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What Mozart Meant: An Exchange

In response to:

The Best Book on Mozart from the October 25, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

As Charles Rosen observes [“The Best Book on Mozart,” NYR, October 25], everyone seriously interested in Mozart can only applaud the appearance, finally, in English of Hermann Abert’s monumental W.A. Mozart, with an exemplary scholarly apparatus to bridge the more than eighty years since the book originally appeared.

Early in his review Rosen takes Cliff Eisen, the editor of the new volume, gently to task for his disagreement with Abert on a fundamental aesthetic point: does Mozart’s music express himself (as Abert asserted)—or us? Rosen agrees with Eisen that the notion of the composer “simply expressing himself” is “old-fashioned and only too-well-established.” (He goes on to wonder who might be meant by “us.”)

It turns out that Mozart, who thought and wrote about what he was doing far more than he is often given credit for, seems himself to have shared the old-fashioned opinion about the role of self-expression in artistic creation—old-fashioned today, but rather new in the eighteenth century. In a letter to his father from Mannheim, dated November 8, 1777, Mozart wrote: “I cannot write in verse, for I am no poet. I cannot arrange the parts of speech with such art as to produce effects of light and shade, for I am no painter. Even by signs and gestures I cannot express my thoughts and feelings, for I am no dancer. But I can do so by means of sounds, for I am a musician” (emphasis added).

On the issue of “Romantic nineteenth-century ideals of revolutionary originality,” too, Abert seems to have tuned in close to Mozart’s wavelength. While it is true that Mozart was more concerned about the Appeal, Propriety, and Effect of his music than about originality for its own sake, his concern for what he called “Effect” was often synonymous with Originality—when it took the form of doing the unexpected and avoiding the obvious. He was pleased to point out to his father, after the premiere of his opera I domeneo, that “the whole audience discovered to their delight that the second act was actually more expressive and original than the first.” Moreover, he was quick to report from Vienna in February 1784 about a work in progress—his never-finished opera L’Oca del Cairo: “I guarantee that in all the operas which are to be performed until mine is finished, not a single idea will resemble one of mine.”

Abert’s lasting insight and wisdom are truly daunting and breathtaking, both. But Rosen is certainly right about his “one serious disagreement with Abert”: Don Giovanni’s declaration of “Viva la libertà” was indeed nothing less than subversive. The guiding spirit of the seducer’s political message, however, is not Thomas Jefferson but the Marquis de Sade. Don Giovanni is clearly calling not for political democracy but for the liberty of the libertine. At this point, at least, one can only hope that Mozart is in fact not “expressing himself.”

Robert L. Marshall

Sachar Professor of Music Emeritus

Brandeis University

Waltham, Massachusetts

Charles Rosen replies:

Robert Marshall’s understanding of Mozart’s ideas on aesthetics and expression is more profound and cogent than anyone else’s. Mozart’s concern with originality is certainly sadly underrated today. He was proud of the originality of his piano concertos, and knew that no one in Vienna had ever heard anything like them. About self-expression, I have no disagreement with Marshall, but would like to point out that Mozart writes not about the expression of his personality or his biography, which is the way that some critics would like to interpret self-expression, but about the expression of his “thoughts and feelings” as he says. No doubt the music does express his personality and is influenced by his life; but this was not a specific intention of Mozart, as it would be for some later artists. My point is perhaps fussy but is a recommendation for the methodology of an interpretative and critical approach, not an attempt to exclude either biography or the expression of personality.

I have a minor cavil about “Viva la libertà.” The sense of the words is certainly “Have a good time and enjoy yourselves,” but the music is ostentatiously military and rousing, with trumpet and drums that make their first reappearance in the score since the overture and with a brilliant and resonant C major, and is, I think, clearly political, at a moment when ideas of political liberty were very much in the air right after the American Revolution. Political liberty and libertinism, however, have generally been associated; it was sometimes thought that when the revolutionaries get power, our wives and daughters will inevitably be raped or debauched. In the most influential of the Marquis de Sade’s writings, “The Philosopher in the Boudoir,” sexual liberty is presented as the logical and necessary culmination of the French Revolution. (It is true that many revolutionary regimes have generally turned after initial experiments in sexual freedom to a repressive puritanism, but that was part of later attempts to limit whatever permissive liberty had been conceded.)

In any case, Mozart’s music at this point of Don Giovanni is not in the least erotic but political and military in character, and I assume that he was portraying the popular belief that revolutionary politics and libertinism were closely bound together, as they were, indeed, constantly from the seventeenth century until the twentieth. This does not mean that either Mozart or Don Giovanni were propagandists for democracy, but an audience in 1780 would have understood the allusion.

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