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Adios, Amade?

img  Tobias

Mozart's 250th birthday is approaching. Armies of artists are rushing to the recording studios to participate in the release-frenzy, labels are putting out his complete works in boxes too heavy to carry on your own and festivals are announcing programs filled with music by the Austrian wonderboy. It seems as though the world is celebrating one of its biggest talents and some wonderful music as well - everybody's happy, everybody's cheering, right? Not really. Apart from Norwegian Black Metal Fanatics and stoic Avantgarde-solipsists, there is another person already feeling sick to the bone at the thought of yet another year of Mozart-mania (lest we forget: the whole thing already happened in 1991, which marked his 200th obit): His name is Norman Lebrecht, he writes a colum for the internet page, and he has written an article about it.

Lebrecht has a few problems with the upcoming Mozart-festivities: They will be uncritical, he argues, and offer little new insight into the man's life and work. They will be about money, not music. They will, despite claims to the contrary, not make this world a better place. Ok, you will say, that is all nice and well, but it's not like we didn't know that before. The same can be said about Christmas and Easter, and it would still seem as though these holidays have their raison d'etre - the mere fact that the industry has a hand in it does not exclude something from being without value (in fact, you couldn't even buy a CD any more). And for the celebrations being slightly superficial and euphemistic - well, it's the man's birthday, after all.

Still, Norman has two more important points to make. Firstly, that Mozart was a dislikeable fellow with emotional problems. And secondly, that his music was reactionary and didn't push the limits of art one bit. To prove his first point, Lebrecht sums up some facts from the man's life supposed to make us freeze in our love for little Wolfgang: Used to being pampered as a prodigy, he would "find pleasure in humiliating court rivals and crudely abuse them in letters back home". Also, he didn't know how to handle his finances properly, let alone his marriage.
The second point is of course even more spectacular. Lebrecht credits Bach and Händel with rejuvenating music after a lengthy period of artistic deadlock and Haydn with inventing the sonata form. Mozart, however, "merely filled the space between staves with chords that he knew would gratify a pampered audience". We should come to two conclusions, acording to the article: Mozart "was a provider of easy listening, a progenitor of Muzak". And: We should listen to the Leningrad Symphony instead, "to music that mattered".

Norman Lebrecht, the single critical voice amidst a choir of base flattery, probably believes his article to be witty and refreshing. Unfortunately, it is neither. When he remarks having been bored by "Mozart in New York" or reveals to be repulsed by the phenomenon of "Classic FM", these are simply personal matters of taste - which is fine, but has nothing to do with Mozart. Also, the fact that Amade was a strange guy, full of contradictions and even unsympathetic has no relations to the festivities. The same could be said about Hemingway, John McEnroe (excuse me for hinting at sports) and Wagner for that matter, but it is not his character that is to be celebrated, but his achievments. Which leads us to Lebrecht's main argument: That Mozart's music is not important enough historically to justify the adulations, because "the key test of any composer's importance is the extent to which he reshaped the art". I have too many problems with this sentence than I could put on this page, but I'll name two. Firstly, it still believes in the theory of big men - singular geniuses that single-handedly changed the world. This is naive - music is shaped by a lot of factors, quite a lot of them actually outside the control of the artist. And the word "invention" implies that history exists as a series of breaks, while in reality it is in perpetual flow and changes occur as a consequence of preceedings moments. Seen in this light, the importance of a composer lies more in playing a part in history's (and music's) unfolding than in directing its course by his or her own will.

And secondly, who was talking about "importance" in the first place. Mozart "matters" not because he was a revolutionary or because his chord structures were progressive or groundbreaking - indeed, quite a lot his talent may well have been directed at merely pleasing his audience. He matters, however, because 250 years after the day he was born, people still fall in love with his music and because his melodies and "oh-so-reactionary" chords move them deep inside. And you'd have to be a total cynic or a bad observer to put that down to "the industry" or "commerce". In truth, if "progress" were a value in itself, music would have to be abolished altogether.

Wolfang Amade Mozart deserves his year of celebrations.

Homepage: Norman Lebrecht at

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