Habits of Classical Sentimentality Hard to Break

If I were to ask you which composer from history seemed to embody emotional uncertainty in his music, what names would spring to mind? Mahler, maybe? Bartok? Dallapiccola?

I was initially heartened by Nicholas Kenyon’s article in the Times demythologizing Mozart. Not that I have anything against Mozart – quite the contrary. In fact, I’ve long been interested in saving the guy from his father’s slanderous picture of him as an eternal idiot child, someone who wrote heavenly music without effort. Mozart HATED that image of himself. Leopold Mozart created it as a way of controlling him, and it gained ground because Leopold’s letters happened to get published just after Mozart died, when Europe was suddenly interested and trying to get a grasp of who this Mozart fellow was. Kenyon provides several humanizing correctives:

Not until Wolfgang Plath studied the handwriting in the autograph scores did we realize quite how much of the early works was written down (or edited? or half-composed?) by Mozart’s father, Leopold. Much is made of Mozart’s admission to the famous Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna when he was 14, but the documents that survive show that his entrance composition was heavily corrected.

Mozart himself claimed that his music arose not by divine inspiration, but through hard work and study. Kenyon further claims that Mozart was not as good a composer at 15 as Mendelssohn would later be, and he’s right: I have yet to find any music Wolfgang wrote before age 19 that I felt I needed to hear again. The Mozart myth, I’ve always felt, was 1. a condescending image created by his father, and 2. a distant, divine image intended to make all future composers feel inferior, and to reinforce a public feeling that musical genius is something distant and fated, not something we should ever expect to meet up with on a daily basis.

But ultimately even Kenyon can’t resist perpetuating the myth. He ends his article:

[A]s we approach the next anniversary period, 2006 to 2041, there is no sign that Mozart has lost his relevance among composers. He still matches with uncanny precision the temper of our troubled times: our emotional uncertainty, our ability to perceive serenity fleetingly but never to attain it.

Does this sound right to you? Is there something about living in the age of iPods, terrorism, and corporate dictatorship that makes Mozart now more relevant than ever? Does Don Giovanni embody a cautionary tale that young people of the 21st century need to hear? Does The Magic Flute provide insight into Republican deceptiveness? Does Mozart’s music contain anything that we, today, would understand as emotional uncertainty, the troubled temper of our times, or the fleeting quality of serenity? Or do our classical mavens just feel an overwhelming need to reinforce the status quo, by recentering our musical life on a distant figure with whose music we have pretty much lost any capacity for real intellectual and emotional engagement? Isn’t the real significance of Mozart’s music today that his is the easiest for the classical music industry to turn into a commodity and sell?