Questioning The Idols of Western Musical Culture Josef Haydn, W.A. Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven musical revisionism
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Josef Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven
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  • Title'The Manufacture of Mozart - Preface'
  • Body:

    The publication of this book on W.A. Mozart (one of the most celebrated, most widely performed and most eulogised figures of western culture) is to some extent a criticism of western musical history - at least as we know it. Certainly of the version that has been published, taught and believed across Western Europe and beyond for almost 200 years since Mozart has always viewed as an integral part of western musical history. Although he, in academic terms, has only rarely been subjected to detailed criticism in either the musical or biographical sense. He has always been described, virtually from the outset, as a virtual paradigm. A cultural ‘fait accompli‘, in fact. A transcendental figure. A phenomenon larger than life - who appears to float like a giant bubble over the musical and cultural landscape of all of western Europe and so prominently within our lives we can hardly imagine a time when he did not do so. The fascinating colours of his endlessly fascinating bubble seem designed to appeal to young and old, musicians and non-musicians alike and they may change from time to time as may its size. Like all myths, the Mozart story constantly changes. With new aspects of his life and career given prominence from time to time. And the extent of public interest never wavers, whether the event in question is the highly publicised sale of a musical manuscript in his handwriting or the results of a DNA test taken on the remains of his alleged skull. At face value, the cultural phenomenon that is Mozart seems no more harmful to musicology and to our western culture than the appearance of a rainbow or a snowflake. Though Mozart is musical consumption personified, deified and incorporated in to our lives as a permanent and welcome fixture of western civilization. Indeed, the status we give to Mozart and his music is designed to give every appearance of being a natural, justifiable and indisputable reality. It is here, we learn to believe, that the life and legacy of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is one of the great pinnacles of musical achievement and is one of the most outstanding examples of western culture. His works ranking in musical value alongside the plays of William Shakespeare, the writings of Wolfgang Goethe and of the works of other elite heroes of our western civilization. The number of musical composers who have been similarly immortalised by our secularised society are surprisingly small and include names of such ‘greats’ as Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), G.F. Handel (1685-1759), J.S. Bach (1685-1750), Josef Haydn (1732-1809) and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). We may even amuse ourselves taking part in opinion polls on the question of whose music is the ‘greatest’. Search, if you will, musical libraries for any literature which calls in to question the accepted details of Mozart’s life, his career, or his alleged musical achievements and you will leave empty handed. You will find instead endless eulogies, countless examples of dubious attribution and a mass of published statements made by experts united in their almost unanimous belief in his all encompassing genius. The western academic world has never claimed impartiality in its near unanimous description of Mozart and has, in his particular case, surrendered, unashamedly, its critical faculties. The approved outlines that form the narrative of Mozart’s life and musical legacy have had, in combination, the desired result. So that what is consumed by generations as historical fact and biographical reality, though able to be proved corrupt at the time it was first written tends to be forgiven and is accepted wholesale by adoring millions in the name of culture and of musicology -


    ‘Thus died Mozart, perhaps the greatest genius in recorded history. We feel no qualms in using this sentimental cliché’.


    (Wolfgang Hildesheimer - Biography ‘Mozart’ p.366 - publ. J.M. Dent, 1983 - original in German).

    Where, we may ask, could criticism of Mozart begin ? To answer this important and long overdue question (and to counter claims that this work is irresponsible or misguided) I recommend from the outset that you obtain a number of biographies, reference works, journal articles and other publications dealing with Mozart’s life and career and read them. So you are able to check/verify their contents in comparison to this rare and critical study. That would be a responsible and entirely sensible thing. May I suggest you also obtain contact details of those employed in leading centres of musicological study, including those active in Mozart research. So readers of these pages can form a fair and honest verdict, having, at last, heard both sides of the story.

    We may approach our study of Mozart even more thoroughly. By visiting a special gallery. A musical gallery, in fact. One to be found in almost any good reference library. Where you will find works such as the 29 Volume, ‘New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians’ (or its literary equivalent in the Italian, French, Spanish or German languages). The Grove dictionary contains biographical details of thousands of composers who have lived over the last 8 centuries or so. (Around half of all western composers known to have written music over those centuries, in fact). And if German is more interesting or accessible to you may I recommend the 27 Volumes of the ‘GGM’, (‘Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart’), no less than 17 of which deal with the lives and careers of individual composers. It features contributions by almost 2,000 acknowledged experts. With 10 more of its volumes dealing with music down the ages and other aspects of music making). Speaking of these kinds of publication, should you be blessed with great material resources you might even consider leaving a copy of them for each and every student of Mozart, and each and every Mozart associated musicologist. So that music and its history can always be grounded within the context of its own times. Since these two works and others like them provide biographies and musical details of most western composers together with a list of their individual achievements. So, when you arrive at your reference library armed with a pen and paper you might care to dip your toe into the vast ocean that is the subject of music history.

    I recommend on your arrival at the library that you find and remove from the shelves the first volume of the ‘Grove’ Dictionary for your closer study. Which, not surprisingly begins, alphabetically, with letter ‘A‘. Start to list all composers who were active in the 18th century alone whose surnames begin with that letter of the alphabet. The results of your study will provide clear evidence of the first vital fact - namely, the state of our amazing ignorance in matters of musical history. Since your consultation of that first volume will provide you with results roughly as follows -


    Dall’Abaco, Evaristo Felice (1675-1742) - Italian

    Abbey, John (1785-1859) - English

    Abeille, Johann Christian Ludwig (1761-1838) - German

    Abeille, Pierre-César (1674-1733) - French

    Abel, Karl Friedrich (1723-1787) - German

    Abell, John (1653-1716) - Scottish

    Abello (1660-1717) - Spanish

    Abingdon (Earl) - (1740-1799) - English

    Abos, Geronimo- (1715-1760) - Maltese

    Abrams, Harriet (1758-1821) - English

    Adam, Johann (1705-1779) - German

    Etc etc.


    Do not be discouraged by the discovery of such things. Take comfort in the fact that deep and profound ignorance is and has always been the general rule in matters of musical history. So you are in good company. The biographies and achievements of most composers are as alien to music lovers and even those working in music related areas of academic publishing as are the species of orchids found in the Himalayas or those of fish which swim off the coast of Argentina. The music of the vast majority of composers remains largely unstudied, unperformed and unappreciated. By anyone. Nor will you be surprised there are several thousand symphonies from the 18th century alone. And several thousand operas. Of which we have heard virtually none. Fortified with this undeniable evidence of our own profound ignorance we can now proceed to the point where a clearer picture of our subject may slowly come in to focus. By reference to other volumes of this same type of publication. Listing next the names of composers who lived and composed during the lifetime of W.A. Mozart (1756-1791) himself. Or those whose creative careers take us up to, say, the year 1800. This we can examine in the interests of our education, of course. From which work you will be able to list the names and details of several thousand individuals. This second search of yours will take some time to complete although, as before, you will soon start to encounter a whole series of unfamiliar names and will have to quickly flip through individual biographies and details of their musical achievements - few of whom you will have seen before, heard of or listened to in musical performance. But if you persevere with what is a self-inflicted and humbling experience of this kind you may take frequent breaks for tea or coffee and, within a week or so, will manage to compile an alphabetical list. This will provide you a clearer idea of the extent of musical achievement as a whole during Mozart’s own time. Confirming, once again, the stupendous and indisputable fact of our musical ignorance.


    Suppose we were to narrow the terms of our musical search still further. By listing composers known to have written major works during the decade Mozart was based in Vienna (1781-1791). If this becomes too tedious you may prefer to list only the composers who wrote operas, concertos or symphonies during that same decade. But, if you are still impatient with the scale of such questions why not omit composers who had no direct association with Vienna at that time ? Regardless of your choice you will come across names who are today virtually unknown, although their works were often staged in the Austrian capital during that decade and were in many cases published and well known at the time.


    I recommend after you have done these things in preparation for this study that you next take a break before considering the importance of the following statement, made by a music journalist. Which accurately describes the modern interaction of music with its history -


    ‘The history of music is usually studied from its creative aspect - how the masterpieces of western culture came in to being, how composers advanced the state of the art, how major works were received. The underside is rarely discussed: who paid for the music, who profited and organised it, and why. The history of the music business is a half-glimpsed enigma, unknown to modern managers and undisguised in polite society’.

    (Norman Lebrecht - ‘When the Music Stops')


    And -


    ‘The music business imposes a stringent vow of silence that is designed to protect a myth of the immaculate artist’.

    Consider the implications of that last sentence. But, before we start to examine Mozart and his status let’s consult another standard reference work. So that we are always firmly rooted in established facts //


    Here is one. A remarkable work published by Oxford University Press of England in 1973 entitled ‘The New Oxford History of Music’, whose 11 volumes are arranged chronologically as follows -


    1. Ancient and Modern Music

    2. Early Mediaeval Music up to 1300

    3. Ars Nova and the Renaissance (1300 to 1450)

    4. The Age of Humanism (1540-1630)

    5. Opera and Choral Music (1630-1750)

    6. The Growth of Instrumental Music (1630-1750)

    7. The Age of Enlightenment (1750-1790)

    8. The Age of Beethoven

    9. Romanticism

    10. Modern Music (1890-1960)

    11. Chronological Tables, Bibliographies and Index.


    Volume 7 will be of special relevance to us and you will note virtually all of Mozart’s life is covered by that period. A period that has so often been called the ‘Age of Enlightenment’. You will note that editors of that publication were keen to distance themselves from contents of a musical history that had been published in Oxford between 1901 and 1905. Since this new work of 1973 carried the following comments in its General Introduction -


    ‘ The scope of this work is sufficiently indicated by the titles of the several volumes. Our object throughout has been to present music not as an isolated phenomenon or the work of outstanding composers, but as an art developing in constant association with every area of human culture and activity. The biographies of individuals are therefore merely incidental to the main plan of the history.


    (General Introduction - ‘New Oxford History of Music’)


    These 1973 editors were breaking new ground having made the conscious decision to abandon the tradition of focusing on ‘great’ composers when attempting to write a history of music. Why did they do this ? The reason is rather simple. And it’s very revealing. The conventional model of western music history had been dominated by a few ‘great’ composers for almost two centuries but it was being widely recognised by teachers and students to be defective, misleading and often plain wrong. Works of that kind have always given a highly selective, often exaggerated, even dubious account of musical achievement. And they were, by the 1970’s, under growing criticism for that fact. We should try to follow the example of those Oxford editors when we examine these ’great’ composers. W.A. Mozart is ideal. But how shall we do so in a non-hierarchical way ? How can we penetrate the fog, the aura and the mass of eulogy that surrounds the life and status of this most iconic and celebrated composer ?




    You will have noticed works such as Volume 7 of the ‘New Oxford History of Music’ (1973) describe music of the period 1750-1790 as the ‘Age of Enlightenment’. That’s because that movement was certainly the dominant feature of western society during those decades. The importance of it should not escape us since it may help to provide the means to consider W.A. Mozart more closely.


    Whether we like it or not our western culture (virtually every aspect of it) has been greatly influenced by the ‘Enlightenment’. And we see that it definitely influenced the editors of the ‘New Oxford History of Music’ Volume 7. In view of this it’s only fair we consider the ‘Enlightenment’ since its impact on our musical education, our musical learning, may be of major importance. The very age in which Mozart lived. Besides, the approach we take in examining this subject will surely determine, at least to some extent, what we will see, and what we will tend to believe. Will it not also determine to some extent what we teach ?


    Mozart and musical history as we know it have many things in common. For example, modern western culture has amongst its most striking characteristics a highly developed (even over-developed ?) sense of individualism. I am referring here to the cult of the individual, to that of the eccentric genius, and of individual quests for short lived fame and celebrity. Are these things not amongst the most striking, recurring and even definitive features of modern western culture ? They are. Equally true is the emergence to great prominence of those unusual features as products of this same 18th century ‘Enlightenment’. But a second point is just as obvious. Western individualism does not exist alone. It has always emerged side by side and in an active relationship with rulers who were tied to more ancient elements of conservatism. So these two things have always co-existed. This ongoing relationship between these two different things (individualism and conservatism) provide us with a virtual definition of modern western culture itself. Thus the cult of individualism exists, whether we are discussing the life and career of a particular composer, of a famous writer, scientist or any creative person because they, as individuals were really in an alliance of a kind with those who presided over more ancient, conservative conventions - the latter being patrons who (in plain fact) subsidised and greatly assisted in that person’s creative career. The icons of western culture depend and have always depended like those in the 18th century on the approval of conservative patrons, governments and rulers of the socities where they lived. The denial or suppression of which would do us no justice. Mozart may be popularly seen and portrayed as a free individualist, but he was in fact only so within the context of being always reliant, subservient to his conservative patrons and rulers. The same is as true of Dmitri Shostakovitch. And although such facts are not convenient within our cosey idea of transcendentally ‘great’ composers they are facts all the same. The secularisation of the late 18th century (whose main feature was the managed decline of the Holy Roman Empire) witnessed the breakdown of the state/church alliance that it had represented for over 1,000 years but not the breakdown of the state itself nor that of the organised church. It was out of this new ‘gospel of secularisation’ that a new type of society emerged whose fashions soon included celebrating the lives and careers of individual artists and composers. Just as icons had been regular features of western society in mediaeval times. So they, these now celebrated and creative individuals, who were in all ages patronised by the aristocracy, now became seen by the emerging new society of the enlightenment as new heroes - as immortal, officially celebrated beings within a secularised western society. The iconic cult of individualism with its emerging pantheon of ‘great composers’ was nothing less than a direct product of this same Enlightenment. In further proof of which we might mention that the first statute ever constructed to a music composer in Austria was one made of W.A. Mozart when, in 1835, Sigmund von Koflern from Salzburg and author Julius Schilling initiated a project to build one of him in his home town of Salzburg. In September 1842 that statue was ceremonially unveiled in the presence of Mozart’s two sons on the Michaelerplatz (now known as the Mozartplatz) and witnessed by a crowd of visiting dignitaries that included ambassadors and state rulers. And the first musical biography to be published on a ’great’ composer was one made by F.X. Niemetscheck (overseen by the widow of Mozart) on W.A. Mozart himself (1797/8). Mozart, we may see, was really a product of the socialised Enlightenment. Whose ‘genius’ motto may and often has deflected us for the more mundane realities of his manufacture. And so, from the 18th century onwards a new literary fashion arrived for biographies on famed individuals. The ‘Enlightenment’, for better or worse, is the origin of the modern cult of individualism which we see reflected today in academic publications and in our daily experience. Perfectly explaining how statues of composers stand next to those of emperors in cities, and how they stand beside those of long forgotten generals. And it is here, within this little researched context that we may search for and find the elusive but all too real Mozart.


    R.E. Newman





  • Date:15 Jun 2010

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