Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Johnson on Mozart

Recoiling from Maynard Solomon's book on Mozart, published in 2005, I downloaded a book with precisely the same title (Mozart: A Life) by Paul Johnson, which I see only now was just published in November. It is a much shorter book, under two hundred pages, as opposed to the Solomon, over six hundred pages. But so far--I am about half-way through--it is far superior. Instead of gnashing my teeth every page over the absurd psychoanalytic excesses of Solomon's book (which I posted about here), I find myself nodding appreciatively as I learn things about Mozart that have to do with his relationship with musical instruments and their players, the Catholic Church, the Masons, and much, much less about his supposed tortured relationship with his mother, father, sister and cousin.

Paul Johnson reminds me very much of another prolific historian, Jacques Barzun, who recently passed away in 2012 at the age of 104. Barzun published an astonishingly wide range of very learnéd books over a more than seventy year period from the late 1920s right into the 21st century. Unlike nearly all specialist historians of today, Barzun was perfectly comfortable writing about music and not dismayed by a lack of technical knowledge. His book on Berlioz is still an important resource. Perhaps Barzun's crowning achievement is his large tome From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present published in 2000. It would be hard to find any area of historic or cultural knowledge in which he was not some sort of expert.

The very young, in comparison, Paul Johnson, who is a mere eighty-five years old, has also published a remarkable number of books on an even more remarkable range of topics. Just in my own library I have his books on the history of art, Art: A New History (2003), modern history, Modern Times: A History of the World from the 1920s to the 1980s (1984), plus histories of the Jews and Christianity. But I was a bit surprised to see him writing about Mozart as he had given no previous indication, at least in the books I have read, of having a particular interest in music. Other people might look askance at a book on Mozart by Johnson as he is regarded in some circles as being "politically incorrect", i.e. holding conservative views on certain subjects. But even if true, I don't find that to be a fault as I hold conservative views on certain subjects, like aesthetics, myself. I greatly enjoyed his large and beautifully illustrated history of art partly because he discusses architecture as being equally important as other media and because he gives a nicely skeptical account of 20th century modernism.

But it must be admitted that Johnson probably does not have the technical command of music that he does of other subject areas, as is revealed in some turns of phrase that a musician would likely not use. But on the other hand, Johnson's view of Mozart and his music seems both sound and wholesome. He does not accept the view so common in writing about Mozart and reflected in the film Amadeus that his life was overwhelmingly tragic. Rather, Johnson writes, Mozart was an “easygoing person, whose brief spasms of hot temper and outbursts of grievances were mere cloudlets racing across a sunny view of life.”  “He enjoyed existence and wanted everyone to be as happy as he.”

Frankly, if you pick any piece by Mozart at random and just listen to it, you should come to the same conclusion almost immediately:


But, and this is important, notice that if you go to YouTube, you will see the few genuinely dark pieces by Mozart, such as the Requiem and the Symphony no. 40 in G minor, given prominence. But this is because we are so often told that Mozart was a tragic figure writing tragic music! It is quite circular. The Requiem is a uniquely dark piece for Mozart and the rarity of the Symphony no. 40 in his output is signaled by the fact that it is one of only two symphonies in minor that he ever wrote: out of over forty! Here, see for yourself. These are the outliers. It is probably safe to say that 80 to 90% of Mozart's music is as sunny as that of Haydn.


While Johnson is not in any sense a musicologist, he is an excellent historian and writer and has the good sense to pay attention to someone who is a great musicologist, Donald Francis Tovey, whom he cites in several places. The general impression one gets from Johnson's book on Mozart is of someone opening the windows and letting in light and fresh air to correct the over-heated romantic excesses that have over many recent decades, clouded our impressions of Mozart. Johnson presents him as a practical musician of enormous abilities who loved working with the musicians who played his music and could churn out great compositions with the seeming ease (though he worked very hard at it) that MacDonald's churns out hamburgers--no aesthetic comparison is intended!!

Johnson cites a comment by Liszt to the effect that Mozart composed more bars of music than a trained copyist could write in a lifetime! Later on he remarks that if you take the last decade of Mozart's life, from 1781 to 1791, Haydn and Mozart between them created a masterwork every fortnight! Further he notes that from age twenty, Mozart never went a month without producing something immortal. Now of course, no respectable musicologist today would write this sort of thing. After all, one's job as a critical-thinking contemporary musicologist today is to "unpack" and "nuance" silly claims like a piece of music can be "immortal". Johnson doesn't bother trying to counter thinking like that, but simply listing a few pieces would be a good answer:

Symphonies 39, 40 and 41
a whole bunch of piano concertos
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Don Giovanni
The Marriage of Figaro
Così fan tutte
The Magic Flute

This is like Samuel Johnson's counter to Bishop Berkeley's argument that the physical world does not exist: walking along outdoors he chose a large stone and gave it a fierce kick saying, "thus I refute Bishop Berkeley!" I have no doubt whatsoever that all the pieces I just mentioned, and many others by Mozart, will be played and listened to with great pleasure centuries after our current musicology has been forgotten.

This is more of an appreciation of Johnson's book than a review. If you want a critical review, there is one here from the Washington Post. The reviewer starts out by mentioning how "Johnson seeks to counter the most egregious misconceptions" about Mozart's life. But the review ends with some pointless criticisms that Johnson does not cite specific sources, offers too many of his own opinions and does not do any real analysis. Yes, exactly, because this is not a scholarly work, but what used to be called a popularization. As a musician and trained musicologist myself, I find nothing exceptionable about Johnson's opinions. Quite the contrary.

Let's end with some more Mozart. Here is a little trio, "Soave il vento" from Così fan tutte:


If that isn't immortal, it will just have to do...

6 comments:

Craig said...

It sounds like a wonderful book; I'd like to read it myself.

If you're interested in more of Paul Johnson's thoughts on music, you might enjoy listening to the episode of the BBC's "Desert Island Discs" on which he was the guest. I don't remember when it aired -- sometime in the last 10 years, I'd wager -- but it can be found on iTunes. As I recall, his musical selections were mostly popular songs, with some idiosyncratic choices. When I heard it, I had never before heard him speak; he's quite a character!

Craig said...

January 15, 2012. Not so long ago!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Craig! I have never heard him speak, but I will have a look for it. Popular songs? No Mozart? Heh. Did you know that Ligeti was a big fan of Supertramp?

Craig said...

I don't remember if there was any Mozart on the programme, but if there was I think it was prefaced with a remark like "Everyone likes this music, and so do I."

Ligeti and Supertramp? I always suspected that Ligeti had bad taste, and now I have it confirmed!

Rickard Dahl said...

Sounds like an interesting book. I've been thinking about reading some kind of art history book and maybe The History of Art by Johnsson would be interesting. Well, "politically incorrect" seems to apply to a lot of things which seem reasonable and logical. It's an expression often used as a shaming tactic, although it might be justified in a few cases (conservative views on aesthetics not being one of those cases).

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, I think that Johnson's Art: A New History is worth reading, definitely. It is a big hardcover, but for what you get, is pretty reasonably priced: $29 at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Art-New-History-Paul-Johnson/dp/0060530758/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1390998806&sr=8-1&keywords=johnson+art+a+new+history