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.