Posted by: rbbadger | October 21, 2010

Too much Mozart makes you sick

The late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was well known for making provocative remarks.  He had great ambivalance to the works of Beethoven, at one time saying that the composer’s reputation was “based on gossip”.  As far as Mozart goes, Gould once said that Mozart was a composer who died too late rather than too soon.  He even produced a TV program for CBC on “How Mozart Became a Bad Composer”.  Gould is, perhaps, not for everybody.  But when he played music he liked, such as Bach or Schoenberg, he had a distinct talent for bringing out all sorts of things nobody else had.  He recorded all of Mozart’s sonatas.  These recordings are not reccommended for fans of Mozart’s.  Gould did not like a lot of composers whose works I treasure.  He had a marked disdain for Chopin and Schumann.  Apart from his transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies, Liszt was pretty much beyond the Gouldian pale.  Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff were abhorrent to Gould.   The English composer Frederick Delius considered the love of Mozart a sure sign of a bad musician.

Despite Gould’s and Delius’ disdain for the Salzburg-born composer, there have been composers who absolutely loved his music.  Chopin didn’t much like the music of other musicians of his time.  Despite his friendship with both Liszt and Berlioz, Chopin didn’t like much like the music of either man.  As far as Chopin was concerned, his two absolute favourites were Bach and Mozart.  Tchaikovsky was another who deeply loved every note which flowed from Mozart’s pen.  Tchaikovsky didn’t much care for Beethoven, but then neither did Chopin.   

It is well known that Pope Benedict XVI has a special love for Mozart.  As a theologian, he is not entirely alone in this.  Karl Barth, the great Swiss Protestant theologian once said that when the angels in heaven worship God, they play Bach.  But when they play amongst themselves, they play Mozart and even then God takes peasure in it.  Barth raised more than one highly placed set of Protestant eyebrows when he suggest that Mozart’s Krönungsmesse be performed at the service inagurating the World Council of Churches.  Apart from the participation of some Eastern Orthodox denominations, the WCC remains largely a Protestant, and what’s more a liberal Protestant organization.  The Krönungsmesse is, after all, the setting of the ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass.  Hans Küng, the prominent dissident theologian, gave lectures on Mozart in 1991 for the bicentennial of Mozart’s death in the form of a theological reflection.  (Hans Küng is a Catholic and taught Catholic theology at the University of Tübingen, Germany until his mandate to teach Catholic theology was revoked in 1980. He is still a Catholic, but he is not allowed to teach in Catholic theology in Catholic institutions or on Catholic faculties of state universities.)  Probably no theologian loved Mozart more than the late Hans Urs von Balthasar.  Von Balthasar is a hugely important figure in contemporary Catholic theological scholarship.  His writings have influenced generations of successive theologians including Pope Benedict XVI and many others.  When he was awarded the Wolfgang Amadé Mozart Prize of the city of Innsbruck, Austria von Balthasar said as follows:

”My youth was defined by music.  My piano teacher was an old lady who had been a pupil of Clara Schumann.  She introduced me to Romanticism.  As a student in Vienna, I delighted in the last of the Romantics – Wagner, Strauss, and especially Mahler.  That all came to an end once I had Mozart in my ears.  To this day he has never left those ears.  In later life Bach and Schubert remained precious to me, but it was Mozart who was the immovable Pole Star, round which the other two circled (the Great and Little Bears).”

In 2006, one could hardly escape Mozart’s music.  It was, after all, the bicenquinquagenary (250th anniversary) of Mozart’s birth.  However, not everyone was in a celebratory mood.  Norman Lebrecht, a respected music journalist wrote a provoactively-entitled essay entitled “Too Much Mozart Makes You Sick”.  You can read that one here.  Some of Lebrecht’s quotes sound positively something like what Gould might have written in a less sanguine mood.  Consider this one:

“Unlike Bach and Handel who inherited a dying legacy and vitalized it beyond recognition, unlike Haydn who invented the sonata form without which music would never have achieved its classical dimension, Mozart merely filled the space between the staves with chords that he knew would gratify a pampered audience.  He was a provider of easy listening, a progenitor of Muzak.”

Or this one:

“Little in such a mediocre life gives cause for celebration and little indeed was done to mark the centenary of his birth, in 1856, or of his death in 1891.  The bandwaggon of Mozart commemorations was invented by the Nazis in 1941 and fuelled by post-War rivalries in 1956 when Deutsche Grammophon rose from the ruins to beat the busy British labels, EMI and Decca, to a first recorded cycle of the Da Ponte operas.”

He wrote an earlier column in 2002 entitled “Why I’m Sick of Mozart” which you may read here.  While I still like Mozart very much, I could not listen to him every day.  I still believe that his mentor, Franz Joseph Haydn, has yet to be given his due.

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