Thursday, August 11, 2016

"You have too much Mozart!"

I had a friend over for lunch the other day and asked her to pick out some music while we ate. She went to my CD shelves and, after a couple of minutes, said: "You have too much Mozart!" This is what is on my shelf:

170 CDs. Is that too much? She picked out the first CD, which is the early symphonies. Number one was composed when he was eight years old. So can you have too much Mozart?

I'm thinking about Mozart today because this afternoon I am going to a lecture titled "What's so great about Mozart?" in which the speaker expresses puzzlement about why Mozart is great despite not being a great innovator or revolutionary. I put up a post about this very question quite recently: Does greatness always involve being revolutionary? The thing about Mozart is that he is a very great composer, but showed few signs of being either an innovator or a revolutionary. As my previous post points out, it was Beethoven that set that model.

Mozart is not the only composer that seems to go against the model narrative that we have: great composers are great because they were innovative and revolutionary. For the last hundred years we have followed this narrative so slavishly that many composers have pursued their careers as if the only criteria was to be innovative and revolutionary: John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez are merely the most well-known. An astonishingly large amount of bad music has been created as a result.

But Mozart is not the only great composer to not be primarily an innovator nor revolutionary (though you can find some elements in his music). Another one would be J. S. Bach. Both of these composers absorbed the whole of the musical style and genres of their time and then went on to simply perfect them. Bach certainly did not invent the fugue, nor its basic techniques of stretto, inversion and so on. He just did it better than anyone else. Similarly with Mozart. He did not invent the symphony or string quartet or opera--though he very nearly invented the piano concerto! But he just did them better than anyone before him (and pretty much everyone since as well!).

What the last hundred years in composition seem to be telling us is that there is not a wealth of styles and genres just waiting for someone to come along and perfect them, but rather a dearth of them!

What do you think?

Let's have a couple of examples of non-innovative, non-revolutionary music. This is the "Dissonant" Quartet by Mozart, often claimed to be revolutionary by people who have no knowledge of the outrageous harmonies found in pieces like Les Elemens  by Jean Féry Rebel or a host of pieces by C. P. E. Bach:

And this is the Magnificat by J. S. Bach, coming out of a long tradition of festive settings of sacred texts:


Rickard Dahl said...

Still working through my goal of listening to all (available) works by Joseph Haydn. The biggest remaining parts are several of the operas and maybe about 70% of the folk song arrangements. There are a couple of gaps here and there from earlier sections that Spotify might help to fill (listened mostly on Youtube before but Spotify actually tends to have a wider selection of music available, for instance almost none of Haydn's folk song arrangements are on Youtube but all of them are available on Spotify!). I enjoy having a music listening goal such as this, especially while learning various things (right now I'm trying to get a better grip of GIMP which is an image processing/image editing software similar to Photoshop, the goal of this is mainly to get more comfortable with texture creation but I've already learned very interesting ways to edit/improve photos).

With that being said it's a huge amount of music. Beethoven or Chopin for instance have quite little music compared with Haydn. Once I reach my Haydn goal I'm most likely going to move on to all of W.A. Mozart's work. And then J.S. Bach's works.

Btw, does that Mozart CD box really include all of Mozart's works? Too bad there's not a CD collection like that for Haydn.

It's hard to find exact which works Haydn composed but after digging a bit I found some good lists (which complement each other in some ways):

Bryan Townsend said...

GIMP is a LInux program as I recall?

That sounds like a great listening project. I have listened to all of the Mozart CDs (and yes, I think it is fairly complete), not just once, but twice, though the first time I browsed through, skipping the less interesting stuff.

There is a complete box of Haydn on 150 discs, though I don't know how complete it is:

David said...

Bryan, I expect that your questions immediately following the photo of the Mozart collection were rhetorical. Nonetheless, my response is "No". There may be too much EKNM, but there is no such thing as Too Much Mozart. I recall seeing in Salzburg a representation of the scores of Mozart's total output in a single pile. It was an impressive column to say the least.

As you and your readers know, there is a lifetime of musical enjoyment that flowed from WAM's pen. For this listener, certainly not too much; probably not too little. Mozart might be the "Goldilocks" composer: just right.

PS: My mother-in-law objects to Mozart because he is "too jumpy" and the music is too active. How did the early symphonies affect your digestion? My choice for the mid-day meal might have been a string quartet or piano sonata.

Rickard Dahl said...

Yes it is a Linux-style program (I'm using the Windows version though). I didn't want to use Photoshop since it's expensive and GIMP is free but still very good.

At this point there's not much point in buying the Haydn CD box (at the moment I don't have money for it either way).

Bryan Townsend said...

@David: Ok, you have me stumped with EKNM? But no, you really can't have too much Mozart. I just thought her saying that was rather amusing. Your mother-in-law sounds just a bit like the Emperor Joseph: "too many notes!"

The early symphonies are not too bad, but I would have preferred the later piano sonatas or chamber music. My guest simply pulled out Disc 1!

@Rickard: The Haydn box has 150 CDs and I really wonder if it can possibly have all Haydn's works. As you say, he wrote a lot of folksong arrangements, not to mention all those trios for the piano trio, and all the ones with baryton!

David said...

Bryan, sorry as an Air Force brat, I have a weakness for the acronym. EKNM: Eine kleine Nachtmusik (should have been EKN, I guess).

Bryan Townsend said...