17 October 2010

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

This is part 3 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. This is its first publication.  See also Parts 1, 2, and 4.



Christoph Wolff’s essay deals with Mozart’s fragments: those works that exist in partially completed full scores written in Mozart’s “public” composing hand (“sketches,” in contrast, are generally private documents, written in a spidery hand that Mozart did not intend to be readily legible to anyone other than himself, which he used for working out melodic continuity, contrapuntal elaborations, and the like).[19]

Wolff, echoing Zaslaw, writes that some may consider it “blasphemy” to claim that Mozart worked hard at composing. Even so, he continues to maintain that Mozart “conceived and shaped” all his music in his head (Wolff’s essay does not take into account Konrad’s book on Mozart’s sketches, although that book appeared in 1992, two years before On Mozart). Wolff divides Mozart’s fragments into four types: those with a single line (melody) notated on a fully laid-out score; those with upper voice and bass line; those with upper voice, basso and some transitional passages; and those with all parts written out in full.[20] Wolff’s article breaks little new ground, but is a good, succinct introduction to the topic of Mozart’s fragments. It is worth noting that Wolff’s chapter (the sixth) is the first in On Mozart to include musical examples (p. 116) and facsimiles.

Maynard Solomon’s essay on Mozart’s sister, “Marianne Mozart: ‘Carissima sorella mia’,” appears in essentially unaltered form as Chapter 26 of his recent Mozart biography.[21] There, it is deeply embedded in a densely woven web of narrative, whose principal antagonist is a heavily demonized Leopold, whom Solomon alleges to have secreted away a small fortune that he declined, even in death, to share with his wayward son. This is not the place for a detailed critique of Solomon’s biography. Suffice it to say that the chapter published here is representative of Solomon’s work in general. He is a vivid writer who is deeply engaged with his topic. He is highly attuned to distant and non-obvious resonances in the language of the Mozart family letters, and he has a gift for thinking critically about sources and documents (a gift that, alas, he does not often bring to bear on his own writing). What would perhaps make an engaging historical novel, however, does not necessarily make good history. Solomon’s essay here, and his Mozart biography as a whole, are to my mind vitiated by the same flaws of method and argumentation that seem to me pervasive in his work: the creation of densely woven structures of fragmentary quotations, often wrenched out of context and taken wildly out of chronological sequence, and inserted into a predetermined narrative built on allusion and innuendo which, at the next stage of the story, become taken as fact (Leopold’s reputed “fortune” being a prime example).

Joseph Kerman is the grand patriarch of English-language musicology, so I am delighted to be able to pounce with unseemly glee upon two errors on the second page of his essay, “Mozart’s piano concertos and their audiences.” The first is admittedly nit-picking: Referring to Le nozze di Figaro, Kerman writes: “At the end of the 1785-86 season, Mozart finally succeeded in having an opera produced, only his second in Vienna” (p. 152). Figaro, which had its première on 1 May 1786, was the first new production of the 1786-87 season, not one of the last of the 1785-86 season. Until the early 1790s, theatrical seasons in Vienna ran from Easter until the end of Lent (this occasionally varied, but the dividing line always fell in Lent or around Easter). In 1786, Easter fell on 16 April.

The second error is more significant, given that Kerman’s topic is concertos. He writes: “Before Mozart’s time, concertos seldom figured in Viennese public concerts; regular concerts featuring concertos seem to have started with him” (p. 152). This statement as it stands is absurd. Concertos figured prominently in virtually every Viennese concert, public or otherwise, from at least the mid-1750s onwards (little is currently known about concerts in Vienna before 1755). Hundreds of concerts are documented, for example, in Philipp Gumpenhuber’s chronicles of the court theaters for 1758 and 1761-63.[22] Almost every one of these concerts (many of which were public or semi-public subscription concerts) included at least one and often more than one concerto.

Kerman’s reference here is to a passage from H. C. Robbins Landon’s Mozart: the Golden Years. Landon is referring, in turn, to Mozart’s intentions regarding the forthcoming concerts of the Viennese Tonkünstler-Societät on 1 and 3 April 1781. What Landon actually writes is this:
[Mozart] intended to play his Variations on ‘Je suis Lindor’ [‘Son Lindoro’] from Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (K. 354), improvise a fugue beforehand, and play a piano concerto (something of a novelty for Vienna).[23]
Now, it is perfectly true that piano concertos (and keyboard concertos in general) were something of a novelty in Viennese public concerts in the eighteenth century, although they were not unknown. Johann Baptist Schmid twice performed a piano concerto in the Burgtheater in 1763 (on 6 March and 13 May), and a dozen or so public performances of keyboard concertos (including harpsichord and organ) can be documented in Vienna between mid-century and Mozart’s arrival there.[24] However, the great majority of keyboard concertos composed in Vienna before Mozart’s arrival—the hundreds of such concertos by such composers as Wenzel Birck, Georg Christoph Wagenseil, Leopold Hofmann, and others—were mainly intended for intimate private performances, often by imperial or aristocratic children and women. So Mozart’s public performances of piano concertos, with their (as Christoph Wolff points out in his essay) innovative operatic instrumentation, were indeed a novelty in Vienna in the early 1780s. They were not, however, the kind of novelty Kerman says they were.

Parenthetically, it should be noted that Landon doesn’t get it right either. Landon is paraphrasing a letter Wolfgang wrote to Leopold on 24 March 1781. In Landon’s reading, the letter is a description of Mozart’s thoughts about what he would like to do (presumably at the Tonkünstler-Societät concert of 1 April). But in fact, Mozart is talking about what he would have done at the Tonkünstler-Societät concert on 13 March 1781, had the Archbishop not prevented him from performing in it. What Mozart actually writes (entirely in the perfect subjunctive) is this:
—I would have played not a concerto, but rather (because the emperor is in the proscenium box) entirely alone (the Countess Thun would have given me her beautiful Stein pianoforte for this) preluded, played a fugue and then the variations “Je suis Lindor.” Whenever I’ve done this in public, I have received the greatest applause.[25]
And indeed, when Mozart had a chance to perform in the Tonkünstler-Societät’s concert of 1 April, he played solo. He did not play a concerto. The moral of this digression? Always go back to primary sources. Particularly when it counts.

In spite of the errors, Kerman’s view of Mozart’s piano concertos is thought-provoking, and firmly grounded in the music, as one would expect from the chief advocate of and apologist for a “critical” musicology. His approach is to read the concertos in “the nexus of social occasions represented by Mozart’s academies, involving just that audience and just this composer-performer, and these musical texts, all at a particular time and place” (p. 152). I’m all for this. However, I’m not entirely convinced that Kerman has a nuanced grasp of this nexus. Next to nothing is said about the audiences, even though this aspect has received a great deal of attention in recent writings about Viennese musical and theatrical life in the late eighteenth century.

In Kerman’s view, Mozart’s concertos are better seen as dialogues, than as struggles between soloist and orchestra, and he is clearly right. He sees the progression of the three movements in Mozart’s concertos as making basically a comic trajectory, from conflict to “happy ending,” and this is also persuasive. He takes as a test case the most atypical of Mozart’s mature concertos, the Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491, the last of the “uninterrupted” series of a dozen concertos composed between 1782 until 1786 (“uninterrupted” in the sense that Mozart wrote several new concertos for every concert season from 1783 to 1786). I am not convinced that Kerman has completely escaped the heavily romanticized view of K. 491 that we’ve inherited from the nineteenth century, but his reading of the work is nonetheless a stimulating one.


Notes

[19] Wolff’s essay synthesizes the content of two articles by him that have been published in German: “Musikalische Gedanken und thematische Substanz: Analytische Aspekte der Mozart-Fragmente,” Mozart-Jahrbuch (1991): 922-29; and “Vollendet und fragmentarisch: Über Mozarts Schaffen der letzten Lebensjahre,” in Thomas Albert and Gisela Jaacks, eds. Jahrbuch für Alte Musik (Wilhelmshaven, 1992), vol. 2, pp. 61-87.

[20] Wolff’s article in the Mozart-Jahrbuch lists three additional minor types of fragment.

[21] Maynard Solomon, Mozart: A Life (London: Hutchinson, 1995).

[22] On Gumpenhuber, see Bruce Alan Brown, Gluck and the French Theatre in Vienna (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), esp. chpt. 4, and my review [pdf] of Mary Sue Morrow, Concert Life in Haydn’s Vienna, Haydn Yearbook 17 (1992): 108-166, esp. 113-114, and note 13.

[23] H. C. Robbins Landon, Mozart: The Golden Years, 1781-1791 (New York: Schirmer Books, 1989), p. 52.

[24] On Schmid’s two performances, see Brown, Gluck, pp. 141-2.

[25] MBA, III/99. “—ich hätte kein Concert, sondern |: weil der kayser in der Proscen loge ist :| ganz allein |: die gräfin thun hätte mir ihr schönes steiner=Pianforte darzu gegeben :| Preludirt, eine fuge—und dann die variationen je suis lindor gespiellt.—wo ich noch das öfenlich [sic] gemacht habe, habe ich den grösten beyfall erhalten...” My translation. Emily Anderson attempts to improve the readability of Mozart’s prose by placing the second parenthetical insertion at the end of the sentence.


This is Part 3 of 4 parts.

Continue to Part 4.

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

2 comments:

  1. Solomon's account of how Leopold's alleged fortune was unequally divided between his two children is marred by ignorance of the legal procedures in the 18th century. Solomon's totally unproven hypothesis that prior to his death Leopold Mozart secretly gave his daughter 6,000 to 10,000 Gulden in cash (thereby cheating his son out of his rightful inheritance), is based on the assumption that we can estimate Nannerl's assets from what she inherited from her husband in 1801 and what she herself left to her daughter in 1829. But Solomon falls victim to two errors:

    a) When Johann Baptist Berchtold von Sonnenburg died on 22 February 1801 (Solomon gives the wrong year 1803), he left a fortune of 28,000 Gulden. He assigned a fund to be set aside that would yield his children a yearly pension of 300 Gulden, the fund proper being designated to fall to the children after their mother's death. Unable to understand Berchtold von Sonnenburg's provisions, Solomon writes "She probably received such a small bequest[sic!] from her husband, because he knew that she had already been well provided for by her late father." (my translation from the German edition). Solomon's calculation is untenable. To earn 300 Gulden profit per year at 5% (the average interest rate at that time), the pension fund for the children had to be 6,000 Gulden. This amount belonged to the children and was not to be touched by the widow. But she never needed this money anyway, because she inherited the remaining amount of 22,000 Gulden.
    b) The fact that Maria Anna Freifrau von Berchtold von Sonnenburg in 1829 left 6,920 Gulden (in bonds and cash) to her son is (in combination with the above misunderstanding) taken as evidence by Solomon, that there must have been a second source of money apart from the bequest of Nannerl's husband, i.e. a secret bestowal from Leopold. But apart from the fact that the currency of 1829 can never be compared to the Gulden of 1801, the amount left by Nannerl in 1829 fits perfectly into the scenario.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Solomon's account of how Leopold's alleged fortune was unequally divided between his two children is marred by ignorance of the legal procedures in the 18th century. Solomon's totally unproven hypothesis that prior to his death Leopold Mozart secretly gave his daughter 6,000 to 10,000 Gulden in cash (thereby cheating his son out of his rightful inheritance), is based on the assumption that we can estimate Nannerl's assets from what she inherited from her husband in 1801 and what she herself left to her daughter in 1829. But Solomon falls victim to two errors:

    a) When Johann Baptist Berchtold von Sonnenburg died on 22 February 1801 (Solomon gives the wrong year 1803), he left a fortune of 28,000 Gulden. He assigned a fund to be set aside that would yield his children a yearly pension of 300 Gulden, the fund proper being designated to fall to the children after their mother's death. Unable to understand Berchtold von Sonnenburg's provisions, Solomon writes "She probably received such a small bequest[sic!] from her husband, because he knew that she had already been well provided for by her late father." (my translation from the German edition). Solomon's calculation is untenable. To earn 300 Gulden profit per year at 5% (the average interest rate at that time), the pension fund for the children had to be 6,000 Gulden. This amount belonged to the children and was not to be touched by the widow. But she never needed this money anyway, because she inherited the remaining amount of 22,000 Gulden.
    b) The fact that Maria Anna Freifrau von Berchtold von Sonnenburg in 1829 left 6,920 Gulden (in bonds and cash) to her son is (in combination with the above misunderstanding) taken as evidence by Solomon, that there must have been a second source of money apart from the bequest of Nannerl's husband, i.e. a secret bestowal from Leopold. But apart from the fact that the currency of 1829 can never be compared to the Gulden of 1801, the amount left by Nannerl in 1829 fits perfectly into the scenario.

    ReplyDelete