Friday, January 27, 2006

I wish it were possible to let the day pass, but I don't think I can. It's Mozart's 250th birthday (everywhere except at the NYT—see below)


You can tell how far I've come from the days when I imagined I could make a living writing about music by the extent to which I've taken a pass on the Mozart anniversary. In case you haven't heard, today is Mozart's 250th birthday.

(Or, as they would make you say at The New York Times, "the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth"—because, you see, dead people don't have birthdays. In my short and fairly unhappy time writing for the daily paper, I used to run up against such goofy but unbendable rules frequently, with one copy editor in particular, who without hesitation unilaterally de-designated an event I had reviewed which was billed as a "150th Birthday Concert" for the composer Gabriel Fauré. I tell you it's an education, glimpsing the NYT from the inside.)

Ol' 2006, then, is a "Mozart year." For a writer, this should have made 2005 a "Mozart anniversary pitch year." It never occurred to me.

There's some irony here, in that I've never much objected to these round-number-anniversary commemorations. There are people who wax positively wroth regarding this practice of recognizing creative people on the basis of such arbitrary and non-merit-based criteria as the years in which they were born and died. To me it seems harmless enough, and it often affords a fresh look at figures whose reputations may have suffered undeserved neglect.

Of course Mozart's reputation hardly needs buffing. It would be fair to ask which year is not a Mozart year. For myself, I can't imagine a day into which Mozart isn't inextricably woven.

Now for the darker irony, which brings us closer to why I've brought up the subject in a basically political blog: For all the performances of Mozart's music with which we are currently inundated, most will be mediocre at best. An alarming lot of them won't even rise to that level.

There are all sorts of reasons, but the one that concerns me just now is the matter of what I'm forced to call "soul." You see, I have a theory that you can't perform Mozart successfully with a bad soul.

If you wanted to say that Mozart possessed the most stupendous creative imagination of which we have documentation, I couldn't quarrel. The body of work he produced in such a short time—he died 53 days short of his 36th birthday—defies description or any other form of explanation. But it's also a special kind of work.

I like to think that Mozart is always on your side, even at your side. The more downtrodden you are, the more he's there for you. When life is tough, his arm is around you, reassuring you that you can do it. I always think that Beethoven, by contrast, will surely feel your pain and wish you the best, but will be puzzled as to what ever made you think any of this was going to be easy.

At this very moment, for example, I happen to have come to the scene late in Act II of The Magic Flute—in a 1937 Stuttgart Radio performance—where the good-hearted but, alas, hopelessly lovelorn bird-catcher Papageno tries to commit suicide. "Good night, you false world," he sings finally, despairing of all rescue, until . . . well, if you don't know, don't let me spoil it for you. But by way of a hint: In Mozart's cosmos, it should go without saying that Papageno has to be saved.

Mozart, it seems to me, will forgive just about any failing except bad faith. And while it's possible that somewhere along the line a performance has slipped past me, my experience has been overwhelmingly that performers with compromised or even simply undeveloped souls can't "fake" Mozart. Given the times we live in, this accounts for most of the performers we're likely to encounter—not to mention the promoters and assorted other commercial exploiters.

If you want to hear some Mozart-worthy souls in action, here are a couple of off-the-top-of-my-head suggestions:

* In Universal Music's Trio series of gratifyingly modestly priced three-CD sets, there's a box of Mozart's six string quintets, some of his most glorious music, in some of the most ineffably beautiful performances of any music you're going to hear, by the great Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux and friends. To be precise, it's the expanded Grumiaux Trio. Grumiaux was one of the supremely great fiddlers, but he was part of that select number of great instrumentalists who really mean it when they say they love playing chamber music. He always did it, and in these performances he surrounded himself with players of comparable musical skills and comparably rich musical souls.

* Since I've already mentioned The Magic Flute, and in matters of soul enrichment it's Mozart's supreme legacy in that short time he was allowed, there's a 1964 DG recording with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Karl Boehm and a cast that ranges from fine to glorious: Roberta Peters as the Queen of the Night, Evelyn Lear as Pamina, Fritz Wunderlich as Tamino, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Papageno, Franz Crass as Sarastro, Hans Hotter as the Speaker. It was reissued in the "DG Originals" CD series.

And by all means take a look at the Ingmar Bergman film version of The Magic Flute. This is the rare case of Mozart being treated to a posthumous collaboration with a creative genius of a caliber the composer himself would recognize.

I don't know that Mozart has the power to save us, the way he saved Papageno. But if he can't, it won't be for want of trying.


In the matter of Papageno's would-be suicide, I originally considered making a point that I decided to let pass—wrongly, I think now. It concerns the manner in which Mozart and his librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder, managed to bring poor Papageno back from the brink. He is saved by a means that turns out always to have been at his disposal. What could be more Mozartean?

No one allowed himself more optimism than Mozart about the inner resources even the humblest of us may find if we dig down deep enough. As my prime exhibit, I offer one of his most remarkable pieces, composed for another of his "comic" characters, the second tenor Pedrillo in The Abduction from the Seraglio.

For most composers, Pedrillo would have been merely a comic foil. For Mozart, he represented a more available level of human identification than the first tenor, the romantic lead Belmonte. And so when Pedrillo has to screw up his courage to execute a crucial step in the rescue of the heroine, Constanze, Mozart provides him with the hilarious and yet incredibly touching and inspiring summons to battle "Frisch zum Kampfe."


At 11:36 AM, Blogger DownWithTyranny said...

Thanks so much for that, Ken; truly inspiring! And although the little I know about classical music I was lucky enough to have picked up from you over the decades, your blog today moved me to put on a Bruno Walter CD of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

Didn't you tell me a few weeks ago that you were mulling a piece about Franz Joseph Haydn that might cause some discomfort for creationist loons? And, really, isn't that a big part of what DWT is all about-- causing discomfort for right wingers incapable of critical thought?

At 12:47 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks for the kind words.

In fact that Bruno Walter disk—still in print in some form, I think, with a handful of great Mozart overtures and other short works along with Eine kleine Nachtmusik—is an excellent single-disk helping of Mozart with "good soul." Bruno Walter's lifelong adoration of Mozart came out in a radiantly beautiful way in those late (for him, that is) recordings.

And yes, I'm still trying to write about Haydn for the blog. The piece is tentatively titled: "No, the creationist goons can't have the penguin movie, and they can't have Franz Joseph Haydn either." The nice thing is that it's had me listening to a huge amount of Haydn—another immensely great spirit, by the way. I wound up ordering not one, but two complete sets of the 107 or so Haydn symphonies, and have started happily listening through the first to arrive.


At 6:55 AM, Blogger Iggy said...

Isn't it interesting that Mozart is not thought of as a religious composer, and yet the Coronation Mass is one of the most glorious Masses ever written? And possibly the greatest Requiem?

I never worked at the New York Times, but when I was a proofreader for an Advertising Agency, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage was the source of all the rules. So I am aware of the insane level of nitpicking.

At 7:39 AM, Blogger Marly Youmans said...

It must be a measure of the power of Mozart that downwithtyranny visited my e-castle. You're interesting on Mozart and performance and Bergman.

On the subject of Mozart not being "thought of as a religious composer," I must say that I was very surprised to find out how many writers and composers and musicians have reached for terms like "angelic" and "heavenly" and "the musical Christ" when attempting to describe Mozart's music...

At 2:06 PM, Blogger Aggro said...

Great stuff, I really enjoyed your take!

At 4:42 PM, Blogger Laura Lee Donoho said...

Thanks for your comments on my blog so I could read your's. Your post on Mozart is great.


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