On Mozart: An Interview with Alfred Brendel

Martin Meyer, translated from the German by Richard Stokes

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; drawing by David Levine

The following is drawn from conversations between the pianist Alfred Brendel and the Swiss writer Martin Meyer, to be published in October.*

Martin Meyer : You see Mozart to a considerable extent as a composer of form. Could it not be that Mozart’s strict sense of form is obscured for the public at large by his wonderful melodies, his so-called “sweetness”?

Alfred Brendel: There is perfection of form, yes, but there is also the sensual beauty of the “cantabile” composer, the beauty above all of the Mozart sound. Mozart is one of the most sensuous composers ever. There is a sensuality too about his melodies. I’m reminded of a lovely sentence from Busoni, who said a few wonderful things in his aphorisms about Mozart. Bu-soni said there was no doubt that Mozart took singing as his starting point, and from this stems the uninterrupted melodiousness which shimmers through his compositions like the lovely forms of a woman through the folds of a flimsy dress. Isn’t that wonderful? And with Mozart, of course, you also have the quite amazing expressiveness which goes beyond what Busoni, who in this respect was more rooted in the nineteenth century, would concede: Mozart’s art of characterization from an early age was bound up with his observation of human beings. Mozart clearly observed people continually, and as a child took delight in improvising human emotions and reactions in the form of arias. His range is from the most comic and absurd to the demonic—which is where I disagree with Busoni, who does not recognize Mozart’s demonic side. Busoni was one of the greatest Mozart enthusiasts and a real authority—and yet it was he who said: “If Beethoven’s nature can be compared with the magnificence of a thunderstorm, then Mozart is an eternally sunny day.”

MM: Astonishing for such an intelligent composer.

AB: Certainly; yet one must bear in mind that Wagner too, who greatly admired some of Mozart’s works, saw in him “a genius of light and love,” while Schumann spoke of him as “floating Greek gracefulness.” They go well together. And this was still the case, yet even more so, in the Fifties, when Mozart was played, and listened to, in a most Apollonian manner. I can still remember the performances of Robert Casadesus, who “objectified” Mozart. Earlier conductors and pianists, such as Bruno Walter and Edwin Fischer and Furtwängler, had, it is true, emphasized the other side. There is also the famous Fritz Busch recording of Don Giovanni.

MM: When did you yourself discover the dark side of Mozart’s genius? Was it clear from the moment you began to devote yourself to Mozart?

AB: No, to begin with it was not clear. My approach to him in my first significant Mozart period in the Sixties was that of Apollonian poise. There are a few recordings from that time which still give me some…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.