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Sunday, September 10, 2023

Was Mozart the world's greatest achiever?

Mozart in a portrait dated to 1781, when he was 25. (Source). 

Today's blog post will be in honor of the fact that RAW loved classical music. 

On his blog, Tyler Cowen makes the case that Johann Sebastian Bach was the greatest achiever of all time: "I’ve been reading and rereading biographies of Bach lately (for some podcast prep), and it strikes me he might count as the greatest achiever of all time.  That is distinct from say regarding him as your favorite composer or artist of all time."

Tyler lists a variety of criteria in his argument, including quality of work, being better than contemporary rivals, staying power over the centuries, overcoming obstacles, and so on. (The whole post, not terribly long, is worth a read.) One of the criteria is "consistency of work and achievement," and that's certainly true. Like most people who are into Bach's music, I listen to a wide variety of music -- cantatas, keyboard pieces, concertos, pieces for solo organ, work for solo violin and on and on. It's all really good. 

I certainly don't want to diminish Bach in any way. But it still seems to me that one can make a case for Mozart, who seems at least as amazing as an overachiever. Perhaps I am influenced by the fact that I have lately been obsessed with Mozart's piano concertos and listening to them every day for days, but I think a good case can be made for Mozart.

Brilliant Classics has issued a complete box set of all of Bach's music. It comes to 155 CDs. But the Brilliant Classics boxed set of Mozart adds up to 170 CDs! 

Yes, Mozart's early music, written when he was a child, is not not as interesting as his later work, and the music that is played the most was written late in his life. For example, among the 27 piano concertos, the last eight are the ones that are most often played, and recorded over and over again.

But consider also, that Bach lived to be 65, and Mozart wrote more music despite living to be only 35! 

And if you compare works written while an adult, the consistency of quality for Mozart is very good. 

Bach got to live 30 more years than Mozart. During the time he was alive, Mozart wrote furiously.   In 1788, Mozart completed the famous last three symphonies, 39, 40 and 41, and 1788 also included Piano Sonata Number 15, Piano Concerto No. 26, Piano Trio No. 4, Piano Sonata No. 16, Violin Sonata No. 36, Piano Trio No. 5, Divertimento in E-flat and Piano Trio No. 6. 1791, the year Mozart died in early December, obviously was not his best year, but it still included two operas, the last piano concerto, a clarinet concerto, much of the Requiem and many other works.

If you listen to classical music radio stations, you'll notice Mozart as the composer who is probably played the most, fulfilling the same role that Led Zeppelin plays for classic rock stations. 

It is painful to think about what Mozart could have written if he had just five more years and lived to age 40. It is mind boggling to think about Mozart living into his 60s, like Bach, or even making it to age 56, like Beethoven. 


Eric Wagner said...

I love the last eleven Mozart piano concerti more and more.

Lvx15 said...

I’m a fan of No. 20 for sure