Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Mozart Year Ahead of Us

The reputation of J.S. Bach took an interesting turn over the course of the "Bach Year" of 1985: he went into the year as the timeless universal musical genius and came out of it as a more parochial and specialized figure of his time, but also a more complex one. It was very useful to hear the church music again as the center of his work (as opposed, especially, to the late speculative instrumental works), but best of all, the quality of performances received a net benefit from the complex picture, happily (for me, at least) resolved into the thousand blooming flowers of performance practice we are likely to hear today.

I am very curious about the upcoming Mozart year. There have already been some serious shots at the bow of the current popular image of Mozart. (Norman Lebrecht's shot is so peculiar, that that it must be parody. Nothing could be more false than when Lebrecht identifies Mozart's music as "dissonance free" (if there is any single characteristic to identify Mozart's music, it's in his unique ability to maximize the dissonance-to-consonance ratio)).

That popular image does deserve some renewal, but it turns on some real subtleties, and I'm not terribly optimistic that those subtleties will be widely taken in. The Peter Schaffer play (and the Milos Foreman film) Amadeus has, for example, taken a central place in the image-making process, but this is due to the fundamental confusion that the play (and film) were biography. Amadeus was not a biography of Mozart; it was quite literally a study in the "love of God" (hence the name) and the creator's apparently arbitrary assignations of gifts on this planet. (It was also a great chance to show off Prague, but that's another case of arbitrarily assigned gifts!)

There are many Mozart's to choose from: the child prodigy, the court musician, or the freelance professional, the virtuoso or the master of simplicity, the provincial Salzberger or the urbane Viennese, the church and court organist or the freemason. Similarly, contemporary performance practice for Mozart's music is anything but the product of a consensus. I have no idea how well Mozart's music and reputation will survive the next year, but I expect that the question of Mozart's balancing between complexity and clarity will play a central role in the discussions to come.

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