December 20, 2005

Gratuitous Musickal Posting (TM)

Our pal JohnL, perhaps in an attempt to bait me, emails this extremely cranky article by Norman Lebrecht about the preparations to celebrate the upcoming 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth next month.

It's a peculiar thing: I've read probably half a dozen different biographies of Mozart and they all fall into two distinct camps. The first is the Cult of Gangerl, who indulge themselves in every bit of treacly romanticism they can squeeze out of his short life and worship every note he ever penned. The second is the League of the Curmudgeons, whose spleen motivates them to throw down every brick of the first camp's edifice, sowing the foundations with salt for good measure.

In general, I side with the curmudgeons insofar as I loathe the kitsch industry that has grown up around Mozart - it's historically dishonest and also serves to cheapen his music. And to the extent that Lebrecht damns all the hype, I generally agree with him. Furthermore, I am perfectly capable of accepting that a good bit of Mozart's music (mostly his childhood stuff) simply isn't worth listening to, much less worshipping.

However, to the extent Lebrecht attacks all of Mozart's music, I think the man is a complete jackass. Some quotes:

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.

I guess Mr. John Keats was mistaken. Beauty isn't Truth after all. As a matter of fact, though, Mozart's music is not simply "good vibes", as anybody who has actually paid attention to anything other than Eine Klein Nacht Musik knows perfectly well. However, I suppose elegance and subtlety are largely lost on people whose idea of authentic expression consists simply of shouting at one another.

I have yet to see a life elevated by Cosi fan tutte[.]

Um, right here, for one. What Lebrecht doesn't comprehend is that the music can elevate even when the story doesn't.

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.

If I understand this logic correctly and extending it to all artists, Shakespeare's work is worthless because he invented neither the play nor the sonnet form. I'm sure plenty of other examples will occur to you immediately.

As for the charge that Mozart "failed to take music one step forward," I would recommend Charles Rosen's The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven for a grown up discussion of how all three of these composers influenced each other and those who followed them.

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.

All I can say is that I am thankful I don't possess the kind of artistic sensibility that can't see beyond crabbed and soul-dampening questions of socio-political "relevance" and is forever driven by the lash of "progress". Instead, I think I'll stick with the wisdom of Keats after all:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

UPDATE: J. Cassian at February 30 nails it: "The correct retort to Mr Lebrecht is simply to listen to the irrefutable argument of Mozart's music itself."

Hear, hear. But go and read the rest of the post as well, which develops what I'm trying to say much more thoughtfully.

Yips! to Soon-To-Be-Deleted Lemuel.

UPDATE DEUX: Jessica Duchen thinks the hype is a bit much as well, but is posting on the joys (and challenges) of sight-reading Mozart's piano & violin sonatas.

UPDATE TROIS: A.C. Douglas jumps on Lebrecht as well and offers this fascinating contemporary discussion about Mozart and Haydn.

Posted by Robert at December 20, 2005 12:42 PM | TrackBack

Baiting you? Moi?

But you did write a rebuttal, non?

Although I like some of his works just fine (his Requiem, for example), I'm not a big Mozart fan. I much prefer the robust egoism of Beethoven and the complexity of Bach. (Truth be told, my favorite "classical" composers are French: the romantic/modern organists Dupre, Widor, Franck, and Vierne.)

Nice critique of the piece.

Posted by: JohnL at December 20, 2005 02:24 PM

When I was younger, I disdained Mozart for similar reasons: I thought it lacked soul, or passion. I thought it was the classical version of bubblegum pop. But I was missing the point. There's merit in conveying a message in the music, but there's also something to be said for creating tthe best sounding music you can, out of love for music itself.

All I know is, Any time we pop Mozart in the CD Player, the infant calms down.That was enough to make me think the man genius. And I have to admit, Rondo Alla Turca gets my foot tapping.

Posted by: Brian B at December 20, 2005 05:56 PM

John - I hear ya. But it's one thing to say you prefer some other composer and another completely to argue that Mozart is worthless.

Brian - You and the Llama-ettes. I play the turca on the piano for them now and again as they whirl like dervishes.

Posted by: Robbo the LB at December 21, 2005 09:38 AM

That has to be some lethal doses of cute to see.

The fact that I've been to Turkey and enjoyed the visit only adds to my enjoyment of the tune.

Posted by: Brian B at December 21, 2005 10:41 AM

I enjoyed reading your nice review, that is, what was NOT blocked by all the clutter on the right side of the screen. Great job!!

Posted by: O. F. at December 21, 2005 01:56 PM