18 October 2010

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

This is fourth and final part 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 3.

Wye J. Allanbrook is justly celebrated for her brilliant and subtle readings of Mozart’s mature operas in light of their rhythmic and musical topics (or topoi).[26] In recent years she has turned her attention increasingly to his instrumental music. Her essay here, “Mozart’s tunes and the comedy of closure,” opens with a critique of the “dark and troubled” Mozart that, in her view, is a legacy of the romanticized Mozart of the nineteenth century. This Mozart survives in the guise of a “subversive” in recent writings by authors such as Rose Rosengard Subotnik and Susan McClary. Allanbrook writes:
The musical result of the pursuit of the Gloomy Mozart is an agenda that shapes a dangerous misconception of the conventions of the Classic style—a presumption that these conventions have somehow been imposed from without, by the enlightenment’s musical thought police, and that it is intellectual progress to grow away from them, even if in the process the individual becomes divided against himself. (p. 172).
This is surely right (although one wonders just how “dangerous” these misconceptions are; perhaps the rhetoric is a bit overheated). What may in hindsight seem like stifling conventions were continuously and dynamically forming and reforming in the eighteenth century. As Allanbrook points out, the prevalence of major keys in the late eighteenth-century was actually a novelty (compared, say, with J. S. Bach), and sonata form, far from being a formal straightjacket, was “a gradually emerging compositional process” (p. 175).

Like Kerman, Allanbrook stresses the close kinship between Mozart’s instrumental music and comedy (“commedia”). She makes one of the more insightful observations in the entire book in noting that Mozart’s “brilliant surface variety,” which is sometimes seen as betokening a lack of unity, is precisely what he was aiming at: for unity, Allanbrook reminds us, is a characteristic of tragedy, whereas “commedia” strove to be a speculum mundi, a reflection of the world’s teeming diversity.

Allanbrook closes with a discussion of a favorite topos of Mozart’s, a particular kind of tune (she calls it the tune “that sprouts from the top”) that acts as a sign of closure. She discusses several examples, such as the new tune in the coda of the first movement of the String Quartet in C, K. 465. To me, this section of her essay reads rather like a disconnected string of examples, with Allanbrook pointing and saying “see what I mean?” (or rather “hear what I mean?”). This section of the essay may betray its roots as a spoken presentation for a non-specialist audience. I’m not convinced that it works quite as well in print.

Historian Michael P. Steinberg’s essay, “Don Giovanni against the baroque, or The culture punished,” provides a superb example of the romantic, gloomy and subversive Mozart that Allanbrook has just cautioned us against. He begins with a meditation on Mörike’s Mozart auf der Reise nach Prag, which, in Steinberg’s reading, makes of Mozart’s journey to Prague for the première of Don Giovanni an emblem for the composer’s spiritual journey “from courtly elegance to metaphysical mystery” (p. 187). Steinberg, on the other hand, would like to see Don Giovanni in contexts that are specific, historical and political:
Mozart’s journey to Prague was a journey to a theater free of imperial control, to a place where he could look back on Habsburg culture and, with the opening chords of Don Giovanni, hurl modernist thunder at Habsburg society. (p. 190)
Well, perhaps. But the theaters in Prague were hardly “free of imperial control,” and the notion that Don Giovanni “was a hit in Prague in a way that it was not...in Vienna” (where, by implication, it was seen as pro-Bohemian and slightly subversive) is at least questionable. Almost nothing is known about the reception of Don Giovanni in Vienna in 1788, apart from the number of performances there (a statistic which, as I have tried to show elsewhere, is only weakly correlated with popularity in late eighteenth-century Vienna),[27] and an anecdote in the memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Much of the rest of Steinberg’s essay considers Don Giovanni in the light of Joseph Losey’s 1979 film of the opera, which Steinberg regards very highly (making an amusing contrast with Stanley Kauffmann, who finds it very weak). In Steinberg’s view, the Don represents the rebellion of the modern individual, asserting his power against the stifling embrace of conventional “baroque” authority. In the end, Steinberg’s essay reads more like a conceptual outline for a staging of Don Giovanni than an interpretation of the opera in its historical particularity.

From a purely personal point of view, my favorite essay is probably Leon Botstein’s on the fin-de-siècle Mozart revival,[28] perhaps because it contains much fascinating material that was entirely new to me. Among other things, Botstein traces the place of Mozart in the development of historicist taste:
...the fin de siècle rediscovery of Mozart represented the use of the past by the audience not on behalf of the present but against it....the fin de siècle Mozart revival marked the beginning of a twentieth-century process of domination of the concert repertoire by the past to the exclusion of contemporary music. (p. 218)
Botstein notes that Mozart becomes, in this opposition, the symbol of the “naive” representative of the pure, the heavenly and the perfect, in contrast to Beethoven’s worldly “sentiment.”

On Mozart closes with Stanley Kauffmann’s critique of three films of three different Mozart operas. He begins with perceptive comments on the general “problem” of opera on film. In Kauffmann’s view, filmed opera attempts to marry two mutually contradictory sets of conventions: for film tends by the nature of the medium towards realism, and opera tends away from it. Thus, there is no recipe for a successful film of an opera. As Kauffmann explains: “Every film of an opera needs to write its own contract with the audience” (p. 228). Ingmar Bergman’s 1972 film of The Magic Flute faces this problem by establishing an entirely new kind of contract: Bergman films a theatrical production that was created solely for the film (and staged in a “Drottningholm” theater that was partly replicated in the studio), providing us with an on-screen audience, whose perception of the opera is contrasted with glimpses from backstage.

Joseph Losey, on the other hand, seems to want his audience to forget that Don Giovanni is an opera: his film is shot on location in Palladian villas around Vicenza. For Kauffmann (in contrast to Michael Steinberg), this simply doesn’t work:
So unhappily do opera and film collide in this Giovanni that we often ask ourselves why these actors are singing, a question that in itself points to the enterprise’s lack of success. (p. 233)
This is similar to my reaction on first seeing the film of West Side Story: I was only too acutely aware that people do not normally dance and sing in the streets of New York (at least not in the way they do in the film). What works beautifully in the “unreality” of the theater often seems peculiar in the “reality” of location filming.

Kauffmann’s view of Peter Sellars’s Figaro is surprisingly positive, in spite of some reservations: I say surprisingly, because Sellars’s stagings are still often seen as the self-conscious attempts of a post-modern enfant terrible to shock his audience or to thumb his nose at them. However, Kauffmann finds, as I do, that Sellar’s Figaro, in particular among his Mozart stagings, has richly nuanced characterizations of a kind that one sees all too seldom in opera, filmed or otherwise.[29] Kauffmann also makes the telling point that as a film-maker Sellars is in no way radical.

On Mozart seems neither fish nor fowl. It is not really a work of scholarship, although there is much scholarship in it. But most individual topics are better served elsewhere. I would consider assigning only perhaps the essays by Zaslaw, Botstein, and Allanbrook to my students, although I would also include Kauffmann’s fine succinct treatment of filmed opera were I showing such films to my class. Nor would the book be my first recommendation for the educated Mozart lover, as it is, by turns, too narrowly technical, too intellectually abstruse, and sometimes simply too inaccurate. Perhaps, to extend Kauffmann’s point, the genres of “lay symposia” and “scholarly book” are inherently at odds with one another.

Still, there is much food for thought in almost all of these essays, as one would expect given intellectuals of this high calibre, and most of the essays are clearly and engagingly written. Facts may occasionally fall by the wayside, and the non-specialists may make their share of music-historical blunders. One of the book’s greatest strengths, though, is its presentation of radically contrasting points of view. It is salutary for lay audiences and scholars alike to be reminded that “Mozart” is not a fragile cultural icon, but a hotly contested piece of cultural property.


[26] See esp. Wye J. Allanbrook, Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983). [Addendum 2010: Allanbrook died this past 15 July at the age of 67.]

[27] See my “Mozart’s Reception in Vienna.”

[28] Chpt. 11, “Nineteenth-century Mozart: the fin de siècle Mozart revival.”

[29] [New note, 2010: See my 2007 review of Peter Sellars' Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy here.]

This is Part 4 of 4 parts.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment