Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Celebrating Mozart's birthday

I didn't realize that Monday was Mozart's birthday until Eric Wagner wished me (and the rest of y'all) a "Happy Mozart's birthday" in the comments for the day's post.

I pulled out an MP3 player, hooked it up to the stereo, and listened to two of my favorite pieces: The piano concerto No. 24 (featuring Murray Perahia in the version I picked) and the piano quartet in G Minor (with Peter Serkin and the Yale String Quartet). I did my best to listen to them without "doing" anything. Reading Oz Fritz has helped remind me that's OK.

I doubt that either piece, certainly not the piano quartet, would make it on a "greatest hits" Mozart album. One of the most remarkable facts about Mozart's output is how great much of it was, not just the most familiar and the most played pieces.

This was a point also made by Andrew Ross in his collection of music essays, Listen to This. The chapter on Mozart records how Ross took a 180 CD recording of Mozart's complete works on the Phillips label and transferred it to his iPod (9.77 gigabytes at the "minimum listenable bitrate," which unfortunately Ross doesn't specify) and then listened to all of it from beginning to end. "From the start, the music is astonishingly well made," Ross reports.

I don't have the financial wherewithal to own the complete works (and I don't know how I would find time, anyway, to listen to all of it if I did) but like any other classical music buff, I own a lot of Mozart. (Amazon makes it easy to do this; I own two very cheap, large Mozart collections, the Bach Guild's "Big Mozart Box"  and a set called "Mozart — 100 Supreme Classical Masterpieces," put out by a Swedish music label that has pioneered making big, cheap music collections available on the Internet.)

The other day, I was reading an online biography of Jimi Hendrix, and I focused on the astonishment of many listeners when they heard him perform for the first time. Mozart seems to have had a similar impact upon listeners. (Robert Anton Wilson writes about this in the Historical Illuminatus trilogy,where Mozart appears as a character.) Both men died young, robbing posterity of a great deal of music.  (For Oz Fritz's thoughts on rock's top guitarists — he ranks Hendrix No. 1 — go here.)  Hendrix was only 27 when he died and it's painful to speculate on where his talents would have taken him. Mozart made it to age 35. Many of his best works were composed late in life and his last year was a good one; it's frustrating to wonder what else we'd have if he had a few more years.

I can't give a citation because I can't remember the book where I read it, but I came across a passage years ago about two famous musicians discussing composers. One asked the other who his favorite was, and he replied, Beethoven. The other said, "I thought you were going to say Mozart." "Oh, I thought you meant besides Mozart," replied the first.

Michael Walsh, in his Who's Afraid of Classical Music?, wrote, "Mozart was the greatest composer who ever lived, and who probably will live."

Rankings of the best composer are ultimately a little silly and undoubtedly subjective. If I were pushed, I'd probably go with Beethoven. But the statements about Mozart seem less silly after carefully listening to much of his music.

3 comments:

Eric Wagner said...

Faure! No, I guess I wouldn't say that really; I just have his first Violin Sontata on right now, which I consider one the most magical pieces ever. Great post, as usual. I plan to listen to more Mozart this weekend. I listened to part of a piano concerto this morning (I think K595, #27). I plan to listen to two recordings of #23, K488, this weekend because a friend just mentioned that concerto to me. I personally like #25, K503, best, largely because I love the book on it edited by Joseph Kerman. About 20 years ago I saw that book in a Tower Records. (I miss Tower.) My local libraries didn't have the book, and I couldn't afford to buy it. It has come to symbolize for me all my bad decisions about money over the decades. After I moved to California I got a copy from a library here and read it twice.

I remember reading a great article in Contemporary Keyboard magazine around 1980 called "How to Play the Name That Composer Musical Intimidation Game." It jokingly referred to Mozart as the "Greatest Musical G.O.A.T" (Genius of All Time). Interestingly, Mozart's reputation sagged in the nineteenth century. People considered him too frivolous during the canonical reign of the Three B's (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms). Richard Strauss helped to elevate Mozart's reputation, and Mozart's reputation seemed to peak in the 1980's with the play and movie Amadeus and the pop song of the same name.

I find it interesting that Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky both saw J. S. Bach as the great composer.

CrypticMusic said...

When I was studying at university, being a saxophonist I didn't get much opportunity to play any Mozart. We had a lot of Bach transcriptions, a bit of Beethoven, but mostly 20th C. repertoire. Yet I consistently heard from the piano students that Mozart was incredibly difficult to play -- not in the same way that a Bach 4-part fugue is difficult, or like a dense and pounding Beethoven sonata, but difficult to achieve the right level of clarity. Mozart's music can appear light, and pretty, and even frivolous, but not a single note is out of place, and if you play a wrong note it jumps out at you immediately.

Modern composers tend to cite Bach and Stravinsky as major influences, but it would be nice to hear Mozart touted as an indispensable model again. It could inject some much needed clarity into our over-stimulated internet life.

Oz Fritz said...

Thanks for the shout out, Tom!

I enjoy these posts and comments on classical music; find them helpful and educational for my classically challenged music listening repertoire.