Mozart’s pristine reputation should be reevaluated

By Nicholas Morrison

Mozart was born January 27, 1756 (250 years ago this Friday), so don’t be surprised if you hear a lot of him this year. It’s as good a promotional stunt as any, to celebrate a composer’s birthday (or death), and hope that we listeners feel guilty enough to pay enormous sums to hear what is inevitably billed as “timeless” music.

Of course, once we are seated in Symphony Hall, with Sir John and one of the most famous orchestras in the world playing Mozart’s “mysterious” last three symphonies, our critical faculties are somewhat subdued. We’ve paid good money to see the best people play the best composer. Who can blame us if we are swept out of our seats by the standing ovation every single time, as if to mutually reassure ourselves that it was really that good?

Now, I don’t pay for tickets for concerts that I review. Perhaps that is the reason I feel no compulsion to give yet another standing ovation for yet another uninspiring concert. The knee-jerk, program-notes narrative of Mozart’s life, as told by Phillip Huscher, claims that “Mozart is still necessary and relevant,” and that “Mozart is the first composer who has never gone out of style.” This is, on the one hand, merely Mr. Huscher’s way of distinguishing Mozart from Bach, who had to be rediscovered by Mendelssohn before his reign of fame could begin. But it is also, in my judgment, an out-of-touch sentiment common among a certain fan, blindly asserting the transcendental value of his treasured music.

The fact is, Mozart has gone out of style, at least for anyone younger than 30 or so. This is not a historical accident. A thousand factors conspire to render him utterly superfluous and irrelevant.

To begin with, there are the strictly musical factors. Unlike Bach or late Beethoven—whose phrases tend to overlap and intertwine, and thus rarely use cadences in a decisive fashion—Mozart employs cadences constantly. Because ending every phrase with a cadence has gone out of fashion, his famous phrasing sounds hokey to us now. Much of modern pop and jazz is dependent on plagal or modal resolutions, not to mention metric resolutions or non-resolving phrases (such as fade-outs proclaiming that the song will never end). The only thing that Mozart’s phrasing reminds most young people of is country music or old folk songs.

More problematic, however, is the tone of Mozart’s music. Even if one does hear more than mere charm or elegance in it—and I will not deny that there are moments of extraordinary beauty and sadness—there is rarely any intensity. The energy of the Jupiter symphony may be spirited, but it is not fierce. Beethoven has a virtual monopoly on real ferocity in the classical world. This is a problem not merely for heavy metal fans trying to access classical music. It’s a problem for electronica fans as well, and hip-hop fans—even Beatles or Stones fans.

The issue of intensity is not merely one of affect, either. There is the problem I have brought up in this column before, that of volume. That may seem trivial, or stupid, to complain about, but I would argue that it is in bad faith, for anyone who has ever been to a rock concert, to claim that they were truly overwhelmed by the power of a symphony. A single guitar player can overwhelm any symphony out there.

Finally, what do so many of us associate symphonic music with? Danny Elfman, whose credits include the scores for Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and the theme song for The Simpsons. Or, alternatively, John Williams (E.T., Star Wars). It just so happens that for a younger audience, the symphony as a medium sounds unbearably bland.

In all fairness, this does not mean there is nothing to be rediscovered. Gardiner’s rendition was a masterpiece of control over the textural elements, especially during the allegro movements. Minuets sound insipid to me, but the slow movements of all three symphonies, the first especially, had moments of spare, chamber-music exchanges between instruments that were breathtaking.

Toward the end of the fourth movement of Symphony #39, after a seemingly final cadence, an audience member jumped up and began to applaud—and was immediately drowned out as the orchestra continued on with the repeat. Sir Gardiner, not missing a beat, turned and shook his head, smiling at the unfortunate enthusiast. A minute or so later, at the moment the piece ended, he spun around and beckoned with his hand towards the same audience member—now was the time for applause. Symphony Hall erupted with laughter.

Moments like this shake us up a little and remind us of the value of seeing live music. But we need to be honest about what this music means to us. Mozart, trying to reach out to us across two centuries, should not be billed or responded to by audiences as mandatory transcendence.