16 October 2010

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

This is part 2 of 4 of my review-essay on the collection On Mozart (ed. James M. Morris).  I wrote the review for the journal Notes in 1996, but it was not published at that time, and this is its first publication.  See also Parts 1, 3, and 4.

The stated objective of William J. Baumol and Hilda Baumol’s essay[4] “is to help explain the extraordinary confluence of composers whose activities centered in Vienna around Mozart’s time” (p. 72).  As they describe it, their fundamental hypothesis is:
...that the political division of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg possessions into many petty states worked to produce the circumstances (notably demand and a profusion of jobs) that help to explain the profusion of musical productivity (p. 72).
However, there is a fundamental misapprehension here.  It is perfectly true that non-Habsburg German portions of the “Holy Roman Empire” were an unruly collection of petty states lacking a strong central authority.  The Habsburg monarchy, on the other hand, did have a strong and increasingly centralized authority embodied in the person of the current head of the house of Habsburg, who held a satchel-full of titles from the various subject Habsburg territories, such as “King of Bohemia,” “King of Hungary,” and so on.  The so-called “emperor” (or empress) exerted direct control over most aspects of economic, religious, political and cultural life, implemented through a vast, if somewhat unruly, bureaucracy.  Thus, for example, when Empress Maria Theresia died at the end of November 1780, the crown decreed that theaters should remain closed in mourning for several weeks throughout the Habsburg lands.  Such a decree would have been impossible in Germany, and there was in any case no central authority to make it.

This mistake, although serious, does not make complete hash of the Baumols’ theory, but it does require a shift of perspective and emphasis. The Habsburg lands did indeed have a profusion of courts, many with their own musical Kapellen:  names such as Esterházy, Schwarzenberg and Lobkowitz spring immediately to mind, but there were many others.  These courts were not the governing authorities of politically independent entities; each of the noble families owed its allegiance to the reigning Habsburg monarch.  Furthermore, most of these Kapellen had been disbanded or greatly reduced in size by the end of the eighteenth century, and thus the number of positions for musicians in such establishments was greatly reduced.  One might even speculate that this reduction in the number of Kapellen happened much earlier and more rapidly than it did in the German states, perhaps precisely because the courts were not independent political entities that needed to project images of power and authority.

In any case, no one disputes that the last quarter of the eighteenth century saw a transition in the Habsburg lands from a system of private musical patronage to a musical “market.”  As I have suggested above, all professional musicians in the Habsburg lands (and in much of the rest of Europe) had to cope with this change, not just Mozart.  The Baumols give a fairly nuanced reading of this transformation, drawing heavily on the work of music historian Julia Moore, whose writings on musical economics in the period of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are the most important to appear on this topic in English in recent years.[5]

The Baumols’ discussion of the wages of musicians and the cost of music is quite good.  They convert eighteenth-century incomes to modern dollar figures; Moore, for one, has argued strongly against such conversions, but it must be said the Baumols’ attempt is carefully done and reasonably convincing.  The authors also take a crack at the popular parlour-sport of Mozart income estimation (following in the footsteps of Kraemer, Steptoe, Braunbehrens, Moore, Solomon, and others).  Their estimation is as good (or as bad) as any, but all such estimates, with perhaps the exception of Moore’s, fall victim to the temptation to fill the gaps in the documentary record with speculation.  As Neal Zaslaw quite rightly reminds us in his essay:  “If nothing is known, nothing may be concluded” (p. 105).  The Baumols close with a refreshingly level-headed discussion of Mozart’s “cash-flow” problems in his final years.

There are several errors of fact and interpretation in this chapter, which tend to diminish confidence in the whole.  On page 78 the authors state without reference that the capacity of Viennese Burgtheater in the eighteenth century was between “1,600 and 1,700 persons.”  This is considerably higher than the carefully argued estimate of theater historian Otto Schindler, who has put the Burgtheater’s maximum capacity at 1350.[6] The Baumols quote Mary Sue Morrow’s statement that “religious practice [in Vienna] dictated that no staged drama, spoken or sung, be presented during Advent or Lent,” and they add that “...thus, in Vienna, music performances were presented at these premises [the Burgtheater and Kärntnertortheater] only six weeks of the year.”[7]  However, Morrow makes this statement in the course of a summary of Viennese concert life before 1776; it was no longer true during Mozart’s period in Vienna.  The Advent ban on theatrical performances had been gradually whittled away to the point that by the early 1780s, the theater was closed only for three or four days before Christmas (and two of these were usually taken up with benefit concerts of the Tonkünstler-Societät, the pension fund for the widows and orphans of Viennese musicians).[8]  The ban on theatrical performances in Lent remained in place through 1786, but even this was relaxed the following year, when spoken plays began to be allowed during Lent, thus vastly cutting back on the number of days available for concerts.[9]

The Baumols make a curious reference (p. 80) to “violin sonatas [Mozart] played with his wife.”  They give no source, but are perhaps confusing Constanze with Regina Strinasacchi, for whom Mozart composed the Violin Sonata in B-flat, K. 454.  On page 93 the Baumols claim that Mozart’s payment for Die Entführung aus dem Serail is unknown, but the amount (100 ducats, or 426 gulden 40 kreuzer) is readily available in Otto Erich Deutsch’s Mozart. Die Dokumente seines Lebens.[10]   They state that Mozart was paid “100 ducats or 425 florins” for Figaro, but by May 1786, 100 ducats were actually worth 450 gulden (as florins were equivalently known).[11]

Neal Zaslaw’s essay, “Mozart as Working Stiff,” begins with an entertaining, if unsettling anecdote.  He describes the horrified reaction of the older members of an Austrian and German audience at a conference in Vienna to his suggestion that Mozart usually composed for a reason (making money, for example) rather than solely for art’s sake.  Yet Zaslaw is surely correct, in pointing out that for virtually every Mozart work about whose origins we know anything at all, we can identify Mozart’s motivation for composing it (whether he wrote it on commission, on speculation, as a gift, with  a prospect of publication, or whatever).

“But what,” Zaslaw asks, “of the hundreds of Mozart’s works about whose origins we know either absolutely nothing or merely a date of creation?”  Can we identify Mozart’s motivations for these works as well?  Zaslaw takes as an example the notorious case of Mozart’s last three symphonies (K. 543 in E-flat, K. 550 in G minor, and K. 551 in C), all completed in the summer of 1788.  Nothing certain is known about the background of these works, and theorizing about Mozart’s reasons for composing them is almost as popular a parlour sport as estimating Mozart’s income.  The romantic view (which Zaslaw traces particularly to Alfred Einstein’s influential book, Mozart, His Character, His Work) is that Mozart composed the symphonies for the sake of art alone, that he felt compelled to compose them from inner necessity, and that they were never performed in his lifetime.  Zaslaw attempts to counter this traditional view with a new, more historically grounded tale.

Zaslaw first places the symphonies in the context of a general decline in musical life at the end of the 1780s:  “The theaters were closed, many musicians were let go, and Viennese musical life delined precipitously.”  I would argue that this “decline,” although widely accepted as fact, is poorly documented, and that sufficient grounds exist for questioning it.[12]  Zaslaw is incorrect in saying that the theaters closed:  the Burgtheater remained open throughout the period (although the Kärntnertortheater remained closed from 6 February 1788 until the end of 1791).  The Italian opera company in the Burgtheater remained intact, as did its orchestra, although the number of newly commissioned operas was greatly reduced for a few years.[13]

Zaslaw implies that Mozart’s last three symphonies were perhaps composed for the series of subscription concerts that Mozart mentions in an undated to Michael Puchberg.[14]  This letter has traditionally been assigned to June 1788, but Zaslaw, following recent opinion, places it rather later; he writes that “[i]t may have been a few weeks” after an incident dated 24 August.  It seems not to be generally realized that the traditional dating of the letter to Puchberg stems from a misunderstanding in Philipp Spitta’s review of Nottebohm’s Mozartiana, where the letter was first published.[15]  Upon unravelling the errors surrounding this letter, one ends up with little or no compelling evidence to tie the letter to any particular time in 1788, or even to that year.  So the letter may have no bearing at all on the last three symphonies.

Be that as it may, Zaslaw is absolutely correct in pointing out that the G-minor Symphony, K. 550, must have been performed (and probably more than once) during Mozart’s lifetime:  a performance is the only reasonable explanation for Mozart’s making alterations to a passage in the Andante, and alterations to the orchestration of all four movements.  And, as Zaslaw points out, there are surviving orchestral parts for the symphony with entries in Mozart’s hand in Graz.[16]  I, like everyone else, have a pet theory about these symphonies which I hope to discuss in a later article.  But I agree with Zaslaw that Mozart almost certainly had some motivation for composing them other than (or at least supplemental to) the call of art.

Zaslaw concludes with a discussion of Mozart’s attitude towards work.  He is at pains to point out that recent research, particularly on Mozart’s sketches (by Ulrich Konrad, among others), has shown that Mozart worked much harder at composing than is generally believed, particularly during his Viennese years.[17]  Zaslaw also points out that Mozart used a keyboard when composing.  He is surely right in saying that “most of Mozart’s autograph manuscripts are fair copies” (designed, one might add, to be interpreted by professional music copyists).[18]


[4] “On the economics of musical composition in Mozart’s Vienna.”

[5] See especially Julia Moore, Beethoven and Musical Economics (Ph.D. diss., U. of Illinois, 1987); idem, “Mozart in the Market-Place,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 114 (1989): 18-42; idem, “Beethoven and Inflation,” Beethoven Forum 1 (1992): 191-223. The Baumols overlook the essential recent study by P. G. M. Dickson, Finance and Government under Maria Theresia, 1740-1780, 2 vol. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).

[6] See especially Otto G. Schindler, “Das Publikum des Burgtheaters in der Josephinischen Ära,” Das Burgtheater und sein Publikum, ed. Margret Dietrich (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1976), 11-95. For further discussion and citations, see my “Mozart’s Reception in Vienna, 1787-1791,” in Wolfgang Amadè Mozart: Essays on his Life and his Music, ed. Stanley Sadie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 66-117, esp.73ff., and notes 25 and 47.

[7] Mary Sue Morrow, Concert Life in Haydn’s Vienna: Aspects of a Developing Musical and Social Institution, Sociology of Music No. 7 (Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1989), p. 38, cited in On Mozart, p. 78.

[8] One can see these changes at a glance in the Spielplan included with Franz Hadamowsky, Die Wiener Hoftheater (Staatstheater), 1776-1966. Verzeichnis der aufgeführten Stücke mit Bestandsnachweis und täglichem Spielplan, i, 1776-1810 (Vienna: Georg Prachner Verlag, 1966).

[9] See the discussion of this point in my “Mozart’s Reception in Vienna,” p. 88.

[10] Otto Erich Deutsch, Mozart. Die Dokumente seines Lebens (Kassel, Basel, London, New York: Bärenreiter, 1961), p. 179. See also the table of payments for operas commissioned by the court theaters, in my “Mozart’s Fee for Così fan tutte,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 116 (1991): 211-35, Table 1. In their note 36, the Baumols imply that the payment for Entführung is not included in Moore’s table of Mozart’s income (in “Mozart in the Market-Place”), but the payment is in fact listed as the first entry for the year 1782, albeit incorrectly converted to 450 gulden, instead of 426 gulden 40 kreuzer.

[11] See the discussion of conversion rates for ducats in my “Mozart’s Fee for Così fan tutte,” p. 218.

[12] I discuss the cultural context of the last five years of Mozart’s life in my “Mozart’s Reception in Vienna.”

[13] See my “Mozart’s Fee for Così fan tutte,” Table 1, and the accompanying discussion.

[14] MBA, IV/65.

[15] Philipp Spitta, “Zur Herausgabe der Briefe Mozarts,” Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung 15 (1880), col. 401-5 and 417-21 (here 416).

[16] A-Gk, 40.600, from the Lannoy Sammlung. The parts are mostly in the hand of a “notorious Mozart copyist” (as the late Wolfgang Plath might have said). I intend to discuss these parts (and the notorious copyist) in a forthcoming study of Mozart’s Viennese copyists. [Added note, 2010: I discuss the parts for K. 550 in the Lannoy Sammlung in my Mozart's Viennese Copyists (Ph.D. diss., University of Southern California, 2010), chapter 6, pp. 583–602. [pdf]

[17] See Ulrich Konrad, Mozarts Schaffensweise. Studien zu den Werkautographen, Skizzen und Entwürfen (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992).

[18] Zaslaw, “Mozart as Working Stiff,” p. 110.

This is Part 2 of 4 parts.

Continue to Part 3.

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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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