15 October 2010

Review of "On Mozart" (1996), Part I

The following review-essay was commissioned in 1996 by Notes, but not published there for reasons that were not made clear to me. Because much of the review is still relevant, and because I make a number of points that I haven't published elsewhere, I am publishing the review in full here.  It is unchanged from the completed typescript submitted in 1996; I have not made any attempt to update the notes with references to more recent work (apart from one reference to my dissertation). 

I have not included hyperlinks for the notes because Blogger chronically breaks these when editing in "Compose" mode (please complain to Google, not me).

See also parts 2, 3, and 4.


James M. Morris, ed.  On Mozart (Cambridge, New York, Melbourne:  Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Cambridge University Press, 1994)
Dexter Edge

At the height of the Mozart frenzy of 1991, I sometimes diverted myself by trying to count the Mozart conferences and exhibitions taking place that year. Although I felt I had a pretty good handle on international events (I could count at least a dozen major conferences and a similar number of exhibitions), I simply couldn’t keep track of the bewildering variety of local ones. The round of international conferences alone must have taxed even seasoned academic jet-setters. Most senior Mozart scholars (and some junior ones as well) spent the year in a permanent jet-lag-induced fog.

Since 1991, this orgy of talk has been slowly trickling into print. The volume under review is one of several bicentenary “books of the conference” to have appeared over the past half decade. It is based on the symposium (of which I was only dimly aware at the time) “Mozart and the Riddle of Creativity,” held at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D. C., over four days in the first week of December 1991. In the mornings, the audience heard presentations on Mozart by scholars from a variety of fields (only about half were music scholars, and even fewer were Mozart specialists); these presentations were intentionally geared to a “non-specialist” audience, but they were (as the essays printed here suggest) no less intellectually demanding for being so. Each afternoon the symposium featured a film of a Mozart opera, introduced by critic Stanley Kauffmann. The symposium concluded on the afternoon of 5 December, the anniversary of Mozart’s death, “in time,” as editor James M. Morris explains, “for the participants to attend the performance of the [Mozart] Requiem given that evening by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center” (p. 6).

The symposium was the inspiration of the late John Clive, who unfortunately did not live to see its realization. Clive had envisioned, in Morris’s words, a “bicentennial event that would instruct intelligent lay audiences about Mozart, and entertain them as well, by presenting the composer in a context that had the density of real life and was, by turns, personal, psychological, historical, cultural, and aesthetic” (p. 6). On the evidence of the essays published here, the symposium went a long way towards achieving that vision, and it was undoubtedly a stimulating and rewarding experience for audience and participants alike. The resulting book, in spite of many merits, seems rather less successful.

The book includes revised and expanded versions of ten papers from the symposium, plus two contributions, by literary scholar Denis Donoghue and musicologist Christoph Wolff, that were not part of the original program. As Morris explains it, the symposium “set [Mozart] first in the timeless ahistorical space reserved for individuals of spectacular creativity, then in his time, and finally in our time” (p. 6). This is a fair description of the overall organization of the book (and the same sentence appears in slightly altered form on the flyleaf). “Timeless ahistorical space” is represented by Donoghue’s opening chapter, and by the contributions of psychologists Howard Gardner and David Henry Feldman; all three concern themselves in various ways with Mozart as “genius.” Mozart “in his time” is represented by economists Hilda and William J. Baumol, in their chapter on the economics of music in the late eighteenth century, and by essays on Mozart’s life and compositional practice by music scholars Neal Zaslaw, Christoph Wolff, Maynard Solomon, Joseph Kerman and Wye J. Allanbrook. Historian Michael P. Steinberg’s chapter on Don Giovanni tacks between the intellectual history of Mozart’s time and our own by considering what the opera meant in the Habsburg monarchy of the 1780s, and how that meaning is reflected by Joseph Losey’s 1979 film of the opera. Mozart “in our time” (broadly defined to include the late nineteenth-century) is represented by Leon Botstein’s essay on the fin-de-siècle Mozart revival, and by Stanley Kauffmann’s critique of three films of three Mozart operas.

Morris’s introduction opens with some cogent comments on the excesses of the Mozart year. He complains that “Mozart” was marketed as if his name alone were assurance of equal excellence across the entire range of his oeuvre. Yet, in Morris’s view, this kind of marketing “flattens” Mozart’s achievement (p. 2) and runs the risk of trivializing his music in the minds and ears of the general public. We should remind ourselves, Morris implies, that many of Mozart’s early compositions are relatively ordinary:  they are, to be sure, extraordinary because they were written by a child whose music was (from at least his early adolescence onward) as good as anything by any other composer in Europe.  Seen, however, in the light of Mozart’s mature masterpieces, his early works shine rather less brightly.  It is no good pretending that La finta giardiniera, however delightful it may be, is on a par with Figaro.

Denis Donoghue’s “Approaching Mozart” opens with a literary meditation on three texts touching on Mozart in various ways: Kierkegaard’s Either/Or; Anthony Hecht’s poem “Dichtung und Wahrheit,” and “Mozart, 1935,” a poem by Wallace Stevens. After a brief nod to musical sociology (in the guise of Jacques Attali’s Noise), Donoghue goes on to argue for the essential secularity of Mozart’s music (even of such ostensibly religious works such as the C-minor Mass) and for its proto-Romanticism.  Donoghue’s essay is self-consciously literary and rather obscure. The author states early on that writing about music ought to allow it to remain “elusive” (p. 15). In this, at least, I think he has entirely succeeded.

The chapters by Howard Gardner and David Henry Feldman share an interest in the psychology of extraordinary talent and creativity, a topic about which the authors have written both separately and collaboratively. Gardner’s essay here, “How extraordinary was Mozart?,” draws on his recent studies of seven “creators of the modern era”: Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, T. S. Eliot, Gandhi and Martha Graham. Gardner describes some of the characteristics that these “geniuses” have in common:  comfortable backgrounds, supportive families, a tendency towards single-mindedness and egocentricity, and so on. Much of this seems to belabor the obvious; more interesting, perhaps, is Gardner’s hypothesis that a genius, as a rule, requires ten years of intensive practice and study to attain mastery of his or her field, and a further ten years until he or she achieves a dramatic breakthrough in that field. Another breakthrough may follow a decade after that (if the genius lives that long). This seems a bit pat (why not nine years, or eleven?), and Gardner’s sample population is exceedingly small, but the hypothesis is worth pondering.

Gardner goes on to consider the extent to which Mozart’s life is typical of the patterns he has identified in the lives of other creative geniuses, and how it deviates. He posits four ways in which Mozart’s life was “unique”:  in his evenness of productivity and artistic growth (the creators Gardner has studied typically have had periods of intense productivity punctuated by relatively fallow periods); in his “combination of childlike and adultlike characteristics”; in his “exquisite personal intelligences”; and in his position “on the edge of modernity.” All but the third of these seem problematic. Mozart did in fact experience fallow periods, although his great overall productivity tends to mask this. For example, between the completion of Così fan tutte in January 1790 and the completion of the Piano Concerto in B-flat, K. 595, in January 1791, he entered only four new compositions and two arrangements into his catalogue of his own works.[1] The notion that the adult Mozart retained childlike characteristics is a well-worn commonplace of his popular image, but this aspect of his personality is often exaggerated and taken out of context, and I don’t find Gardner fully persuasive here. Nor am I convinced that Mozart in particular was a key transitional figure between the era of “musician as servant” (Bach and Haydn) and the era of “musician as freestanding artist” (Beethoven). The reality is more complex.  Joseph Haydn is often used as foil to Mozart in this regard. Yet Haydn spent the better part of a decade in his late teens and early twenties scrabbling for a living in Vienna as a freelance, and he later adjusted rapidly and remuneratively to the entrepreneurial possibilities opened up by the death of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy in 1790 and the sudden dispersal of the Esterházy Kapelle. Mozart, on the other hand, was an (admittedly not very diligent and often absent) employee of the Archbishop of Salzburg until 1781, and he was granted a sinecure as court chamber composer by Emperor Joseph II in December 1787. Thus he spent only a little over six years as a pure freelancer. Mozart was not unique in mixing aspects of old and new professional patterns in his career:  virtually all professional musicians in the Habsburg Monarchy during this period were “transitional” in this sense, because the economic structure of musical life was changing radically and rapidly.

Feldman’s essay, “Mozart and the transformational imperative,” considers how Mozart the “prodigy” resembles and differs from modern musical prodigies.  Like Gardner, Feldman finds much that Mozart shares with typical prodigies (if the word “typical” makes sense in this context):  a history of family interest, being a first-born son, and so on. However, he identifies two qualities that set Mozart apart from the run-of-the-mill prodigy. One is his love of word play: his tendency “to alliterate, generate transformations, transpose, and twist meanings seems to have parallels in his musical inventions” (p. 60). This is an evocative notion, but one would like to see some specific musical examples.

Feldman suggests that Mozart’s literary talent was far inferior to his musical talent. As an example, he cites Mozart’s poem on the death of his pet starling, a poem dated 4 June 1787, just two days after Mozart had learned of his father’s death.[2] It seems odd to criticize Mozart’s poem as “amateurish” on the basis of a modern English translation, as Feldman does. And the German original of the poem is more than competent structurally: it consists of a sequence of rhyming iambic couplets, the first lines of which have three feet and the second two. Rhymes are alternately masculine and feminine. Mozart carries through this scheme consistently and with fairly clever and unforced rhymes. The general effect is one of whimsical and self-mocking satire with a hint of melancholy. It could be said, then, that the poem (assuming it is genuine) actually shows a good deal of literary flair, something which can be said of all Mozart’s writing. That his literary talent remained uncultivated, that it never developed a professional sheen, is hardly surprising; Mozart was, after all, a full-time musician. Yet we should remember that Mozart’s main literary outlet, his letters, remain more widely read today than the writings of his Austrian literary contemporaries, most of whom are today known only to specialists.[3]

Like Gardner, Feldman takes as given that Mozart was childishly naive and inept in his social dealings as an adult. He claims that “[Mozart] routinely overestimated how impressed people were with his work, or how loyal, committed, or reliable they were” (p. 67). Again, one would like examples, and I, for one, am skeptical of the “routinely.” Feldman take as established fact an extreme revisionist view of Mozart’s financial state at the end of his life. He writes:  “The Mozart family was solidly middle class....Indeed, contrary to the legend that Mozart died in poverty, he enjoyed a comfortable bourgeois life right up to the time of his death.” Even for me, a known fellow traveler of Mozart revisionists, Feldman’s second sentence seems a tad overstated.


[1] See Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Verzeichnüß aller meiner Werke vom Monath febraio 1784 bis Monath 1 , published in facsimile as Mozart’s Thematic Catalogue, a Facsimile: British Library Stefan Zweig MS 63, introduction and transcription by Albi Rosenthal and Alan Tyson (London: British Library, 1990).

[2] The pedigree of this poem is not impeccable. No autograph is known to survive, and it was first published in Gustav Nottebohm, Mozartiana (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1880), pp. 8-9. It is reproduced in W. A. Bauer, O. E. Deutsch and J. H. Eibl, eds., Mozart. Briefe und Aufzeichnungen (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1962-75) [MBA], III/49-50. Feldman’s essay disconcertingly gives the date of the poem as “1781,” although the surrounding discussion concerns Don Giovanni and “A Musical Joke.”

[3] The English translation cited by Feldman is clever in its own right: it retains Mozart’s rhymed couplets and his metrical scheme, and matches Mozart’s content quite closely, sacrificing only the alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes. This sort of thing is not easy to bring off in a translation, as anyone who has tried it will be aware. The translation is taken from Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Mozart, trans. Marian Faber (London: Dent, 1983), pp. 206-7.

This is Part 1 of four parts.

Continue on to Part 2.

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This review of "On Mozart" by Dexter Edge is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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