The Mozart Delusion

The mythologizing about Wolfgang Amadeus is incessant. As a result, the music is lost

Norman Lebrecht

It dawned on me with great relief the other day that, unless I’m still writing strong in my nineties, I will never have to observe or partake of another Mozart anniversary so long as I live. Yippee!

I say that not to disparage anniversaries or, indeed, Mozart. Both have a recognised stall in the marketplace and neither is likely ever to be dislodged. However, each has the power to distort mass taste. Put together, they can—and do—wreak untold harm on the world’s cultural values.

The Nazis understood this all too well when, in 1941, they launched a jamboree in the 150th year after Mozart’s death and his nameless burial in Vienna. “A nation that forgets its great sons does not deserve to own them,” cried Joseph Goebbels, claiming that Mozart’s music embodied the supreme German quality of relentless clarity (and we all remember the consequences of relentless clarity).

The 1941 fest was, as Erik Levi points out in his book Mozart and the Nazis (Yale, 2010), organised and financed by the Reich with a view to establishing Mozart’s Aryan supremacy and their own cultural legitimacy. In the lands under German occupation, Mozart was the imposed sound of music, odious and ineluctable.

The next significant date, the 1956 bicentenary of his birth, saw the rehabilitation of the composer’s native Salzburg as the Bethlehem of an immaculate godchild, free of political contention. This was, to a degree, the Mozart that had been promulgated by war- time Allied media as a counterweight to Nazi propaganda. It was also the Mozart borne into exile by his greatest experts and interpreters, from Alfred Einstein to Bruno Walter, men who preached that every note of Mozart was an ineffable, celestial perfection: from Moses to Mozart, there was none like Mozart.

I still hear zose furrrry German consonants leaking from my boyhood wireless, enjoining me to believe in a music midway between sublimity and divinity. I resisted then and resist it still. While the 1956 purification was in full sway, a second son of Salzburg, Herbert von Karajan, seized control of the festival and yoked it to mammon. Kara- jan turned classical music into a cash cow for himself and his partners, Mozart into a commodity for sale by the boxset and Salzburg into an advertising hoarding for his enterprises.

Karajan died in 1989, two years short of the next Mozart anniversary, but his shad- ow fell upon it like Helen’s over Troy. The year 1991 was wall-to-wall Mozart world- wide. A record label issued Mozart entire on 46 CDs, fostering a nerdish fad for completism and a quantum leap in the commodification of music.

Out of the year’s Mozart glut was born Classic FM, a broadcasting franchise whose UK source (programmes may vary else- where) trickles sweet nothings into our ears while exhorting us, like a malign hypnotist, to relax, relax, relax. Mozart was recast on Classic FM as the ultimate anaesthetic, numbing our brains from cradle to grave.

Literally so. A French ear doctor, Alfred A. Tomatis, proposed that playing Mozart to the unborn would turn foetus into Einstein. In 1991 credulous politicians swallowed his hypothesis. Books were written and films made. The Mozart Effect® became a registered brand. Mercifully, a welter of research in recent years has refuted beyond resurrection the quack Tomatis theory that one com- poser, and one alone, held the key to infant genius. Millions, nonetheless, cling to the pernicious myth.

My final Mozart anniversary was opened by the Austrian President in January 2006. All 22 Mozart operas, ephemera and juve- nilia included, regaled the Salzburg summer. The Library of Congress flung open its vaults with a flourish of Mozartiana. The European Union minted a Mozart coin. The value of Mozart-branded sales that year was estimated at $5 billion. The musical value was, needless to add, negligible.

In an attempt to make sense of the hysteria, I took up the cudgels for the Pierre Boulez slogan that Mozart was a regressive force who added nothing to the development of music. The inventors and energisers in music history were Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler and Schoenberg; all else was entertainment. Boulez, as music director of the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s, replaced Mozart with Haydn on its programmes.

His case still holds, up to a point. Al- though some find prescience in a Schoenbergian 12-note row at the cold heart of Don Giovanni, Mozart pushed no musical form forward beyond existing borders. He was conformist to a fault, a conservative com- poser. On the plus side, he contributed two dozen works to what one might term general human civilisation, the common stock of culture—from “A Little Night Music” to the last notes of a Requiem he never lived to finish. That’s two dozen out of 630 works, but it’s a dozen more than Haydn and it is a rush of works that arouse instant warmth and acceptance from an audience.

Andrew Ford, the Australian composer and broadcaster, reinforces this point in a new collection of essays, Try Whistling This (Black Inc., £21.95). Mozart, he writes, “knows how to keep us close to the edge of our seats”, something few composers ever achieve. Ford goes on to acknowledge, how- ever, that once we start to believe that his music is “a sonic panacea from God, we might well lose our ability to listen at all”.

And therein lies the danger of the Mozart propaganda that is blared at us day and night, weakening even the ascetic Boulez, who has taken up conducting Mozart in his eighties. Once we invest music with supernal qualities, once we maintain (there are learned papers to this effect) that Mozart can ease childbirth pains and stimulate brain cells in laboratory rats, it ceases to be music at all and becomes a part of humdrum mundanity, along with unemployment statistics and the football results. Sooner or later, you will read that Mozart can cure cancer.

The challenge for my working life is to rescue music from such tedious misconceptions and restore its gift to elevate us above the irksomeness of everyday life. We have just under three decades left to reclaim Mozart from mass media and market economies before the next anniversary reduces his music to a pinball on the political-indus- trial table. There’s no time to lose. Save Mozart Now.

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