Mozart and the Scholars

The Creative World of Mozart

by Paul Henry Lang
Norton, 149 pp., $4.75

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; drawing by David Levine

As far back as 1938 the editor of this collection of “studies by eminent scholars in Mozart’s style, technique, life, and works” contended in an article in The American Scholar that the public was being misinformed by ignorant musical journalists and would receive proper critical guidance only when newspapers got scholars to write about music for them. He repeated this contention at the symposium on music criticism at Harvard in 1947, after an address by E.M. Forster which had contained the answer to it. Discussing the aims of criticism, Forster had said: “The first and most important is aesthetic. It considers the object in itself, as an entity, and tells us what it can about its life. The second is subsidiary”—consideration of “the conditions under which the work of art was composed, the influences which formed it,” and so on. And Forster had warned that the criticism which “strays from [its] central aesthetic quest to influences and psychological and historical considerations” was no longer in contact with the work of art. The point was stated differently by Henry D. Aiken of Harvard’s philosophy department in a Nation review of the published addresses in which he wrote that Lang’s “diatribe against the ‘musical journalist’ is a nearly perfect instance of the failure to distinguish between understanding of music and knowledge about music,” and that the remedy for the poor quality of musical journalism was not “more historical erudition, but a more intense and sensitive devotion to…what one directly hears and feels” in a piece of music.

There have been musical scholars with the knowledge about works of art who have had also the critic’s understanding or perception of them: Donald Tovey, E.J. Dent, Gerald Abraham in England. But they are the exceptions we haven’t had in this country, where the scholars’ writings for the general public have offered no valuable perceptions and not always dependable information. No such illuminating insights into Mozart’s music as one encounters in the writing of W.J. Turner, a critic who was no scholar, are to be found in what Alfred Einstein says in his book on Mozart about the pieces of music he discusses, but only the fancy, fatuous rubbish of a scholar who was no critic. And in the factual material of the book Einstein is not even a rigorous, accurate scholar: it includes not only much that is confused and silly, but at least one sizable piece of misinformation—the frequently quoted but erroneous statements about Boccherini’s quintets on pages 188-89 that reveal his ignorance of the documentary evidence they are presumably based on. Leichtentritt’s Music, History and Ideas and his biography of Koussevitzky, Curt Sachs’s Our Musical Heritage—these also are worthless as criticism and information. And the scholarly young student at the University of North Carolina who pointed out to me Einstein’s erroneous statements about the Boccherini quintets wrote to me also his discoveries…

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