A 365-Day Project

"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   June 15, 2006   next

Maybe I've made a mistake in calling for a reinvigorated attention to new nonpop by invoking the name of Mozart. I had hoped to evince an appreciation for the contemporary composer as having no less an imagination and capability than the Viennese classical artist of old, while having a bit of fun during these fawningly worshipful 250th birthday celebrations.

One does not mock with impunity such quasi-religious fervor, I fear.

But I came about it honestly. In recent years, it is commonplace to hear that classical fans listen to Mozart and say, "It is perfect. What genius! It couldn't be another way."

Well of course it could be another way. He did it another way himself, composition after composition. And he composed enormous quantities of music, some of it heard only because his name is on the manuscript. Are the early symphonies gratifying? Really? How about Bastien und Bastienne?

Coming into play is what James Bohn calls a kill ratio: "His 'kill' ratio is very low. Of the 41 symphonies, how many do you actually want to listen to -- a much lower kill ratio than a Beethoven, a Mahler, or a Shostakovich. I used to joke in graduate school (I was known for being prolific), 'If you write a lot of music, some of it is bound to be good.'"

Mozart was almost beyond productive, beginning as the child prodigy heavily marketed across the continent by his father. Without minimizing the simple intellectual genius of learning excellent technique so early in life, I also feel it touches something from the idiot-savant realm. No one praises Mozart for his explorations in other genres, or even for the insights in letters or diaries. He was a music machine in a time of artistic stability, where the rules were clear and deviation was the only stuff of art. He was the algorithmic music computer of 1790.

And Mozart was also a trickster. He write bumpy lines with smooth melodies into music such as the slow movement of the K.361 Serenade and built a nonsense stylistic jumble into the K.332 Sonata in F first movement. There are as many memorable melodies in Tchaikovsky, but the Russian gets the cold shoulder. Is it development? No, because Tchaikovsky's development is raw -- but no less so than Mozart's primordial developments. What is it, then? It includes mythology: the contemporary desperation for heroes, for quantity beyond imagining, and a mystery of quality back-formed to manifest embedded meaning even in the trivial. The hero could have been Bach. But although Bach gets the exquisite-master-for-all-time award, he simply didn't die young enough of a dreadful consumptive disease -- and there was just a bit too much religious devotion in the old fellow. An artist can't be molded into a modern hero without good, wholesome, secular tragedy.

In truth, it congeals into something rotting of saintliness. In first line of Mozart's biography, Baker's describes him as the "supreme Austrian genius of music whose works in every genre are unsurpassed in lyric beauty, rhythmic variety, and effortless melodic invention." Of course, Baker's (even in Slonimsky's hands, who can't resist poking fun at Kaikhosru Sorabji as "actually, Leon Dudley") retains an exaggerated reverence for earlier composers, whereas Stravinsky's "profound influence" is not the music itself but the "emancipation of rhythm, melody and harmony," while Schoenberg claims another effect-first as one who "profoundly influenced the entire development of modern techniques of composition," and poor old long-lived Stockhausen gets passed off with nothing more than a single requisite "astounding." If only Stravinsky could have died after Sacre, Schoenberg after Gurre-Lieder and Stockhausen after Gesang. Next lifetime, boys? Remember to be hip & die young!

Going back a bit: One doesn't even think of the ultimately tragic Beethoven as Mozartian, because he was searching to speak with a unique voice. That takes far more energy and allows distinctly less productivity than embedding your voice into an existing sonic paradigm. I would guess it took more imagination to be poor neglected Sturm-und-Drangian Johann Schobert than Wolfgang Mozart during the elegantly balanced Classical times.

In truth, I believe Mozart would have been a faded example like Rossini had the Austrian lived onward into the 19th century. The artist dying young is indeed a great unburdening of responsibility for the genius-hunters, as they can look upon Purcell or Schubert or Mozart and see elegance or ease or fire of more youthful composition without the underpinnings of mature richness. Yes, you're thinking "Don Giovanni". This isn't about denying the reality of the brilliant compositions -- it's about removing an impediment to an immersion in the present by the insistence that historical genius began withering in 1791.

Without having to cope with an oppressive past, Mozart was free to modify the decoration on the tiny window of style to his liking. Instead of 36, had he lived to 56 or 76, what would have happened? By 56 in 1811, would he have suffered eclipse by the rising Beethoven, endlessly rewriting his last symphony as did the aging Haydn? Or would he have undergone a metamorphosis by 76 in 1831 (by which time Schubert was three years dead), as did Monteverdi, who was not only prolific but revolutionary, with operas and formidable books of sacred and secular madrigals and Masses, successfully incorporting and even initiating dramatic change in style and orchestration and technique straight through the Mannerist days? Would Mozart have actually become revolutionary, or merely adjusted his work to popular taste until his music dulled?

Or is it, at last, that Mozart simply represents the first and last time that most listeners can approach classical music with only half a mind, using it as a background decoration that does not annoy with the mechanical quality of Vivaldi or Telemann, or demand attention as does the dynamic range of Beethoven, or infect with the programmatic implications of Berlioz, or claw with the unacculturated tonal stresses of Stravinsky or Schoenberg?

All old questions with no answers. So back to my mistake. As Bernhard Gal wrote, "I don't like the comparison with Mozart, since I am not too sure about the quality of most of his work. You see, I am from Vienna, and I've already heard way too much Mozart -- especially this year's hype is getting ridiculous." I agree. My reason for "We Are All Mozart" was to focus on the fetish, the strangeness of the celebration and, of course, the issue of productivity in terms of us, the working composers of the 21st century.

And Mozart's "lyric beauty"? The flowers have it, as do birdsongs. But Stravinsky has set the latter to rest. And the flowers? Each too much the same, but there, as with this blue bloom that appeared yesterday, I can rest my eyes without expection or obligation. No salesman will call.

A blue flower blooms. What is it called?

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