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Mozart at 250


by Julian Rushton
Oxford University Press, 306 pp., $30.00


More than any other famous composer, Mozart arouses not just admiration but envy. Brahms once called him the greatest disaster that can happen to another composer. Debussy, in his combat against the mainstream Teutonic tradition, said that it was a pity that Mozart wasn’t French, because he would be worth imitating.

For the two hundred fiftieth anniversary of his birth, publishers have produced several new books to mark the event, but it has become difficult to find something both new and interesting to say after centuries of celebration in which so many conflicting views of Mozart have already been offered. Two of the best new accounts are by Julian Rushton and David Cairns, historians who coincidentally are specialists in Berlioz as well as Mozart. Rushton’s is simply entitled Mozart. He discusses both life and works, treating the latter in separate chapters by genre (keyboard music, sacred music, German opera, etc.). It is not deeply original, but always sensitive, judicious, and stimulating. It is too short—not too short for Mozart but for Rushton, who has certainly much more to say that would be of interest. There are many music examples, but there should have been more.

A measure of what Rushton’s book has to offer can be seen from a splendidly rich sentence in his final summary:

No one moved as he does, above all in his later instrumental music, with such swiftness, serenity, and sleight of hand to create a musical argument combining his greatest loves—counterpoint, chromaticism, comedy.

The only important omission in his admirable book is revealed by his comment on the two versions of Don Giovanni, the first for Prague in 1787, the second for Vienna a year later. The new singer for Don Ottavio in Vienna could not sing the difficult aria “Il mio tesoro” in the second act, and Mozart wrote a new and simpler one for him in the first act, “Dalla sua pace,” and composed a virtuoso aria for Donna Elvira, “Mi tradí,” to replace the brilliance of the tenor’s own. Rushton comments: “Any sentimental attachment to first thoughts (Prague) comes into conflict with the excellence of Elvira’s new scena.” However, in the Prague version, Donna Anna’s tremendous call for vengeance on the murder of her father is followed at once by the scene with Don Giovanni’s so-called “Champagne” aria, a celebration of debauchery, making a grand effect with a dramatic contrast of tonalities. In the Vienna version, “Dalla sua pace” damps down the contrast.

Rushton does not adequately consider how Mozart constructed his operas with startling changes of action musically rendered by dramatic changes to harmonically distant keys, and the way that the occasional incoherence of the libretto is offset by the impression of logic given by the music. Rushton claims that Mozart was “no reformer,” and this is true in the sense that he belonged to no official, dogmatic movement of reform, but by sheer willpower he did more than any other composer before Wagner to ensure that an opera had a musical logic that could both exist on its own and interpret the action.

David Cairns’s more specialized treatment, Mozart and His Operas, is a loving account of the operas starting with I domeneo. The earlier works are quickly dispatched in a dozen and a half pages: this is a pity only for La finta giardiniera and for the unfinished Zaide—fragmentary as the latter is (it lacks, however, only an overture and a closing number), it is masterly throughout, and Cairns shows that he knows that even as he dismisses the work rapidly. It contains two of Mozart’s finest arias, two of his most accomplished ensembles, and his two most interesting experiments in what was then called “melodrama,” that is, the combination of spoken dialogue and music.

On the later works, Cairns is consistently judicious, giving a detailed account of the commission, the composition, and the production of each opera: the chapter on I domeneo, above all, is brilliant and satisfying. His comments on the music are always cogent, but there are far too few musical examples: I do not want to be told, for example, about “the magical erotic effect of the strings’ still [i.e., tranquil] chord after two bars of chirpy woodwind in Zerlina’s ‘Vedrai, carino’” without a quotation so that I have to rush to the bookshelf for the score. Both Cairns and Rushton make out a case for the recently reinstated opera La clemenza di Tito, but their efforts seem halfhearted. Cairns says the duet for Servilia and Annio is “ravishing”; I agree, but along with the too short finale of Act I, it is the only number in the opera that seems to me genuinely inspired.

Nicholas Kenyon’s Faber Pocket Guide to Mozart is an excellent work, giving a quick summary of the life and a well-informed, surprisingly complete view of the work. Instructive and entertaining throughout, it is marred only by a decision to give stars to the pieces that Kenyon considers the most deserving—one to four stars like a guide to restaurants. It is only human to respond less to some works than to others, but advertising a lack of appreciation is undignified. How can the concerto that Alfred Einstein called the equivalent for Mozart of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (K. 271) get only one star? It is Mozart’s first masterpiece and with an unsurpassed revolutionary treatment of the conventions of concerto form. Why does Beethoven’s favorite quartet by Mozart—the A Major—get only two stars? Why does the concerto with my favorite slow movement (K. 453) get only two stars? Every reader will have different reasons for indignation. When Kenyon admires a work, he writes very sensitively, and we could forgive his reticence about other pieces if his lack of enthusiasm was not enthroned by his grading system.1

The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia is a more uneven production. Edited by Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keefe, two of the most important Mozart scholars of the past half-century, it has forty-nine contributors. Almost everyone that Mozart knew is given a potted biography; there are articles on all the important cities he visited, many of the composers he influenced and was influenced by, and surveys of all his works.

Eisen’s brief article on the viola quintets contains some of the finest writing on Mozart that I have read. Indeed, few of the other accounts of the music come up to this level: Eisen should have written more of the book himself. Keefe’s entry on the concertos is admirable but far too short: there was no room to mention extraordinary achievements in the concertos, such as the combination of fugue and opera buffa style in the finale of K. 459, the dramatic slow movement of K. 466, the development section of the opening Allegro of K. 595 (see footnote 5). The article on the Musical Joke (an example of the way idiots would write and play music that Mozart actually made delightful) says only “See SERENADE,” but the article on serenade does not mention the Musical Joke. There are two long articles on aria, but astonishingly none on ensemble or finale.

In his Mozart, Rushton observes that the originality of Mozart’s opera buffa “lies mainly in the ensembles,” and adds that “the multi-movement finales [are] among the glory of these operas.” In the Mozart Encyclopedia, the article on The Marriage of Figaro does not even discuss the famous second- and fourth-act finales or mention the sextet that Mozart thought the finest number in the opera. That is like writing about Hamlet without mentioning the soliloquies. There are, of course, many other things to say about these works, but an encyclopedia is supposed to provide what is traditionally considered basic even if it is old hat to the specialist.2

The survey of the works in the Mozart Encyclopedia, naturally brief, is sometimes unduly perfunctory. Calling the Andante of the A Minor Sonata for Piano “graceful” with no other comment, for example, is absurd since this movement at its center has an explosion of violence unparalleled in any other slow movement of Mozart except for that in the D minor concerto; it would have been better to say nothing than to be so inadequate. The volume is useful but disappointing: the article on reception only treats of the eighteenth century and does not even touch on the history of Mozart’s reputation in the centuries to come.


In 1783, when Mozart was only twenty-seven years old, the teacher of the thirteen-year-old Beethoven in Bonn said that “he would certainly become another Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he continues as he has begun.” Evidently Mozart had recovered from the often damning reputation of a child prodigy and was already accepted as one of the leading European masters, although outside the German-speaking countries (and even within them) his music was often contested for its difficulty, complexity, and unintelligibility until well into the nineteenth century.

We may conveniently assess the character of Mozart’s fame by the poets and artists to whom he was compared. In a conversation with the emperor of Austria, Joseph II, in the 1780s, the composer Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf compared him to Klopstock, a poet renowned for his difficulty and his pretensions to the grand style, who transferred the meters of classical Greek poetry to German verse.

Less than two decades later, Mozart’s glory had reached the summit from which it could no longer be dislodged, although it could be shaken, and different views of his music would develop over time. In a novel of 1803 by the Romantic master Jean Paul, who would be the favorite writer of Robert Schumann, there is a discussion about music in which Haydn, Gluck, and Mozart are compared grandly to Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. One of the company objected that “it was all right about Gluck, but Mozart was more like Shakespeare.”

Only four years after this, a disciple of Jean Paul wrote a review of Beethoven’s EroicaSymphony, in which he compared Beethoven to Jean Paul, for his fantastic imagination and humor, and Mozart to Schiller for his passion—“unfortunately we have no composer like Goethe,” he added. This is the figure of Mozart exploited a few decades later in 1843 by Søren Kierkegaard in Either/Or: he had become the model Romantic composer, with Don Giovannias the ideal, or, indeed, for Kierkegaard, the only possible, opera, embodying the essentially erotic nature of music.

In the nineteenth century, however, the standard coupling of Mozart with another artist was to be Raphael, possibly initiated by the painter Ingres, who idolized both, and Mozart was transformed into an icon of classicism, an emblem of grace and purity. As the century proceeded, both Mozart and Raphael suffered, not from a loss of prestige—that was only too firmly in place—but from a growing disdain among the avant-garde of practicing artists and composers for the established classicism in favor with the academies of art and music. Bernard Shaw protested acutely that people did not realize how powerful Mozart was because his music was so beautiful. Brahms’s appreciation of Mozart was equally passionate and nostalgic: how wonderful it must have been to be a composer at the time of Mozart, he thought, “when it was easy to write music,” as if Mozart was the great representative of a prelapsarian age, before the exile from paradise.

  1. 1

    A chapter on performing Mozart today unfortunately omits any mention of one of the leading figures in the restoration of the practices of Mozart’s time, Sir Charles Mackerras, who has shown more erudition, good sense, and understanding of the vitality of tradition than most of the other and generally more dogmatic proponents of historical performance.

  2. 2

    The article also has: “Both Da Ponte and tenor Michael Kelly (the first Don Curzio) claim that it was Mozart’s idea to turn Beaumarchais’s play into an opera, but there is no indication in Mozart’s correspondence one way or the other.” Why this queerly cautious demand for more evidence?

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