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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Too much Mozart makes you sick

By Norman Lebrecht / December 14, 2005

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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 commerce.

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

The chocolate-box image of Mozart as a little miracle can be promptly banged on the head. The hard-knocks son of a cynical court musician, Mozart was taught 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 back home.

A coprophiliac obsession with bodily functions, accurately evinced in Peter Shaffer's play and Milos Forman's movie Amadeus, was a clear sign of arrested emotional development. His marriage proved unstable and his inability to 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 marzipan chord.

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

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

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

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