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27.1.06

Mozart, Our Birthday Gift


It is so easy to beat up on Mozart. All it takes is just a tiny bit of cynicism on the critic’s part. Intellectual pretension doesn’t hurt either. The result is a predictable set of contrivedly controversial accusations. “Mozart the composer who didn’t advance music. Mozart the composer who ‘merely’ perfected the itty-bitty prettiness of music. Mozart, the facile (in all meanings of the word) human being. Mozart the composer the Nazis first exploited with something disturbingly like the celebratory vigor of our times.”

available at Amazon
W. A. Mozart / J. Brahms / L. van Beethoven, Piano Concertos K459, K488 / no. 2 B-flat op. 83 / no. 3 op. 37, no. 5 op. 73, Pollini/Böhm, Abbado/WPh
It is easy to point out that his work is indeed not ‘all perfect’ and that his output was uneven. That his early symphonies may or may not be better than those of contemporaries. That Mendelssohn was a greater child prodigy, writing better music at an earlier age. In the juvenile drive to dismantle gods in order to look like an outré intellectual who shocks by not following the masses’ appreciation of Picasso, Mozart, or Shakespeare we turn our back on all that which is too widely acclaimed, too popular with the ‘plebs’. Glenn Gould loved that sort of behavior when, as an undoubtedly insufferably precocious kid, he claimed that "Mozart could not write a piano concerto and was, anyway, a mediocre composer." Can you sense the deep thinker behind such contrarian claims? Maybe as a fellow second- or seventh-grader? But sooner or later we are bound to get bored with this point of view, even if Gould, who so loved his outrageous-for-the-sake-of-it ideas that he espoused them for the rest of his life, never did.

But with Mozart everywhere in this year of his 250th birthday, one is likely to encounter that one piece too many of Mozart that will send us to the dark, Mozart-denouncing side. Some will open alternative Shostakovich camps (his 100th anniversary falling somewhat by the wayside this year) and try to compare Mozart unfavorably to Bach. I understand them and sympathize with them. Often, the Mozart work is not the highlight of a concert I attend, and it is hardly ever the reason I attend. And I agree that I could listen to Bach endlessly whereas I would, sooner or later, tire of Mozart. But if I had to listen to half as much of Shostakovich, whom I love, as Mozart, whom I appreciate, I’d become a brooding mess and nervous wreck. With a Mozart overdose, the worst that can happen is that you’d grow a set of wings or act unnaturally nice (or fall back on the above-mentioned infantile arguments).

Mozart, score of piano concertoMozart, after all is said and done, is a genius. Listen, for example, to the slow movement of his Piano Concerto No. 23 (KV488). There is such an irresistible beauty, such perfection, such clarity of purpose in these couple of minutes, that over and over I am compelled to completely surrender myself to that music. My arms move away a bit from my body, the hands and face turn heavenward ever so slightly. It is here – and in many other works of his (too many to mention here – which is why he must be considered such a great, unique composer) where the arguments and the bickering end. I wish I could instantly play a movement such as that concerto’s every time I or someone else made a smart remark about Mozart. By snapping my fingers Karl Böhm might conduct the Vienna Philharmonic and Maurizio Pollini in front of them. Such delicacy (but never in the “Dresden China” approach), such beauty!

Nietzsche, for example - and like many of us and every solid ‘if-it-feels-good-it-can’t-be-good-for-us’ Lutheran/Protestant - may have been instinctively inclined to critique Mozart on the issues of being too rococo, on "his tender enthusiasms, his childlike delight in curlicues." Mozart was softer than the mountain-top philosopher should have liked, but too genial for him not to love. The power of the music is such that we can only do it away from the music. That is Mozart.

15 comments:

blogujemy said...

Hi jfl

i find classical music people fall into two camps about Mozart: those who say what you say people might say; and those who love him --like me. it just so happens that while typing this, i am listening to Don Giovanni's quartet "La Liberta" and find nothing or happy or easy about it. it is just sheer magnificence and drama. as are at least 5 of his operas. the middle movement of no 23 is also my great favorite; as are the string quartets, nos 14-23 -- all of these things, imho the best work ever done in their respective genres. now, i know there are people who dont like Mozart, though usually they are people who do not know him all too well. but then i feel this way about Brahms *as you already know, so i forgive them. what is perhaps notable is that i was in the hate-mozart camp until i married and my wife, through patient explanation and illustration and a great deal of exposure led me back to the fold. it is not easy music to understand, i think -- it is deceptively simple. perhaps one needs to reach "certain age" to understand it.
PS i am a Shostak-head myself, too. im stuck these days on his preludes and fugues and his piano quintet: Richter and the Borodin. Holy Xmas!

Gawain said...

Hi jfl

i find classical music people fall into two camps about Mozart: those who say what you say people might say; and those who love him --like me. it just so happens that while typing this, i am listening to Don Giovanni's quartet "La Liberta" and find nothing or happy or easy about it. it is just sheer magnificence and drama. as are at least 5 of his operas. the middle movement of no 23 is also my great favorite; as are the string quartets, nos 14-23 -- all of these things, imho the best work ever done in their respective genres. now, i know there are people who dont like Mozart, though usually they are people who do not know him all too well. but then i feel this way about Brahms *as you already know, so i forgive them. what is perhaps notable is that i was in the hate-mozart camp until i married and my wife, through patient explanation and illustration and a great deal of exposure led me back to the fold. it is not easy music to understand, i think -- it is deceptively simple. perhaps one needs to reach "certain age" to understand it.
PS i am a Shostak-head myself, too. im stuck these days on his preludes and fugues and his piano quintet: Richter and the Borodin. Holy Xmas!

jfl said...

well, i am glad you don't dump on WAM as much as on poor brahms. :) don't agree that the haydn-quartets of mozart are the greatest in the field (in fact, they may be the lesser ones in that field, in my estimation... haydn, lvb, bartok, dsch, schubert, villa-lobos coming before them). DSCH p&f are superb. the recording that provides the longest enjoyment upon repeat and repeat and repeat performance is keith jarrett's. he plays it like bach, nikolayeva like schumann. nothing is better in the Q5t than richter & borodin! happy easter.

Todd said...

Oh, I see, and Paul Newman's birthday just SLIPS BY!

jfl said...

forgive us for our very east-coast head set. how ignorant of us - but we are the victims of society, really. happy birthday Paul, best looking screen-actor that you are - or at least have been.

Ariadne said...

I love Mozart!

wolfgang is my homeboy said...

Paul gets his due props. I saw Cool Hand Luke two nights ago, and once again was impressed by the sheer power of his contrarian, irreverent character. Which is a wonderful segue into WAM, who as we know was very playful, contrarian, and irreverent. His music is also deceptively simple to play. It's like you're totally naked out there, in all his glorious, contrapuntal majesty.

jfl said...

"Which is a wonderful segue into WAM, who as we know was very playful, contrarian, and irreverent."

Mozart had a point, thankfully. (Now let me imagine a naked Mozart tribute. Tonight at the Austrian embassy, perhaps... it could be worse than seeing most of the Minetti Quartet eu naturelle)

wolfgang is my homeboy said...

(Now let me imagine a naked Mozart tribute. Tonight at the Austrian embassy, perhaps... it could be worse than seeing most of the Minetti Quartet eu naturelle)

Perhaps, but nowwhere near as good as the Calder Q. I guess we'll find out on Tuesday.

Charles T. Downey said...

Anne-Sophie Mutter plays the Mozart concerti nude? You know, all these naked references will drive up our hit statistics, but for all the wrong reasons.

jfl said...

"Perhaps, but nowwhere near as good as the Calder Q. I guess we'll find out on Tuesday."

uuuhhh, god no. alec baldwin look-alike, potential ramstein member, a tim roth copy and yet another guy - that's not what ionarts wants so see naked. we are more thinking: The violins of the minetti Quartet, the possibly the jupiter Quartet's viola, ASMutter any day, the coucheron duo's pianist, harumi rhodes...

and while I am getting carried away, I want to point out that such considerations are only made in the name of the aesthetic and god-given beauty of the human body (well... some are more than others) and that we didn't start this discussion. i think.

p.s. our recent keyword activity includes this perverse gem: "nadia boulanger naked"

Gawain said...

hello jfl
the romantics ushered in the 19th century for us (complete with your mendelhson and brahms) giving rise to art in which earnestly felt emotions are treasured, the more powerful the better, often in the spirit of rebellion, which, all too often, means impolite forms of address. in time, all of this has turned into the worship of rude behavior as if it in intself were symptomatic of good art. what i seem to like about WAM the most is that a) he is capable of great depth without being uncouth and b) he recognizes that positive emotions (calm, harmony, friendship, love and so forth) can also be profound, deeply felt and deserving of selebration.
mozart is of course not all easy going. try his Don Giovanni, for example. perhaps his strig quartets are not the best (perhaps you are right, what do i know, perhaps Schubert is a great composer, i am in an agreeable mood today), but barring Monteverdi, i dont know better operas than WAMs last 5.
best regards

jfl said...

operas? well, i'll agree don giovanni is the most perfect, nozze the best, cosi the most entertaining. i am not sure if i agree about la clemenza and zauberfloete (if those are indeed the two operas you mean, besides the da ponte works). i love the latter but will gladly admit that not everyone feels the same way about it... and when i like 'la clemenza', it surprises me, because most of the time i think's its dreadfully boring stuff.

did i already mention that if schubert had composed for three to five more years at the level/rate that he composed at in his last year, we'd think of schubert as the greatest composer ever - and not even ever have to discuss that, because it would be uncontroversially so?

:)

DownWithTyranny said...

Down With Tyranny is normally a political blog dedicated to fighting against the tragic resurrgence of mindless fascism in the U.S. but, regardless of what the right-wing loons of Germany in the 30's did to exploit his music, today we're celebrating Mozart too!

wolfgang is my homeboy said...

"we are more thinking: The violins of the minetti Quartet, the possibly the jupiter Quartet's viola, ASMutter any day, the coucheron duo's pianist, harumi rhodes..."

Absolutely yes to ASM, but more in terms of her sheer sensuality and brilliance. I do not care to see her nude (in the conventional sense). I just yearn to hear her Sinfonia Concertante.