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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Why I'm sick of Mozart

By Norman Lebrecht / June 12, 2002

The moment of sufficiency struck on a balmy February evening in Fort Lauderdale. My Floridan hosts had, with reckless hospitality, put on a performance of four Mozart concertos, one after the other. By the interval, my ears begged for relief and the darker cavities of my brain ached like molars to a surfeit of marzipan balls

Chocollate box concertos: Mozart's mind was full of catchy tunes.
Nothing psychosomatic about the pain. Exposure to an excess of Mozart is one of the more refined forms of water torture: the victim knows the next blob is about to drop on his skull, then another, but he is a prisoner in Row H and cannot move until set free by applause.

One Mozart opus, decently played, is the limit of human endurance. Four is like drowning in sherry. The artists in Florida were all excellent; one was the exquisite Piotr Andrszewski, who has since won the coveted Gilmore Award. But as Sinfonia Concertante (K364) gave way to Köchel numbers 453, 271 and the hackneyed 467, ruined for ever by its treacly role in the Swedish film Elvira Madigan, my entire cerebellum rebelled.

No more Mozart, I swore. Not for a whole year, maybe for life. It took an emergency infusion of Boulez and bottled water to restore my moral equilibrium and musical appetite. I am still in recovery. When the opening of the G minor symphony (K550) seeps from some-one's mobile phone on the bus, I get the shakes and have to hum an atonal snatch of early Birtwistle. It is no surprise that Mozart tops the ring-tone pops. His music was made to tinkle.

It is so widely assumed that Mozart must be good for you that, in Alabama, the Governor sends Amadeus's greatest hits to pregnant women in the hope of turning their embryos into Einsteins, and in Sweden they play K467 in labour wards to ease the pangs of parturition. The Mozart Effect is becoming a tenet of nursery education. Myself, I am more concerned at the risk of brain rot. So I am asking the Government to slap a health warning on next month's Mostly Mozart cycle at the Barbican Centre, four weekends of chocolate-box concerts. The series, predictably partnered by Classic FM, is a shameless copy of a festival that has been running at the Lincoln Center for some 30 years, to the horror of musical aesthetes. Night after night of Mozart, mushily rendered in the August heat, has driven any New Yorker who can raise the price of an air ticket to Bayreuth and Salzburg for musical relief.

They are not the first to protest.

"Too many notes, my dear Mozart," complained Joseph II at a rehearsal of The Abduction from the Seraglio. Posterity has put the Emperor down as a pompous Philistine, but he was closer to the mark than many a music critic.

There has never been so fertile a melodic mind as Mozart's. He was so full of catchy tunes that he shovelled them into his music as a kid spoons sugar into his breakfast bowl when mum's not watching. Genius that he was, Mozart lacked the good sense or taste to ration his originality, seldom letting the mind settle on a theme while it is amplified and developed. Like a tiger butterfly, he flits off to the next bud, then the next, leaving the avid lepidopterist seething at his fickle fertility.

FROM the four puerile symphonies that he wrote in Chelsea, aged eight, in 1764 - "Remind me to give the horns something to play," he told his sister - to the dying agonies of the Requiem 27 years later, Mozart splashed inspirations with incontinent abandon. Whether out of mental enfeeblement or emotional immaturity, he seemed unable to grasp the need to keep an audience gasping for more; he always gave too much, often inappropriately.

There are profundities in The Magic Flute but they were obscured by a plethora of trivia until Ingmar Bergman got a grip on the opera in the 1970s. The ambiguities in Don Giovanni, suggesting some sympathy for the rotter, are left flapping in musical hints. Among 27 piano concertos, only two (K466 and K491) are in the reflective minor mode. The best tune in K491 is thrown away at the end; Beethoven, on hearing it, exclaimed to a colleague: "Cramer, Cramer, we shall never be able to do anything like that." Fortunately for the development of music, he was dead right. A tune, like a portrait, needs to be framed.

Beethoven knew how to provide context where Mozart merely poured forth melodies. Mozart is the dividing line - the litmus test, if you like - between music lovers and those who merely like a good tune. He is a gift to the jingle writer, a menace to the serious musician. A world without Beethoven would be much poorer than one without Mozart.

These are heretical thoughts, knowingly contradicting the writings of such pensive interpreters as Artur Schnabel and Alfred Brendel, who find qualities in Mozart that are denied to non-playing analysts. That said, I don't suppose Schnabel or Brendel was ever exposed to a whole evening of assorted Nachtmusik, let alone a month of Mostly Mozart. To get the best out of Mozart, he must be protected from compendium festivals and the boxed-set mentality that helped wreck the classicalrecord industry with indiscriminate compilations. He is, in my experience, a definable health risk. Too much Mozart makes you short-tempered.

The first months of my Mozart-free year have been aural bliss, eliminating sweetmeats and embracing healthy fibre. I was learning to love Haydn and respect Gluck when, last Thursday at a friend s birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall, they slipped in the Soave Trio from Così fan tutte and I was done for. I wanted more; I craved the crowning sextet that is probably the greatest concerted aria ever conceived.

Talking at dinner to a mathematics professor, we could not between us fathom how, with such simple intervals, Mozart penetrated the very core of the human soul. He is, tout court, a life-force. To be taken as prescribed, not to exceed the stated dose.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001