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The Mozart Delusion
January/February 2013

Enough anniversaries already: Mozart, aged seven, painted in 1763

It dawned on me with great relief the other day that, unless I’m still writing strong in my nineties, I will never have to observe or partake of another Mozart anniversary so long as I live. Yippee!

I say that not to disparage anniversaries or, indeed, Mozart. Both have a recognised stall in the marketplace and neither is likely ever to be dislodged. However, each has the power to distort mass taste. Put together, they can—and do—wreak untold harm on the world’s cultural values.

The Nazis understood this all too well when, in 1941, they launched a jamboree in the 150th year after Mozart’s death and his nameless burial in Vienna. “A nation that forgets its great sons does not deserve to own them,” cried Joseph Goebbels, claiming that Mozart’s music embodied the supreme German quality of relentless clarity (and we all remember the consequences of relentless clarity).

The 1941 fest was, as Erik Levi points out in his book Mozart and the Nazis (Yale, 2010), organised and financed by the Reich with a view to establishing Mozart’s Aryan supremacy and their own cultural legitimacy. In the lands under German occupation, Mozart was the imposed sound of music, odious and ineluctable.

The next significant date, the 1956 bicentenary of his birth, saw the rehabilitation of the composer’s native Salzburg as the Bethlehem of an immaculate godchild, free of political contention. This was, to a degree, the Mozart that had been promulgated by war- time Allied media as a counterweight to Nazi propaganda. It was also the Mozart borne into exile by his greatest experts and interpreters, from Alfred Einstein to Bruno Walter, men who preached that every note of Mozart was an ineffable, celestial perfection: from Moses to Mozart, there was none like Mozart.

I still hear zose furrrry German consonants leaking from my boyhood wireless, enjoining me to believe in a music midway between sublimity and divinity. I resisted then and resist it still. While the 1956 purification was in full sway, a second son of Salzburg, Herbert von Karajan, seized control of the festival and yoked it to mammon. Kara- jan turned classical music into a cash cow for himself and his partners, Mozart into a commodity for sale by the boxset and Salzburg into an advertising hoarding for his enterprises.

Karajan died in 1989, two years short of the next Mozart anniversary, but his shad- ow fell upon it like Helen’s over Troy. The year 1991 was wall-to-wall Mozart world- wide. A record label issued Mozart entire on 46 CDs, fostering a nerdish fad for completism and a quantum leap in the commodification of music.

Out of the year’s Mozart glut was born Classic FM, a broadcasting franchise whose UK source (programmes may vary else- where) trickles sweet nothings into our ears while exhorting us, like a malign hypnotist, to relax, relax, relax. Mozart was recast on Classic FM as the ultimate anaesthetic, numbing our brains from cradle to grave.

Literally so. A French ear doctor, Alfred A. Tomatis, proposed that playing Mozart to the unborn would turn foetus into Einstein. In 1991 credulous politicians swallowed his hypothesis. Books were written and films made. The Mozart Effect® became a registered brand. Mercifully, a welter of research in recent years has refuted beyond resurrection the quack Tomatis theory that one com- poser, and one alone, held the key to infant genius. Millions, nonetheless, cling to the pernicious myth.

My final Mozart anniversary was opened by the Austrian President in January 2006. All 22 Mozart operas, ephemera and juve- nilia included, regaled the Salzburg summer. The Library of Congress flung open its vaults with a flourish of Mozartiana. The European Union minted a Mozart coin. The value of Mozart-branded sales that year was estimated at $5 billion. The musical value was, needless to add, negligible.

In an attempt to make sense of the hysteria, I took up the cudgels for the Pierre Boulez slogan that Mozart was a regressive force who added nothing to the development of music. The inventors and energisers in music history were Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler and Schoenberg; all else was entertainment. Boulez, as music director of the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s, replaced Mozart with Haydn on its programmes.

His case still holds, up to a point. Al- though some find prescience in a Schoenbergian 12-note row at the cold heart of Don Giovanni, Mozart pushed no musical form forward beyond existing borders. He was conformist to a fault, a conservative com- poser. On the plus side, he contributed two dozen works to what one might term general human civilisation, the common stock of culture—from “A Little Night Music” to the last notes of a Requiem he never lived to finish. That’s two dozen out of 630 works, but it’s a dozen more than Haydn and it is a rush of works that arouse instant warmth and acceptance from an audience.

Andrew Ford, the Australian composer and broadcaster, reinforces this point in a new collection of essays, Try Whistling This (Black Inc., £21.95). Mozart, he writes, “knows how to keep us close to the edge of our seats”, something few composers ever achieve. Ford goes on to acknowledge, how- ever, that once we start to believe that his music is “a sonic panacea from God, we might well lose our ability to listen at all”.

And therein lies the danger of the Mozart propaganda that is blared at us day and night, weakening even the ascetic Boulez, who has taken up conducting Mozart in his eighties. Once we invest music with supernal qualities, once we maintain (there are learned papers to this effect) that Mozart can ease childbirth pains and stimulate brain cells in laboratory rats, it ceases to be music at all and becomes a part of humdrum mundanity, along with unemployment statistics and the football results. Sooner or later, you will read that Mozart can cure cancer.

The challenge for my working life is to rescue music from such tedious misconceptions and restore its gift to elevate us above the irksomeness of everyday life. We have just under three decades left to reclaim Mozart from mass media and market economies before the next anniversary reduces his music to a pinball on the political-indus- trial table. There’s no time to lose. Save Mozart Now.

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March 30th, 2013
3:03 PM
How odd to decry the 'popularisation' of Mozart, whilst praising the tedious Schoenberg, who owes his career and fame entirely to having a chum in the BBC.

March 16th, 2013
12:03 AM
When I was 18 I told te very musical mother of a friend of mine, somewhat shamefacedly, that I didn't much like Mpzart. She smiled knowingly and told to wait as I would come to like him. I am now nearly 60 and glad to say she was right - and I didn't even have to try very hard.

March 7th, 2013
10:03 AM
A foolish article. First of all, there’s the quite gratuitous linking of Mozart with Nazism, solely on the grounds that the Nazis had tried to promote Mozart. How embarrassingly puerile. And then the equally gratuitous & foolish linkage with Lebrecht’s great bogeyman, Karajan – presumably on the grounds that anyone with the slightest connection with Karajan, no matter how tenuous, must be dodgy in some way. (Karajan isn’t particularly renowned for his Mozart.) Once again, how embarrassingly puerile. Then, all those instances of Mozart being commercialised: name me any major composer who hasn’t been commercialised! Then, the complete works of Mozart have been released on CD. So have the complete works of Bach, of Beethoven, of Verdi, even of Mahler… what exactly is Mr Lebrecht’s point? “Mozart for Babies”, we may agree, is silly; but this silliness does not detract from Mozart’s achievement any more than the silliness of “Mahler: The Peoples’ Edition” detracts from Mahler’s. The main question raised by this article is how such hard-of-thinking childishness can pass for serious commentary.

February 26th, 2013
9:02 PM
Mr. Lebrecht is far from saving Mozart, since Mozart doesn't need to be saved. If anything, he is doing the opposite. Also, his poor analysis clearly shows his inability to grasp all that is Mozart-beyond mere music. Too bad Mr. Lebrecht has authority to write nonsense.

January 7th, 2013
1:01 AM
I understand the author's point, but calling Mozart "conformist to a fault, a conservative composer" is going too far. First of all, Mozart was only 35 years old when he died. Take a listen to his last 3 symphonies and tell me that he wasn't going to continue to develop as a composer. Listen to the last movement of his last symphony, the 41st and you'll hear a section in the development and recapitulation that has harmonies that vault straight into the 20th Century. Haydn never composed a section of music like that. I do share the author's view that all the Mozart Effect stuff is nonsense. But, Mozart is supremely great because he expresses everything about being human: joy, sorrow, silliness.

January 6th, 2013
11:01 PM
Since someone mentioned Milos Foreman's Amadeus--I suspect that (along with the play it is based on, though I've only seen the film and not the stage version) is a major contributor, as well, to contemporary adulation of Mozart. In Amadeus, Mozart is portrayed as a composer without peer, one who is "touched by God" and whose manuscripts contain no errors or erasures, as though he were simply taking dictation from the Almighty; and poor Antonio Salieri, regarded by his peers as fine composer in his own right, is reduced to a jealous mediocrity. The film also portrays Mozart as something of an avant-garde musical rebel who refuses to cater to popular tastes (the whole "too many notes" bit), whereas Salieri is shown as a hack who "likes to give 'em a good bang". Of course, opera was a popular art form, and even works commissioned by the Court were generally expected to make money, so the notion that Mozart was somehow the Frank Zappa of his day is ridiculous. That said, he was a damn fine composer, and withdrawal of excess adulation should not turn into condemnation.

January 2nd, 2013
7:01 PM
In my opinion, however much adulation is showered upon Mozart, he deserves even more.Just listen and be transfixed. Do you feel the need to claim your superiority by putting down Mozart? You just wind up looking like a fool. His music and his listeners laugh at you. Haydn was right, no one, not even Beethoven or Bach was better than him.

January 2nd, 2013
5:01 PM
Did the author have a stomach ache when he wrote this? Hope he feels better soon!

January 1st, 2013
4:01 PM
I was ignorant of the Nazi appropriation of Mozart in 1941. It immediately dawned on me to ask why do the Jews not take issue with the playing of Mozart in Israel to the same extent they do with Wagner? Both men did their composing and were dead long before Hitler with his nasty schemes gorged the world with the idea of supremacy and the blood of hundreds of millions of innocent people.

January 1st, 2013
2:01 PM
Arsenal 4 (Podolski, Mozart, Wallcott, Debussy), Chelsea 1 (Mahler). Best wishes.

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