Mozart the innovator
I should probably have my head examined, writing a refutation of a column by Norman Lebrecht. Lebrecht, you see, the prominent classical journalist, author of several books, sometimes radio interviewer and writer of the essential "Slipped Disc" blog, is a first-rate provocateur. There are few not-bads or pretty-goods in Lebrecht's world; everything either gets praised to the hilt or dragged through the mud. Yeah, like I should talk, but I couldn't hold a candle, or a shovel, next to him. No one in classical music better demonstrates how those who stake out the most extreme positions get the most attention — yet here I am, taking the bait. However, this time, Lebrecht has gone too far. If he wants to indulge in gossip, to breathlessly report the latest scandal, or to generally fly off into a royal snit (such as the fist-pounding tirade against America's "drug culture" I once witnessed), fine. But put down Mozart? Dem's fightin' words!
In the article in question, "The Mozart Delusion," Lebrecht hears in the 2006 Mozart 250th anniversary celebration echoes of Nazi Mozart-fests, chides "The Mozart Effect" and the industry that's grown up around this spurious finding (I'm with him big time on this point), and flings about words like "hysteria," "glut," and "humdrum mundanity" to describe the world's insistence on finding Mozart's music to be a constant joy. Again, that's Lebrecht for you, and anyone who has read him enough should know to just let these things go. As Yogi Berra might put it, if Norman Lebrecht doesn't want to listen to Mozart, no one's going to stop him.
Then Lebrecht goes and spoils the dishy fun with an anti-Mozart calumny that I can't let stand without reaction: the notion, as expressed by composer-conductor Pierre Boulez, that "Mozart was a regressive force who added nothing to the development of music," and further, that "Mozart pushed no musical form forward beyond existing borders." He didn't, eh? How about the piano concertos we're featuring this month on WFCR? Mozart didn't invent the concerto, but there were no works in the genre with anything like their scope and brilliance before Mozart's. Take the Concerto No. 9, "Jeunehomme," for instance (some videos are available if you search for them). Its first movement, with the soloist making a surprise early appearance, exhibits a level of interplay and thematic development far in advance of any that had come before it in a concerto. There's then the unprecedented emotional depth of the Andantino second movement, and the surprising twists and turns of tempo and mood in the amazing finale. Not for nothing did music scholar Alfred Einstein refer to Mozart's 9th Concerto as "Mozart's Eroica," meaning the work in which Mozart expanded a genre well beyond all previously set boundaries.
And that's just one example. How about the six string quartets that Mozart composed between 1782 and 1785, then published in a volume dedicated to his elder friend and string quartet master Joseph Haydn? Boulez and Lebrecht would tout Haydn as a superior composer to Mozart, and indeed, Haydn was a genius and great innovator. But Mozart's quartets plumb complex emotions that Haydn, for all his wit, never approached. As I was listening to one of them (the E-flat major, K. 428) in a concert last month, I wondered to myself how anyone, even Mozart, could think that such music was possible in what was a new and mostly lighthearted genre. Don't doubt for a moment that Haydn wondered at the same thing. What amazingly rich handling of the quartet texture! And don't get me started on the two great Mozart String Quintets, K. 515 & 516, which go even further into their well-nigh Schubertian explorations of the human condition. Humdrum mundanity, my foot!
OK, so much for words. The best refutation of Lebrecht's inflammatory nonsense comes every weekday at noon in our daily visits with Mozart, especially in this month's series of the piano concertos. Again to paraphrase Yogi, if we want to keep loving Mozart, nothing and no one's going to stop us.