Radical, Conventional Mozart

Mozart Speaks: Views on Music, Musicians, and the World

selected and with a commentary by Robert L. Marshall
Schirmer, 446 pp., $35.00

Autonomy and Mercy: Reflections on Mozart's Operas

by Ivan Nagel, translated by Marion Faber and Ivan Nagel
Harvard University Press, 149 pp., $24.95

Mozart's Operas

by Daniel Heartz
University of California Press, 363 pp., $37.50


A few years before Mozart’s death in 1791, the emperor of Austria, Franz-Joseph, received the visit of a distinguished but uninteresting composer, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, and asked him what he thought of Mozart’s compositions. In his Recollections, Dittersdorf reported the conversation:

Dittersdorf: He is unquestionably one of the greatest original geniuses, and I have known until now no composer who possesses such an astonishing wealth of ideas. I should wish that he were not so spendthrift with it. He does not allow the listener to breathe; for hardly have we perceived one beautiful idea, that another more splendid already appears on the heels of the former, and this continues without ceasing until, in the end, we can retain none of these beauties in our memory.

Emperor: In his stage works, the singers have very often complained of a single fault, that he often drowns them out with his full accompaniment.

D: That surprises me….

E: Some time ago I madea comparison between Mozart and Haydn. Compare them yourself, so that I can see whether yours agrees with mine.

D: (after a pause) Will your Majesty allow me to put another question?

E: Go ahead.

D: How would your majesty compare Klopstock and Gellert [two of the most famous contemporary poets]?

E: Hmmm!—both of them are great poets—one must read Klopstock’s works more than once in order to understand all of his beauties—on the contrary with Gellert all of the beauties lie unveiled at first sight.

D: Your majesty has my answer.

E: Mozart is like Klopstock and Haydn like Gellert?

D: So at least I believe.

If Dittersdorf’s account (dictated on his deathbed to his son) is accurate—and I can see no reason why it would not be—it appears that Mozart’s and Haydn’s supremacy is not simply a judgment of posterity but was evident before Mozart’s death. It is interesting that the charge leveled by Dittersdorf against Mozart—too great a profusion of musical ideas—was to be one of the chief complaints about Beethoven only two decades later. The poet Ludwig Tieck, in a dialogue from his Phantasus of 1812, has one of his speakers claim that Beethoven “seldom continues a musical idea and settles down in it but jumps through the most powerful transitions and seeks to flee from imagination itself in restless strife.” These are not hostile comments even though the character had remarked that “if we are obliged to call Mozart insane, then Beethoven cannot be distinguished from the raving mad.”

What is emphasized in Dittersdorf’s discussion with the emperor is the essential difficulty of Mozart’s music, and this is a point that comes up again and again in the testimony of Mozart’s contemporaries. Technical difficulty in the first place: commissioned by a publisher to write six piano quarters, Mozart had to abandon the project after composing only two—the publisher found the music too difficult to sell. Even the admirers of Mozart’s string…

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