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Readers' Comments on Mozart

December 16, 2005

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Norman Lebrecht's recent column on Mozart's 250th birthday celebrations has sparked many passionate comments from our readers. La Scena Musicale Online is open to opinion and discussion. Here is an edited version of the discussion so far.

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The greatest minds in the history of western civilization have studied Mozart's spiritual depths and mastery of composition and have concluded exactly the opposite as Mr. Lebrecht.

He mentions Einstein in his article.  I would suggest that he read Alfred Einstein's book Mozart, His Character, His Work, considered even today to be a classic.  This was the cousin of Albert Einstein, by the way. 

But, to be more specific:

  • Great modern composers such as, Stravinsky, who certainly employed controversial musical ideas and ample use of dissonance, acknowledged Mozart's mastery of the formal elements of music, including his use of dissonance. Actually, Stravinsky borrowed /learned this very issue from Mozart.
  • Mozart wrote a piece called the 'Dissonance Quartet', for Haydn.  This piece was probably about 40 or more years ahead of its time.
  • Joseph Haydn himself stated that he considered Mozart to be the greatest composer known to him by person or name, and that Mozart had the most profound knowledge of composition.
  • Mozart's music was viewed often as having so much complexity and dissonance in his music that his listeners in his day and age were 'perturbed' and preferred much simpler music.  Mozart, by the way, could have written more 'popular' music and pandered to his audiences but refused in the main to do so.
  •  Beethoven himself acknowledged that he probably would never write anything as beautiful as Mozart's C minor piano concerto, K. 491.
  •  Nearly all composers since Mozart's time, even into modern day, consider him to be the supreme master in all the musical genres of his day and age.
  •  Not just composers--nearly all great philosophers, writers, poets, musicologists, consider Mozart to be the greatest musical genius that ever lived. That does not just mean that Mozart was a prodigy, which he was. Or virtuoso which he was.   It means, in plain English, that his music is deep, both musically, technically and spiritually.   Kierkegaard, Stendhal, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, etc, etc and on down the list have argued such.
  • Mozart's popularity today, 250 years after his birth, might possibly have something to do with recognition of that genius.  Consider such masterpieces as Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, The 40th Symphony, The Requiem, The D minor Piano Concerto (way ahead of its time), the Quintet in G minor (K516), also way ahead of its time, 'Ave Verum Corpus,' The Magic Flute, the C minor Mass, and so on...
  • Mozart practically invented various forms of music including the piano quintet.  He revolutionized various forms of music and put unusual combinations of instruments together.
  • Mozart  virtually changed pianio music well into the future.  Beethoven, Chopin, and others great pianists were great admirers of Mozart.
  • Alfred Brendel, the great pianist, said that Mozart's Adagio in B minor for piano is the greatest piece of music ever written for solo piano. Listen to this for some dissonance.
  • Mozart was probably the greatest improviser on the piano, ever. Even after his death, Mozart's improvisations were hailed as works of such artistry that people wrote about them long afterwards
  • On one occasion Mozart's music was returned to him by a patron, because it contained 'wrong' (dissonant) notes.  Mozart's music was often considered unplayable, because it was too difficult for singers and instrumentalists alike.
  • The greatest wind music in the world was written by Mozart, witness K361.  Wind music takes incredible skill to write.  Some of the most poignant and spiritually deep moments in Mozart occur in his wind music.  I refer your writer as well to K388, a Serenade for winds in C minor.
  • And, finally, speaking of Shostakovich.  The Russian Conservatories today which produce most of the world's great pianists, say that it is Mozart that stands at the peak, that great pianists must learn to play Mozart well.  Not Rachmaninoff (their own), not Chopin, very difficult, not Tchaikovsky (one of their own AND very difficult), but MOZART.  Yes, his music sounds simple, but it is anything but that.  A sophisticated musical ear understands this concept. 

Also  important: Mozart was the first great artist to break free from the feudal system in which composers worked for nobles and were not free to compose music for themselves,  and that Mozart became a free lance artist in 1781 to do more of precisely that.  This was prior to the French Revolution, by the way.  Mozart abruptly left service from the Archbishop of Salzburg to be more free to compose as he wanted.  That took enormous courage, and was viewed as a bold move. To a great extent, Mozart helped to pave the way for Beethoven and others, making their careers more smooth.  Mozart took the libretto from Beaumarchais' play which had been banned in France and turned it into an opera, The Marriage of Figaro.  This opera contains revolutionary messages.  Do you think that Mozart would have done this if he were content to write music that was 'humdrum'?

Mozart was a prominent mason, and that he continued as a mason even after many others in his day and age left the craft when it became somewhat politically untenable to do so.  Do you think someone such as this would write 'superficial music'?

No, it requires a great deal of skill to learn the musical language of Mozart.  But its beauty is that it can be appreciated on many levels.  Those who appreciate its revolutionary aspects, as well as those who appreciate its melodic or thematic beauty.

About Mozart's use of language: The region of what is today Austria used various forms of language employing scatological terms much more frequently than today.  In Mozart's time, this was not so unnatural, and the letters have been misunderstood. Even Mozart's mother used some of these same phrases. Read Mozart's elegant letters to his father and others to see the complexity of Mozart's language styles.  Many prominent academicians have translated the actual meaning of many of these terms and their usages into messages as they would have been understood in Mozart's era.  After all, Mozart does not live in the 21st century. Most 'played' with language to confuse, astound and shock.  To him, it was a game. 

About Mozart's career: Mozart made extremely large sums of money and shortly before he died had offers from England, Hungary and Holland.  He made the equivalent about $100,000 in his successful years.  Mozart suffered from ill health and eventually was taken over by acute rheumatic fever.  He wrote nearly 800 works in 35 short years.  He had withstood the ravages of many diseases throughout his life and it is quite amazing that he lived even as long as he did given his history of fairly serious diseases.   Mozart's simple burial was not that of a pauper, but was the customary funeral at the time of Joseph II in Austria for people of his station in life. 


Catherine Sprague

I just had to respond to Norman Lebrecht's irresponsible and malicious article about Wolfgang Mozart.

    Lebrecht writes:

    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.

This study was conducted by researchers in Los Angeles in the 1990s, and was promptly discredited. The only people who took it seriously were those in the marketing divisions of the classical record labels. And even then it was not really genuine, just a way to make a quick buck off a dubious news story.


    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.

There is nothing accurate about the movie or play, outside of the fact that Mozart was a musician and married to Constanze Weber. His early death was the result of a childhood bout with smallpox that nearly killed him before he reached adulthood. For some reason when he was 34 it came roaring back with a vengeance and claimed him. There was no penicillin back in 1791, and lots of people died this way.


    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.

This is a mid-twentieth century styled view that is seen as de rigeur by many to most under-50 listeners who are interested in Classical music these days. The new view is that there is nothing wrong with stylistic stability, and that innovation is over-rated.


    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 wholesale revival of Mozart's operas began in the 1930s in England, and is associated with the work of Fritz Busch and Covent Garden.


    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 cliché's. In this orgy of simple-mindedness, the concurrent centenary of Dmitri Shostakovich - a composer of true courage and historical significance - 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.

Mozart is certainly not "a menace to musical progress;" although he certainly has many pieces which are firmly of their era, his best work is truly substantive. That he is not as innovative stylistically as Kraus, C.P.E. Bach, Vanhal or as Lebrecht would have the comparison, Shostakovich (there IS no comparison!) is not Mozart's fault. Sometimes being exceptionally gifted at one's craft yields goods that don't spoil, and people are well within their rights to partake of what's there if they are so inclined. Telling people that what they like is "crap" is destructive and serves no useful purpose except to help shrink the audience for the classics even further.

I'm pretty sure Lebrecht writes these things just to stir the pot. Personally I didn't warm up to Mozart's music until I was in my 'thirties. But when you develop skills as an experienced classical music listener, you want it, or at least you should. I would happily pick Mozart over Shostakovich any day, and not because I am ignorant of Shostakovich's courage or historical significance. I just like Mozart a little better, not all of it, but some - and there are lots of people who know little classical music outside Mozart and Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." Why would you want to close the door on them, and what good would it do?

David N. Lewis
Assistant Classical Editor, All Music Guide
Ann Arbor, MI

Regarding the article by Mr.Lebrecht, let me just say that I dont mind someone not liking Mozart but he said far too many things that were incorrect. The idea that Mozart never used dissonance, never stirs the emotions, uses the same chords and worst of all didnt change anything in music history and was regressive is completely incorrect.

Mozart wrote music in his time that was far more advanced, dissonant, complex, technical, virtuosic, you name the adjective more than his contemporaries. What truly made him a master is his perfection in all genres of music (unlike Beethoven or Shoshtakovich, etc) as well as being able to write something heavenly "simple" like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik to something utterly grand/profound like the c- minor mass to something that could have been written by Chopin years later like the rondo in a-minor for piano. oh the list can go on and on...


Marcus Forss

p.s. Haydn didn't create the sonata form

Here is Albert Einstein's own opinion of Mozart:
"Mozart is the greatest composer of all. Beethoven created his music, but the music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it- that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed."

Ron Johnson

While I find many of the particulars of Lebrecht's Mozart article unsupportable, I was very sympathetic to the general point of the argument which is getting lost in all the excitement.

Mozart has been overcommercialized. He is used to sell everything from soap to jeans, provides easy listening wallpaper for our ignoring pleasure and serves as the focal point of that insidious scam, the Mozart Effect. None of this is Mozart's fault, and while he did advance the forms (just about all of them), our misuse of Mozart is what undermines the understanding and appreciation of good serious music, including Mozart himself. As we head into the 250th anniversary of his birth we can anticipate a yearlong orgy of commercial stupidity surrounding the composer.

Focusing on the 100th anniversary of Shotakovich, on the other hand, might move our attention away from the expected Mozart silliness and toward issues that are more relevant to creating and sustain a living musical tradition. Shostakovich managed to create a delicate balance between the avant-garde and popular music; between the high art of the opera, symphony and string quartet and the low art of film scores, musical theater and popular dance music; between the socialist East and the capitalist West; public and private; and not the least, the many moods of Joseph Stalin. Many of these issues are very current and frequently debated by those who still care about music, including on [internet] message boards and by Lebrecht himself. This is music that is relevant to our situation today, and we can learn a lot from it. Far better than the saccharine commercialism we can expect from pending Mozart celebrations.

Jim Williams
Boston, MA, USA

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