
not because he was poor, but because every commoner, by imperial
decree, got the same treatment.
Yet the story of the maligned and misunderstood artist persists. In
the modern world, we cling to the romantic notion that geniuses must
live this way-thanks in part to the image that Beethoven, a generation
after Mozart, cultivated. But Mozart was a creature of the
18th-century Enlightenment. He knew his music was better than most,
and he said so. But he did not adopt-and would not have understood-the
role of the distant romantic hero possessed of extraordinary genius.
In his greatest works, "The Magic Flute" or "The Marriage of Figaro,"
Mozart appeals to both the most popular and the most sophisticated
musical awareness within us. And he renders in music the subtlest
shadings of human emotions-love, jealousy, duty and wit-with a
naturalness and human sympathy that has never been equaled in opera.
It is music, so pianist Robert Levin puts it, that "holds up a mirror
and lets us see ourselves." No wonder our love affair with Mozart goes
Moravcsik directs the European Union program at Princeton University.
FT.com / Arts & Weekend - Sublime, not divine
By Andrew Clark
Published: January 20 2006 14:57 | Last updated: January 20 2006 14:57
ftmag 21-1 Did God choose Mozart? For the past 250 years an
influential body of opinion has assumed so. His elder sister told an
obituary writer that even as a three-year-old Mozart had shown
"extraordinary, God-given talent". When Mozart was 12, his father
Leopold defended the decision to exhibit him round Europe by saying it
was his duty "to proclaim to the world a miracle, which God allowed to
be born in Salzburg". After his death in 1791 the notion that Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart had been uniquely blessed took hold. He had been chosen
by divine providence to represent something perfect.
Nothing in the intervening two and a half centuries - not even
disclosures about Mozart's less-than-divine language or lifestyle -
has succeeded in denting this view. Barely a month ago the German news
magazine Der Spiegel carried a cover story under the headline "Das
himmlische Kind" (The heavenly child). It maintained that "just a few
bars of his music are enough to make it immediately obvious why, in
subway stations where Mozart's music is played, the crime-rate drops".
Mozart opens the ears of the unborn, it said; he reawakens a belief in
It is easy to understand why the divine view of Mozart still holds
sway. The 19th and 20th centuries spawned all sorts of Mozart myths,
encouraging people to believe that not only was every piece of music
he wrote a work of genius, but that it flowed from his pen without
effort. Milos Forman's 1984 film Amadeus compounded those myths, while
creating one of its own: that Mozart was a clown. To this day Mozart's
music is generally believed to represent a perfection of pleasantness.
And perfection is not human.
The divine inspiration theory is a convenient way of ducking the
question most fundamental to a proper understanding of Mozart: what
made him special? Why was Mozart, more than anyone else, able to
create music that has resonated down the ages, transcending barriers
of age, ethnicity, taste and education? And what are the particular
characteristics that distinguish a Mozart score from the work of his
You might have expected these questions to come into detailed
consideration somewhere in the deluge of books published to coincide
with the 250th anniversary of his birth next Friday. But no: Mozart's
"specialness" is so all-encompassing, so self-explanatory, that no
musicological explanation or contextual analysis is apparently
necessary. It is as if, by recounting the life, appraising the works
and sketching the background, it will be obvious why Mozart holds the
place he does.
And anyway, asking what made Mozart special is to ask the
unanswerable, isn't it? Despite the enormous advances in genetic
research over the past 40 years we still don't know what biological
factors govern the distribution and concentration of talent. The world
of science has yet to work out how the neuro-receptors in our brain
and nervous system respond to stimuli such as sound. All we can say is
that Mozart's "gift" was a unique fusion of genetic happenstance and
Even if science has not advanced far enough to divine the secret of
his genius, the latest Mozart bibliography at least furnishes us with
a more accurate picture of his life and music than was previously
available. The weightiest of these new tomes is the Cambridge Mozart
Encyclopedia: it cites personality traits that have had little place
in the traditional view of the composer, such as complacency,
arrogance and a need to be loved for himself and not for his musical
achievements - the latter a product of his being paraded around Europe
like a circus animal from the age of seven. But even the Encyclopedia
occasionally falls for the sugarcoated view, as when it lists the
ingredients of "Mozart balls", the chocolate confection sold in
Salzburg since the late 19th century.
Stanley Sadie brings us closer to the composer's skin: Mozart: The
Early Years 1756-1781 is the most balanced guide to Mozart's youth
ever published in English. Sadie's self-confessed aim is to be
comprehensive, and it is to his great credit that he wears his
learning lightly, while reaching so many corners of Mozart's world.
All the more tragic, then, that Sadie, one of the most eminent English
musicologists of the past 50 years, should have died before completing
a companion volume on the composer's final decade. His book
nevertheless stands well on its own, because it diverts our gaze from
the fully formed works on which Mozart's reputation is staked, and
focuses on the youthful experiences and influences that made them
Mad on Mozart?
In Mozart and his Operas, by contrast, David Cairns homes in on the
mature masterpieces, examining them from a noticeably more Anglophone
viewpoint than Sadie. Unlike Sadie, who lays out the evidence and
leaves us to draw our own conclusions, Cairns writes with the zeal of
a missionary, arguing his case with evidence drawn from a lifetime's
fascination with his subject. Mozart's music, he writes, "is an
ever-expanding universe. The better we know it... the more marvellous
it becomes". But this is a partial view, hanging on a narrow slice of
Where Cairns scores is in his analysis of Mozart's attitude to women.
Of the three da Ponte operas, the only one revealing a split in the
approach of composer and librettist, he says, is Cosi fan tutte.
Lorenzo da Ponte's view of the sexes was one-sided; Mozart's music
restores the balance. By implying the incompleteness of the lovers'
reconciliation at the final curtain, Mozart makes it "true to life" -
an issue delicately sidestepped in Anthony Holden's The Man Who Wrote
Mozart. Despite the title of this new biography of da Ponte, Mozart
emerges as the senior partner.
As for Emanuel Schikaneder, Mozart's other great librettist, Cairns
says the original draft for Die Zauberflote is "full of condescending
or disparaging comments [about women] fit to raise the hackles not
simply of feminists but of anyone with the most elementary sense of
justice". Here again Mozart transcended his librettist's misogyny: "By
the middle of the second act Pamina and her progress have become the
central issue of the drama and the inspiration of the most intensely
Reappraisal of Mozart's women - to the point of tipping the balance
from one extreme to the other - is very much in keeping with our
Zeitgeist. So is the process of going back to sources, weighing their
reliability and revising inherited interpretations. In his short
prologue and epilogue Cairns debunks as many of the myths surrounding
Mozart as he can find. So does Jeremy Siepmann in his brief study,
Mozart: His Life and Music. But the best equipped in this regard is
Early Music enthusiast Nicholas Kenyon: his Faber Pocket Guide to
Mozart is not just the cheapest but the most down-to-earth and
succinct of anniversary commentaries.
We know now, for example, that the Sinfonia Concertante for wind
instruments, long-established in the Kochel catalogue of Mozart's
works, was almost certainly not composed by him; that the published
score of Mitridate includes an aria by Quirino Gasparini, who had
already written an opera to the same libretto; that the Requiem is as
much a fabrication of posterity as an authentic Mozart score.
More significantly, new light has been thrown on Mozart's use of
language, his health, finances and working methods. Contrary to
popular belief, the frequent references he made to "shit" and
"arsehole" - a supposedly infantile fascination for the scatological
that still shocks believers in the "divine" Mozart - were not personal
to him or indicative of a scatty nature. No, these words and
references were a lingua franca in the Mozart family, including his
Studies of the paper he used have shown how he sometimes started works
and broke off - countering the notion that Mozart always wrote fully
finished masterpieces straight from his head. As to his earnings, it
transpires he was probably not as impoverished in his final years as
has been claimed. And his corpse was definitely not given a pauper's
burial or flung into a communal grave. The third-class funeral chosen
by Constanze, his widow, was one that most Viennese opted for - the
result of Emperor Joseph II's reforms, aimed at curbing the costly and
ostentatious burial customs popular in 1780s Vienna.
Of course, the myth of a pauper's burial may be too deeply entrenched
to be destroyed: it suits the notion of the miraculous being who
vanished as mysteriously as he had come. If so, the chasm between
academic research and popular perception is set to grow, not narrow.
Which makes it all the more vital that scholars descend from the
clouds and specify what it was in Mozart's nature and nurture than
made him unusual, and what are the ingredients that distinguish his
music. No one today could convincingly claim there's something
"special" about Mozart's early works. Their only value is the light
they shed on his development, illustrating how he taught himself from
others' music and built the foundations for his own creativity.
What distinguished Mozart was not just his receptivity to sound and
musical organisation - something that was determined genetically.
There has to be more to it than that, because many other musicians,
from Felix Mendelssohn to Nat King Cole, have proved themselves
equally receptive. I would even venture that similarly great talents
exist today - but they have little or nothing to say because their
talent does not correspond to the time in which they live.
Mozart's talents corresponded exactly to the time in which he lived -
an aesthetic world of extreme formality, which he used as a backdrop
for his great powers of expression. And he was given the ideal
introduction to it, being raised and educated by a man, Leopold
Mozart, who had written the foremost book on music-making of his time;
a man who was himself an accomplished composer, who had the
wherewithal to recognise and exploit his son's extraordinary talent.
By the age of 12 Mozart had met just about every major living composer
and, in Mannheim, worked with the greatest orchestra of his day. It
was an advantage of humungous proportions.
Mozart worked within the strict musical forms of his time but
transcended the limitations of his contemporaries. What enabled him to
do so was his sense of invention and improvisation, harmonically as
well as melodically: no one else made scales and simple melodic
passages sound so interesting. The material itself is not "difficult",
but Mozart adds ingredients that keep it from sounding routine. Even
when he introduces dissonances, the music is never ugly. In its
highest state, it is the expression of utter beauty. That is what
makes it immortal.
If Mozart had lived in Siberia or the Sahara it is unlikely he would
have written music of such proportion and depth as the Sinfonia
Concertante for violin and viola. If he was born today I doubt if he
would be writing music at all. But the wonder of Mozart is that no
"ifs" are necessary. He is a rare instance of one man, one time, one
place, the fusion of which gave us a musical legacy that is heavenly
for its very humanity.
MOZART: The Early Years 1756-1781
by Stanley Sadie
Oxford University Press £25, 644 pages
MOZART AND HIS OPERAS
by David Cairns
Penguin £22, 272 pages
THE CAMBRIDGE MOZART ENCYCLOPEDIA
edited by Cliff Eisen and Simon Keefe
Cambridge University Press £95, 662 pages
MOZART: His Life and Music
by Jeremy Siepmann
Naxos £16.99, 209 pages
THE FABER POCKET GUIDE TO MOZART
by Nicholas Kenyon
Faber £8.99, 390 pages
THE MAN WHO WROTE MOZART: The Extraordinary Life of Lorenzo da Ponte
by Anthony Holden
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £18.99, 238 pages
SouthFlorida.com: Why Mozart matters
From the South Florida Sun-Sentinel
On the 250th anniversary of his birth, the world's greatest composer seems
By Lawrence A. Johnson
Classical Music Writer
January 22 2006
The facts of his life are iconic, even to a wider public that has
never attended a concert or purchased a recording of his music.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born 250 years ago this Friday in
Salzburg, Austria, and died in Vienna in 1791, at age 35. In his short
life, Mozart composed voluminously, completing more than 600 works.
His early years as a scarily gifted prodigy, equally adept at violin,
piano and composition, are as well known as his later impatience with
the indignities of court life and his mixed success as a freelance
While its premise of Mozart's poisoning by his rival Salieri is
fictional, the 1984 film version of Peter Shaffer's hit play Amadeus
is generally correct in its broad-brush outline of the composer's
biography. Directed by Milos Forman, the movie succeeded in bringing
Mozart's music to a wider audience beyond the concert hall -- even if
Tom Hulce's Americanized Wolfgang cemented for many Shaffer's view of
the composer as a vulgar, scatological boob touched by the hand of God
with unparalleled musical genius.
Mozart's 250th is being marked with all the hoopla one would expect,
from copious performances and recording reissues to such Gothic
weirdness as a recent Austrian television special that did a
toxicological examination of what was believed to be the composer's
skull. (The results of this "CSI: Salzburg" were inconclusive.)
In the coming days and weeks, South Floridians will have plenty of
choices of where to get their Amadeus fix (see performance sidebar);
this afternoon's all-Mozart chamber concert and next weekend's New
World Symphony concerts are fine places to start.
It's easy to become ensnared in the compelling details of his
biography or pore over his engaging and compulsively readable
correspondence, and the true Mozartian should find time for both this
anniversary year. But the best way to fete Mozart on his 250th
birthday is simply to listen to his music.
He wrote with bracing individuality and supreme mastery in every
genre: more than 40 symphonies, operas, chamber music, 27 piano
concertos, five violin concertos, two flute concertos, string
quartets, sonatas, serenades, church music, masses and such oddities
as cassations and the Masonic Funeral Music.
In the decades after his death, his music was viewed as a quaint court
relic: elegant and tuneful but without much depth or, amazingly, much
passion. In the early 19th century, Mozart's most performed works were
his most tragic -- the Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466 and the
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, music more in tune with the prevailing
Mozart's slow, inexorable comeback reached its height in the 20th
century, where historical perspective and the explosion of
contemporary musical "isms" made it easier to appreciate the full
extent of his achievement.
Today Mozart's music is omnipresent, relentlessly utilized for
commercial and background music in fine dining establishments as an
aural decorative element and instant imprimatur of "class." In the
wider culture, it's more often mined as a kind of handy, sonic
pick-me-up ("Mozart in Morning Moods"); works like the relentlessly
peppy Eine kleine Nachtmusick and his opera overtures make a quick
jolt of musical caffeine.
So why does Mozart matter now? What is it, really, about Mozart's
music that makes it so compelling and rewarding to 21st century
A MELODIC GIFT
First and most obviously, no composer before or since -- not even his
great friend Haydn -- possessed a more limitless font of gracious,
seemingly effortless melody. The blend of elegant lyricism and
quicksilver virtuosity in his piano concertos remains unequaled:
Mozart often reels off four deftly varied themes before the soloist
even enters. The same bounteous thematic richness is found in his
myriad of concertos for other instruments.
No one wrote better tunes or more memorable ones. The sheer range of
expression is mind-boggling, encompassing the infectious cheer of the
Horn Concertos and the bleak grimness of the Adagio in B minor and
Requiem and all points in between.
His final three symphonies remain the most performed, but it is the
striking richness of the three-dozen-plus that preceded them that is
truly astonishing. The finale of Mozart's Jupiter symphony offers one
of the most amazing moments in all of Western music, when the five
themes of the final movement take flight simultaneously in a
remarkable feat of contrapuntal legerdemain. In his late works, Mozart
pared his lyricism down to even purer and deeper essentials, as with
the Clarinet Concerto, the 27th and final piano concerto and The Magic
In addition to the indelible melodic gift, what also appeals is the
form, order and expressive precision: Mozart's line, balance and
proportion provide qualities infrequently apparent in our notably
graceless age. That rigor is complemented by the verve and youthful
spirit, tonal polish and supreme craft that Mozart brought to every
But allied to the Apollonian balance and seamless mastery of every
genre, it is in his operas that one finds Mozart's greatest genius
It's striking how music written in the past decade can sound more
dated than Jimmy Carter jokes. And yet the three Mozart-da Ponte
operas, penned more than two centuries ago, remain fresh, engaging and
insightful in the eternal foibles, contradictions and complexities of
the human heart. It is here that Mozart's unmatched flair for vocal
writing, allied to da Ponte's sharply observed words, reaches a
humanity unequalled in its depth, unflinching honesty and yet
ultimately benevolent view.
At times, the psychological penetration seems startlingly modern.
After the light-hearted high jinks of Act I of Le nozze di Figaro, the
Countess enters in Act 2 and the mood instantly changes, deepening and
darkening as she muses on the pain of living with a philandering mate.
At the opera's close, when the Count kneels to ask her forgiveness,
the effect is intensely moving, the vocal writing for the ensemble
moving from darkness to bright rejoicing in a modulation of
breath-taking depth and beauty.
In Cosi fan tutte, two cocky young men wager that their sibling
fiancées will remain faithful, a bet that goes very wrong. When they
return in disguise to romance each other's sweetheart, the opera veers
from broad slapstick to an unexpectedly unresolved ending, with the
old relationships destroyed and one of the suitors coldly embittered.
And in The Magic Flute, Mozart's music transcends the formulaic
"escape" scenario and Masonic allegorical scaffolding to morph into a
journey of enlightenment for the audience as well as the characters.
His penultimate opera explores serious themes such as personal
discipline, the primacy of loving relationships in the social order,
and the importance of searching for truth and higher values while
subjecting selfish interests to a greater common good. It's all
wrapped around some of the most glorious music ever put to paper, from
Papageno's childlike songs and the lovers' soaring arias to the Queen
of the Night's brilliant coloratura and the spiritual nobility of
As with any art form, what you get out of Mozart's music depends upon
the effort you put into it. Catch a Mozart performance this month,
pick up a recording, even add Amadeus to your Netflix queue. Few
composers are as readily accessible to even the wariest classical
And though the bracing vitality and melodies will draw you in at
first, wait for Mozart's deeper rewards: the generosity of spirit,
consolatory spiritual depth and profound insight into what it means to
be human in a decidedly imperfect world. To borrow a title from a
once-popular crossover series, you may well find yourself hooked on
Lawrence A. Johnson can be reached at ljohnson at sun-sentinel.com or
'Beloved of God' -- The Washington Times
By Jo Biddle
Published January 21, 2006
PARIS -- Try to imagine a world without Mozart. What a desolate place
that would be, empty of the joyous, graceful melodies from piano
sonatas to lullabies that have passed into our collective
Two hundred and fifty years ago, as Europe's feuding royal
dynasties were about to embark on the Seven Years' War, Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg on Jan. 27, 1756.
By age 3, he was playing on a keyboard, and by 5, he had written
his first composition. When this child prodigy died at 35 in Vienna,
he left behind a prodigious body of some 630 works, including 41
symphonies and 27 piano concertos.
Despite more than two centuries of human scientific, intellectual
and cultural achievements, Mozart has transcended the vagaries of
changing tastes and fashions to remain perhaps the best-loved composer
of classical music.
Even those who profess to be cultural ignoramuses can hum a Mozart
tune -- such as the nursery rhyme "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" (he
wrote the tune; the words were added later) -- while many unknowingly
have a Mozart composition as a ring tone on their mobile phones.
Babies are played Mozart's complex compositions to stimulate their
intellectual development, and when Voyager 1 took off for the edge of
the solar system in 1977, it was carrying in its time capsule a
recording of Mozart's "Magic Flute," among other examples of Earth
"Mozart's music has a mysterious quality which speaks to everyone.
It speaks as much to people who know nothing about music and seduces
them, as well as to musicologists," explains Genevieve Geffray,
curator at the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation.
Mozart's genius appears even to have been hinted from birth; his
middle name, Amadeus, means "beloved of God."
However, it was his father, Leopold, himself a musician with a
court orchestra, who recognized and nurtured his son's incredible
talent from a very early age.
In 1761, Leopold decided it was time to introduce his young son
and his talented elder daughter, Nannerl (Maria Anna), to the public,
and they embarked on a series of tours to royal courts, including in
Milan, Naples, Munich, Paris and Vienna.
Such tours were to become common later during the Romantic era,
but in Mozart's time, they were rare and grueling. Leopold and the two
children traveled thousands of miles on bumpy roads in their coach and
Mozart "went to meet some of the best musicians of his time, and
in this he was one of the first great Europeans," Miss Geffray says.
In 1781, Mozart, by then a young man, opted to settle in Vienna.
Against his father's wishes, he married Constanze Weber, with whom he
had six children, two of whom survived.
He lived off teachings and commissions, and during the last 10
years of his life, he was to write some of his greatest works,
including his operas "The Marriage of Figaro," "Cosi Fan Tutte" and
"The Magic Flute."
"Music, even in situations of the greatest horror, should never be
painful to the ear but should flatter and charm it, and thereby always
remain music," Mozart once said.
He was to die in dire financial straits, with his last work "The
Requiem," commissioned by an anonymous stranger, unfinished. The
family was forced to hire another composer to complete it.
Despite his musical legacy, the many unresolved questions
surrounding Mozart make it hard to separate the man from the myth.
The 1984 box-office hit "Amadeus," by Milos Forman, presented the
world with an image of Mozart as a crude braggart with a puerile,
sniggering sense of humor.
This has led to unconfirmed speculation that he may have suffered
from the neurodevelopmental disorder Tourette's syndrome.
"In the 19th century, he was considered a cherub; they made a
saint out of him. And then with the Forman film, the public at large
discovered a human being with all his impulses and his problems,
rude-speaking and writing vulgarities to his cousin," Miss Geffray
says. "That was just one part of his personality, not the whole
Whatever the composer's true nature, the world is preparing to
honor and celebrate his musical legacy during the 250th anniversary of
his birth this year, and many agree none can compare with him.
"Mozart's music is so beautiful as to entice angels down to
Earth," the German poet Franz Alexander von Kleist, a Mozart
contemporary, once wrote.
Even other renowned composers have bowed to Mozart's outstanding
"Mozart is the highest, the culminating point that beauty has
attained in the sphere of music," 19th-century Russian composer Peter
Ilich Tchai-kovsky said.
Bill Kristol: Bravo! Mozart
Because of his greatness, Mozart cannot help but be edifying.
Weekly Standard, 01/30/2006, Volume 011, Issue 19
"POSTERITY WILL NOT SEE such a talent for a century to come." So said
Josef Haydn, shortly after Mozart's death at age 35 in 1791. Haydn might
safely have said posterity would not see such a talent for two centuries
to come--and counting.
But talent is one thing. Talent that becomes greatness is another.
Mozart's greatness is far more widely, and intelligently, appreciated
today than it was 100 years ago, or even 50. And no one can complain that
Mozart's 250th birthday is going unnoticed, or that his legacy isn't being
treated with appropriate respect. But when the New York Times weighed in a
few days ago with a silly, pseudo-ironic debunking of anticipated excesses
in this year of celebrating Mozart, I was reminded of how much trouble we
have with human greatness.
And always have had. The English critic W.J. Turner wrote Mozart: The Man
and His Works in 1938. Much of it has been overtaken by subsequent
scholarship, but it remains full of insights: "The truth is that we
mediocre men cannot even imagine what it is to be a great man like Mozart
and Shakespeare and thus to be free from the domination of the
contemporary prejudices, beliefs, morals, artistic rules, scruples (call
them what you will) with which even the most enlightened of us are--often
Real greatness causes discomfort. You'd think it would make people feel
better--you look up at someone's achievement and think, gee, the human
condition isn't as hopeless as I suspected. But greatness is
nervous-making. And it can be, in a way, depressing. Charles Gounod said,
"Before Mozart, all my ambition turns to despair."
But we have far more reason to be grateful than to despair. Allan Bloom
believed that listening to Mozart was as close to the "experience of the
beautiful" as he ever encountered in his life. And when things feel stale,
you can listen to Mozart, and see what moved Robert Schumann to ask: "Does
it not seem as if Mozart's works become fresher and fresher the oftener we
Not just fresher, but more interesting. Mozart's music transcends all the
obvious categories. By this I don't mean that he wrote amazing works in
every genre--operas, symphonies, piano and other concerti, chamber music,
sonatas, and so on--but that he transcends the usual moods. Mozart is
light and grave, pretty and profound, masculine and feminine, comic and
tragic--often all in the same work.
This seems particularly clear in the great operas written in collaboration
with Lorenzo da Ponte. The Marriage of Figaro is a comic opera, but like
many of Shakespeare's comedies, it's a short step from tragedy. Don
Giovanni pretends to be a moralizing tragedy, Così fan Tutte a
demoralizing comedy--but both are like Shakespeare's "problem plays,"
neither clearly comic nor tragic. Turner observes: "What puzzles the
average person is just this strange blend of the tragic and the comic.
Most people like to have these elements carefully separated into different
works of art so that they may feel safe. They are prepared to look upon
life as either a comedy or a tragedy, since in such a presentation life is
made a little less real and provides a form of escape, a convention or
refuge. One may thus laugh or weep to the full, knowing in one's heart
that life is not quite like this; it is neither so comic nor tragic."
Mozart provides no such comfort or escape. He does inspire, as Aaron
Copland said, "a certain awe and wonder." We're short on awe and wonder
these days, long on cheap cynicism and solemn sanctimony. Mozart has
little use for either. Bloom notes Mozart's "capacity to be both deep and
rational, a combination often said to be impossible." And he adds, "As
Rossini recognized, no composer was witty as Mozart."
For Bloom, Mozart's music was "an antidote to all the seductions of
nihilism present in our world." Does Bloom here run the risk of trying to
make Mozart's music edifying? Of course he knew that great music does not
necessarily make its listeners better human beings. And he was aware that
the leading nihilists of our age, the Nazi regime in Germany, tried to
make a big production of the 150th anniversary of Mozart's death. But it
didn't quite work. Mozart resists political appropriation.
"Mozart took so very much for granted which lesser minds argue about,"
said W.J. Turner. "He was too understanding and too profound (though
active) a fatalist to be a partisan. He never turned his works of art into
judgments. He merely--like the Creator of nature--gave them individual
life, and in his works his music, like the rain and the sunshine, falls
alike on the just and the unjust."
And yet, because of his greatness, Mozart cannot help but be edifying.
Celebrating Mozart's 250th Anniversary - New York Times
January 29, 2006
By ANNE MIDGETTE
TWO hundred and fifty years old and still a wunderkind: Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart, probably the most beloved classical composer in the
Western world, is the birthday boy of 2006, and he will be honored
around the globe.
Mozart was himself a world-class traveler, crisscrossing Europe from
England to Prague, and this anniversary year, most of the stations of
his journeys - and some places he never went to at all - will be
pulling out the stops to commemorate the anniversary with concerts,
Mozart tours, Mozart meals, you name it, to enable modern travelers to
follow, more or less, in his footsteps.
Following are a few particularly important sites for celebrating
Mozart is a tourist industry in Salzburg even in nonanniversary years.
Visitors flock to the modest houses where he was born in 1756 (the
Geburtshaus) and grew up (Wohnhaus), and eat the famous Mozartkugel
bonbons (whose only direct connection with the composer is his face on
the wrapper). The Mozarteum, the local music conservatory, offers
concerts throughout the year and a Mozartwoche every winter. And the
Salzburg Festival, a European summer highlight, was founded in 1920 to
present Mozart's operas, though its mandate has expanded considerably
While attempting to outdo all this for the anniversary - starting with
a star-studded series of birthday concerts this weekend - the city
fathers are also trying to relate Mozart to the modern world. The
birth house has been fitted out with an installation by the
avant-garde theater artist Robert Wilson. The Mozarteum, in addition
to its traditional Mozartwoche (Jan. 22 to Feb. 5), is offering a
four-part festival called "Dialogues," linking Mozart with
contemporary composers in themed miniseries with titles like "Love"
and "Death" (the last three are in March, May and December). A
festival called "OFF Mozart" (Aug. 20 to Oct. 7) gives experimental
performers their own Mozart forum.
Opera, too, will be state of the art. Even though the local
Landestheater has three Mozart operas ("La Finta Giardiniera," "Don
Giovanni" and "The Magic Flute") in repertory this year, the year's
biggest attraction will be the Salzburg Festival (July 23 to Aug. 31),
which is presenting all 22 of Mozart's stage works, from juvenilia to
masterpieces, in cutting-edge productions with major singers,
including Anna Netrebko and Thomas Hampson. But there will be plenty
of traditional Mozart performances as well, starting with a series of
30 "Best of Mozart" concerts on weekends from February to November.
The famous Salzburger Marionetten will still be going strong (in
January, April, May to September and late December), performing puppet
versions of Mozart operas. An exhibition called "Viva! Mozart"
organized by the Carolino Augusteum Museum presents images and scores
from the composer's life. And the Mozartkugel should remain the same.
For details on programs and sites, see the English version of the
Salzburg Mozart 2006 Web site at www.mozart2006.at; click "English" at
the bottom of the page.
Salzburg may have been the city of Mozart's birth, but Vienna was
where he chose to live as an adult, and where he wrote some of his
greatest music. And Vienna never passes up a chance to celebrate its
storied past, at, for instance, the famous Albertina, which recreates
Mozart's milieu through art works and documents, or the Jüdisches
Museum (Jewish Museum), which focuses on Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo
da Ponte (both March through September).
The city's famous theaters will enjoy a particularly happy
renaissance. The Theater an der Wien, founded in 1801 by Mozart's
"Magic Flute" librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, but recently a home to
Broadway-like musicals, has returned to its original function as an
opera house for the event. Check out "Idomeneo" with Neil Shicoff, a
co-production with the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), in
February and June, or ballets by John Neumeier ("Requiem," September)
and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker ("Un moto di gioia," December).
Then there's the gorgeous Burgtheater, the most important locale for
spoken theater in the German-speaking world, which non-German visitors
to the city often miss: in May, the Staatsoper will offer another
coproduction here, "Abduction From the Seraglio." Equally storied, the
State Opera itself has three Mozart operas in its own repertory this
year, and on July 1, it will be host to the jazz pianist Chick Corea
in a Mozart piano concerto and a piece he wrote.
An artistic highlight every year in Vienna is the Wiener Festwochen
(Vienna Festival Weeks, May 12 to June 18), which offers Mozart in
every form, from concerts at the fabled Musikverein (which boasts one
of the best acoustics in Europe) to Peter Sellars, the perpetual
provocateur, directing the unfinished opera "Zaide" (May 21 to 27).
Another highlight of the year is a series of eight carefully chosen
concerts by the fine pianist Maurizio Pollini (February, April, June,
October and December) at the Konzerthaus. With all of this, it should
be easy to avoid "Mozart! The Musical."
For more details on programs and sites, go to www.wienmozart2006.at;
click "English version" at the top of the page.
Mozart loved Prague, and Prague loved him back. The world premiere of
"Don Giovanni" took place in 1787 in the lovely little Estates
Theater, and it was one of Mozart's biggest hits during his own
lifetime (though "La Clemenza di Tito," which followed in 1791, was,
and remains, less of a crowd-pleaser). So you'd better believe that
there will be plenty of "Don Giovannis" to see as part of Prague's
Mozart celebrations, including the premiere of a new production at the
Estates Theater on May 20 that will run frequently throughout the
summer (and every day in late July and August).
The city has three opera houses. The National Theater was one of the
first monuments to overt Czech nationalism; it administers the Estates
Theater, but will be offering plenty of Mozart operas itself as well
as a new ballet by the noted Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian, called
"Mozart? Mozart!" (March, April, May and October). Then there's the
cash-strapped State Theater, originally built as the playhouse for the
city's large German-speaking population; it will weigh in with "Magic
Flute" and an exhibit about its own long history with Mozart
(September to December).
This year, the Czech Philharmonic is more interested in another
anniversary: its own 100th. But in addition to a gala Mozart concert
in January, it will play at least one Mozart symphony, the "Jupiter,"
during the Prague Spring Festival (May 11 to June 3), which has a
number of other Mozart works - and orchestras - scattered through the
program. In August comes the Prague Music Festival; among its Mozart
offerings the Prague Philharmonia performing Mozart's Symphony No. 38,
the so-called "Prague" symphony (Aug. 22).
And in December, the city's orchestras will mark the end of the Mozart
year with another burst of Mozartiana.
The Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra will offer a concert with one of
the composer's finest concertos, also premiered in Prague, the
clarinet concerto, as well as the great Requiem (Dec. 5). And the
Prague Symphony Orchestra will give the official closing concert on
Dec. 14, with a program of arias and Symphony No. 39 under the baton
of an esteemed local son, Jiri Kout.
For details, see www.mozartprague2006.com.
The closest Mozart ever got to New York was in the mind of his
librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, who ended his turbulent days teaching at
Columbia University. Still, if you don't travel to Europe for Mozart
this year, Europe's Mozart will travel to you. Can't make it to the
Mozarteum in Salzburg? Its orchestra will play at Lincoln Center on
Feb. 26. Won't be in Vienna for the Festwochen? You can still see
Peter Sellars's "Zaide" at the Mostly Mozart Festival on Aug. 9, 11
and 12 at the Rose Theater at the Time Warner Center.
Mostly Mozart (July 28 to Aug. 26) will be a linchpin of New York's
Mozart celebration, trying to put a fresh spin on the composer's work.
This includes commissioning a new piece by the choreographer Mark
Morris, "Mozart Dances" (Aug. 17, 18 and 19), or offering the violin
concertos with the eclectic soloist Gidon Kremer (Aug. 6 and 7). At
the other end of the spectrum are William Christie and Les Arts
Florissants in what is sure to be an interesting period "Idomeneo"
(Aug. 23 and 25).
But there are plenty of other Mozart homages. The Chamber Music
Society of Lincoln Center offers concerts at Alice Tully Hall titled
"Mozart, Soul of Genius" through Tuesday and May 5 to 7. The last two
concerts in the venerable Guarneri Quartet's Mozart celebration at the
Metropolitan Museum are on Feb. 25 and April 8. For even deeper
immersion, try the pianist Charles Rosen's three lecture-performances
at the 92nd Street Y, called "Mozart within History" (March 12 and 19,
April 23), or the musicologist Robert Levin's talk about the violin
sonatas in his continuing series "Mozart Explored" (May 25 at Weill
Hall at Carnegie Hall). Downstairs at Zankel Hall, the Takacs Quartet
offers an "Accent on Mozart" on Feb. 24 and April 21.
April is the Mozart month in New York's opera houses: "The Marriage of
Figaro" comes to the Met, and both the City Opera and the tiny Amato
Opera will offer very different takes on "Don Giovanni."
And for a different taste of Mozart, there's the Café Mozart (154 West
70th Street), with live music every weekend.
For information on the Mostly Mozart Festival and other Lincoln Center
events, see www.lincolncenter.org. Other relevant Web sites include
www.carnegiehall.org and www.chambermusicsociety.org.
The Reform Club: The Mozart Model
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
The Mozart Model
Dr. Francis Schaeffer wisely looked to the culture and intellectual
traditions of Western civilization for answers to the important
question he repeatedly asked in his excelllent writings: How should we
then live? I suspect that quite a few of us look to the arts, and
particularly the popular arts, with exactly that in mind, whether
consciously or otherwise. An excellent look at the works of Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart in the current Weekly Standard, by Fred Baumann,
examines the great composer with that in mind:
. . . [L]istening to Mozart calls to mind (and in some ways turns you
into) a certain kind of person, a more complicated sort than we mostly
go in for today. Not a redemptive Wagnerian hero or cynical slacker,
not a high-minded virtuoso of compassion and/or righteous indignation,
not a "realist" or an "idealist," but someone who both acknowledges,
lives in, accepts the viewpoint of, and participates in, all human
feelings--even the ugly ones, as we see in the marvelous revenge arias
given to the Count, Dr. Bartolo, and Figaro--but who also, in the end,
maintains as sovereign the viewpoint of rationality and order. . . .
In invoking, and to some degree creating, such a person, Mozart
implicitly makes a kind of moral case, a case for how we should live.
It is not "aesthetic" in the sense of replacing the moral with formal
beauty; it is much closer to what we find in Shakespeare's Tempest or
Measure for Measure; i.e., models of a kind of control of the passions
that gives them their due. Yet it is presented aesthetically, not
through argument or exhortation. . . .
In the end, the romantic hero and the homo economicus turn out to be
not basically different, but two sides of the same forged coin. The
Mozartean hero, whom we approach, admire, and even learn to resemble,
if only slightly, puts them to shame.
It is a figure that we don't meet much otherwise. On sale for
generations now have been simpler models of heroism, at their best the
superficially cynical but deeply moral idealist (say, Humphrey Bogart)
but, more typically, various chest-pounding moralists and romantics.
For that reason--that we tend to operate, as though instinctively, on
romantic and post-romantic antitheses about passion and reason--it is,
in fact, harder to hear Mozart well today than it used to be. Insofar
as his music transcends our categories, we either consign him to the
realm of the pretty-pretty or turn him, as some 20th-century criticism
did, into a grotesque quasi-existential Angst-ling. And of course,
Nietzsche was right that the language of aristocratic, pre-Romantic
taste is no longer available to us.
The article makes one want to listen to some Mozart and contemplate
how we should then live. It will transform your understanding of the
music and of the preternaturally wise and kindhearted man who made it.
posted by S. T. Karnick at 12:35 PM
James Elliott said...
Curious. The interpretation here is almost directly contrary to
the way Mozart lived his life - which is to say, in a libertine
S. T. Karnick said...
Mozart was by no means the silly character Schaffer's play and
especially Forman's film portrayed him to be. In addition,
great artists can surpass their personal limitations through
the use of the imagination.
"...[S]omeone who both acknowledges, lives in, accepts the
viewpoint of, and participates in, all human feelings..."
I think this statement goes along with what I appreciate about
Mozart (and Haydn) the most: their almost exclusively unique
ability to transcend what was otherwise a more uninteresting
period of music, marked by hundreds of forgotten composers and
their dreadfully simplistic classical forms.
What musicologists can't explain is how these two men, steeped
in the "high" classical tradition, were able to sidestep the
pitfalls of pandering to the baser human ear as so many of
their contemporaries did. Just listen to the opening theme of
Mozart's G Minor Symphony (No. 39). Where on earth (or above)
did that come from?!?
Listening to Mozart not only improves a man for the reasons
that Schaeffer mentioned, but if you understand his
contemporary history, it humbles that man as well.
One of the aspects of Mozart's genius (and to a lesser extent
Haydn's) was his ability to transcend (sometimes very subtly)
and break through the shackles of the very rigid restrictions
placed on musical structure, form and harmony during the period
he lived in. Sometimes the effect is literally unearthly. For
instance, listen to the C major chord that quietly and totally
unexpectedly slips in toward the end of the slow movement of
his Piano Concerto #22 in E flat (I forget at the moment the
key of the 2nd movement but I think it's C minor, which of
course is related to E flat major). Or the theme of the first
movement of his 24th piano concerto, where he uses ALL the
notes of the chromatic scale; talk about daring in the context
of his period! (Beethoven, of course, is known for subsequently
revolutionizing musical forms, but it was Schubert even more
who explored new bounds of harmonic progression). Countless
examples abound of Mozart's unique genius. IMO he is the best -
in every sense of the word - musician Earth has ever produced
and comes closer to absolute perfection (in the idealistic
meaning of the word) than any human being has before or since.
p.s. You mean his symphony #40 in G minor. :)
S. T. Karnick said...
We must not forget that it is the existence of conventions that
enables artists to create astonishing effects by breaking the
boundaries in strategic places. As Umberto Eco points out, art
is in finding the right balance between convention and
I too am a great admirer of Haydn, and I think him a great
example of Eco's dictum.
I think that brmerrick's characterization of the classical era
is rather an unfortunate caricature, in that even the minor
music of that time has charms that are absent from even some of
the greatest music of the Romantic Era and seldom found at all
in the subsequent century. Prettiness is not beauty, but at
least it is not ugly.
Oops. No. 40 is right. 39 is E-flat Major, an entirely
different sound. Thanks for the correction.
"I think that brmerrick's characterization of the classical era
is rather an unfortunate caricature, in that even the minor
music of that time has charms that are absent from even some of
the greatest music of the Romantic Era and seldom found at all
in the subsequent century." I guess this makes S.T. Karnick a
classicist (or whatever you want to call it), but this is where
the discussion gets highly subjective. I disagree that the
minor works of the Classical Era hold a candle to the greatest
works of the Romantic Era, or the first half of the 20th
century, no matter what "charms" are found there. But then, I'm
far more interested in the dramatic, emotionally grounded,
big-orchestral works of the decades from 1870 to 1950. If
that's not your bag, baby, I can dig it.
The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...
For instance, listen to the C major chord that quietly and
totally unexpectedly slips in toward the end of the slow
movement of his Piano Concerto #22 in E flat
While my knowledge of music is rather limited, I believe what
you are talking about is called a Picardy third.
I'll have to dust off my (small) Mozart collection (or find it
on the LAN w/iTunes).
S. T. Karnick said...
brmerrick, I think that you have characterized our differences
Opera, to a person genuinely fond of aural
beauty, must inevitably appear tawdry and
obnoxious, if only because it presents aural
beauty in a frame of purely visual gaudiness,
with overtones of the grossest sexual
provocation. It is chiefly supported in all
countries by the same sort of wealthy
sensualists who also support musical comedy.
One finds in the directors' room the
traditional stock company of the stage-door
alley. Such vermin, of course, pose in the
newspapers as devout and almost fanatical
partisans of art. But one has merely to
observe the sort of opera they think is good
to get the measure of their actual artistic
The genuine music-lover may accept the
carnal husk of opera to get at the kernel of
actual music within, but that is no sign that
he approves the carnal husk or enjoys gnawing
through it. Most musicians, indeed, prefer to
hear operatic music outside the opera house;
that is why one so often hears such lowly
things, say, as "The Ride of the Valkyrie" in
the concert hall. "The Ride of the Valkyrie"
has a certain intrinsic value as pure music;
played by a competent orchestra it may give
civilized pleasure. But as it is commonly
performed in an opera house, with a posse of
fat beldames throwing themselves about the
stage, it can only produce the effect of a
dose of ipecacuanha. The sort of person who
actually delights in such spectacles is the
sort of person who delights in gas-pipe
furniture. Such half-wits are in a majority
in every opera house west of the Rhine. They
go to the opera, not to hear music, not even
to hear bad music, but merely to see a more
or less obscene circus. A few, perhaps, have
a further purpose; they desire to assist in
that circus, to show themselves in the
capacity of fashionables, to enchant the
yokelry with their splendor. But the majority
must be content with the more modest aim.
What they get for the outrageous prices they
pay for seats is a chance to feast their eyes
upon glittering members of the superior
demi-more magnificoes on their own side of
the footlights. They esteem a performance,
not in proportion as true music is on tap,
but in proportion as the display of notorious
characters on the stage is copious, and the
exhibition of wealth in the boxes is lavish.
A soprano who can gargle her way up to F
sharp in alt is more to such simple souls
than a whole drove of Johann Sebastian Bachs;
her one real rival in the entire domain of
art is the contralto who has a pension from a
former grand duke and is reported to be
enceinte by several stockbrokers.
The music that such ignobles applaud is
often quite as shoddy as they are themselves.
To write a successful opera a knowledge of
harmony and counterpoint is not enough; one
must also be a sort of Barnum. All the
first-rate musicians who have triumphed in
the opera house have been skillful
mountebanks as well. I need cite only Wagner
and Richard Strauss. The business, indeed,
has almost nothing to do with music. All the
actual music one finds in many a popular
opera--for example, "Thais"--mounts up to
less than one may find in a pair of Gung'l
waltzes. It is not this mild flavor of tone
that fetches the crowd; it is the tinpot show
that goes with it. An opera may have plenty
of good music in it and fail, but if it has a
good enough show it will succeed.
Such a composer as Wagner, of course,
could not write even an opera without getting
some music into it. In all of his works, even
including "Parsifal", there are magnificent
passages, and some of them are very long.
Here his natural genius overcame him, and he
forgot temporarily what it was about. But
these magnificent passages pass unnoticed by
the average opera audience. What it esteems
in his music dramas is precisely what is
cheapest and most mountebankish--for example,
the more lascivious parts of "Tristan und
Isolde." The sound music it dismisses as
tedious. The Wagner it venerates is not the
musician, but the showman. That he had a king
for a backer and was seduced by Liszt's
facts, and not the fadous talent, are the
foundation stones of his fame in the opera
Greater men, lacking his touch of the
quack, have failed where he
succeeded--Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann,
Brahms, Bach, Haydn. Not one of them produced
a genuinely successful opera; most of them
didn't even try. Imagine Brahms writing for
the diamond horseshoe! Or Bach! Or Haydn!
Beethoven attempted it, but made a mess of
it; "Fidelio" survives today chiefly as a set
of concert overtures. Schubert wrote more
actual music every morning between 10 o'clock
and lunch time than the average opera
composer produces in 250 years, yet he always
came a cropper in the opera house.
From The Allied Arts, PREJUDICES: SECOND
SERIES, 1920, pp. 197-200.
First printed in the New York Evening Mail,
Feb. 22, 1918.
Included in A MENCKEN CHRESTOMATHY, 1949, pp.
Norman Lehbrecht: Too much Mozart makes you sick
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 is rolling out brochures for its 2006 summer festival,
which will stage every opera 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 of musical
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 this weekend.
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? The 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 argue 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 of faith. Nice, if only it were
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 from first principles to ingratiate himself musically
with people of wealth and power. The boy, on tour from age five, hopped
into the laps of queens and played limpid 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
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 control 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 universe, seek elsewhere.
The key test of any composer's importance is the extent to which he
reshaped the 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 recognition, 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 of 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 Ariosto; and, while Mozart once indulged in backchat to the all-high
Emperor Joseph II, he knew all too well where his breakfast brioche was
buttered. He lacked the rage of 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 quills.
Little in such a mediocre life gives cause for celebration and little
indeed was 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 fuelled 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 Da Ponte operas.
The 1991 bicentennial of Mozart's death turned Salzburg into a swamp of
bad taste 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
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 being shunted to the sidelines, celebrated by
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 in the 21st century. Let him rest. Ignore the commercial
onslaught. Play the Leningrad Symphony. Listen to music that matters.
A Long Life in America After Writing the Big Mozart Librettos
By JEREMY EICHLER
On June 4, 1805, a ship from London sailed into the harbor of
Philadelphia, and a toothless 56-year-old Italian man disembarked. He
was completely broke, having gambled away all his money on the
two-month passage from Europe, so he borrowed $32 to pay the customs
taxes on his violin, his tea urn, his carpet and his trunk of Italian
An observer at the scene would never have guessed that here stood one
of the greatest librettists in the history of music, but sure enough,
it was Lorenzo Da Ponte, a name that would be forever yoked to the
beloved operas that his graceful, witty and songlike poetry enabled
Mozart to create: "Le Nozze di Figaro," "Don Giovanni" and "Così Fan
Da Ponte never tired of dropping Mozart's name, but his time in Vienna as
the poet of the Italian opera, appointed by Emperor Joseph II, was in
truth only one exciting episode in a long and fantastically colorful life.
After leaving Vienna in 1791 and wending his way through Europe for more
than a decade, seemingly always on the run from creditors and plagued by
financial woes, Da Ponte joined his unofficial wife and children in this
country. He lived out his final three decades here as a tireless emissary
of Italian culture, a poet of the European Enlightenment magisterially
adrift in a young, rough-and-tumble America. He died in New York in 1838
Even today, the story of Da Ponte's American chapter remains little known,
despite the entertaining memoirs he left behind, recounting not only his
picaresque adventures in Europe as a connoisseur of feminine beauty and
friend of Casanova, but also his experiences in New York, New Jersey
and Pennsylvania, running a grocery store, trading in medical supplies
and liquor, selling Italian books, importing an Italian opera company and,
finally, teaching the language and literature he loved to students, both
in private lessons and as the first professor of Italian at Columbia
University. It was an afterlife worthy of his stage creations.
This week Columbia's Italian Academy for Advanced Studies is celebrating
the 200th anniversary of Da Ponte's arrival in America. "Lorenzo Da Ponte,
a Bridge From Italy to New York" includes three vocal recitals,
beginning tonight with the mezzo-soprano Krista River and the pianist
Alison D'Amato performing settings of Da Ponte texts by Mozart, Bellini,
Verdi, Storace and others. The Da Ponte focus continues on Oct. 10 and 11,
with an academic symposium and an exhibition devoted to his life and
legacy, co-sponsored by the Da Ponte Institute of Vienna.
"Da Ponte was the first representative of cosmopolitan enlightened
European culture in America," said David Freedberg, director of the
Italian Academy. "He was the bridge. There's something telling and
very sad about the fact that he remains a completely unknown figure in
the history of American cultural life. America ignored him when he
came and has continued to ignore him. This is how we're trying to
Born into a Jewish family in Ceneda in 1749, Da Ponte was converted
and baptized after his mother's death so that his father could marry a
young Catholic woman. He entered the seminary, where he received a
rigorous classical education, and even became a priest before
embarking on what one might call protracted field research for his
future work on "Don Giovanni." By the time he arrived in America,
however, he had become more of a family man and used his wife's money
to open a grocery store, chuckling in his memoirs about how his
"poet's hand" was now asked to measure out tea and tobacco.
But business suited Da Ponte as poorly as the priesthood. His memoirs,
while famously exaggerated, present him as a kind of magnet for rogues
and rapscallions, or as he described them, "the poisonous leeches who
are ever in pursuit of honest people to suck their blood and repay
them then with disdain, criticism, and often slander." Da Ponte was
constantly on the verge of financial ruin induced by a combination of
gullibility, genuine misfortune and the incorrigible generosity of his
big Italian heart.
His next incarnation as a teacher and cultural impresario suited him
far better, though it led to no greater financial security. He got his
start thanks to a chance meeting with Clement Moore, later
immortalized as the author of "The Night Before Christmas." The
well-connected Moore helped Da Ponte convince prominent New York
families to send their sons and daughters to him to study Italian
language and literature. Judging from surviving anecdotes, Da Ponte
was a devoted and gifted teacher, even building a small stage in his
house on which his students could perform. But the teaching business
was not steady, and Da Ponte returned to odd jobs, trading goods and
taking in boarders, to whom a newspaper ad promised that "a knowledge
of Italian may be acquired without additional expense."
According to his biographer, Sheila Hodges, the shortage of Italian
books in New York was a tremendous obstacle for Da Ponte, and he was
shocked to discover how hard it was to find an Italian dictionary.
Even Columbia's library, he reported, had only one "worm-eaten
Boccaccio with a broken binding." He began importing books, opened a
bookstore and traveled door-to-door hawking Dante, Machiavelli,
Petrarch and others. By the end of his life he claimed to have
imported more than 26,000 volumes, many of which ended up at the
Library of Congress, the New York Public Library and Columbia
But Da Ponte knew that Italian books alone could not win over the
American public. They needed - of course - the Italian opera, which he
described simply as "the noblest and most pleasurable of all the many
spectacles the human intelligence ever invented." Already an
octogenarian, he raised the money to bring a company of 53 Italian
singers, for a tour that nearly bankrupted him. Da Ponte was forced to
sell his beloved books, and he addressed them in a little poem that
will be on display at the Columbia exhibition: "My heart is torn apart
in giving you away; for in one single moment I lose what I love most."
Still one more scheme followed, as Da Ponte raised funds for a lavish
Italian Opera House that opened in New York in 1833 and burned down
six years later. Not surprisingly, by the end of his life he was an
embittered old man. He lived an eternity by the standards of the day,
but not quite long enough to see Italian culture flower here a half
The current acknowledgment is indeed overdue. Even during his
lifetime, Da Ponte lamented: "In more than twenty years not one
charitable writer has been found who has deigned to put down in black
on a small piece of paper, so that the literary world, and in
particular the Italians, may learn about it, what I have done in
[I am sending forth these memes, not because I agree wholeheartedly with
all of them, but to impregnate females of both sexes. Ponder them and
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