Tuesday, January 03, 2006

the mozart controversy

The 250th anniversary year of the birth of Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has got off to a quarrelsome start following the refusal of the controller of the BBC classical music station Radio 3 to play the entire works of the composer back to back.

Last June Radio 3 carried out the first experiment of this kind when it played the entire works of Beethoven over six days. Following the success of this experience, it broadcast all the works of Bach in ten days over Christmas, to a rapturous reception. In September the station played the entire oeuvre of the composer Anton Webern – admittedly only five and a half hours in all.

So why, in his quarter-millennium anniversary year, is Mozart being denied a Radio 3 accolade of the type accorded Beethoven, Bach and Webern? The station’s controller Roger Wright says: “With Mozart end to end, the overall effect would be detrimental to the music. The music could wrongly be seen as slightly more chocolate-boxy than it really is.”

The term “chocolate-boxy” with its connotations of froth, sweetness, predictability and insubstantiality, touched a particular nerve among Mozart loyalists. Perhaps Radio 3 was also deterred by the fact that it would take around 14 days to broadcast Mozart in his entirety.

The music critic Norman Lebrecht fuelled the controversy when, in a piece headed “Too much Mozart makes you sick”, he wrote: “Mozart is the superstore wallpaper of classical music, the composer who pleases most and offends least. Lively, melodic, dissonance-free: what’s not to like?”

Lebrecht claimed: “The coming year of Mozart feels like a term at Guantanamo Bay without the sunshine. There will be no refuge from neatly resolved chords, no escaping that ingratiating musical grin.”

The comments of Wright and Lebrecht have led to furious reactions. Catherine Sprague wrote: “The greatest minds in the history of western civilization have studied Mozart’s spiritual depths and mastery of composition and have concluded exactly the opposite as Mr Lebrecht.”

She asserted that not just composers, but nearly all great philosophers, writers, poets and musicologists consider Mozart to be the greatest musical genius that ever lived. “This does not just mean that Mozart was a prodigy, which he was. Or virtuoso which he was. It means, in plain English, that his music is deep, musically, technically and spiritually. Kierkegaard, Stendhal, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw etc etc and on down the list have argued such.”

Mozart died at the age of only 35, having produced well over 600 works. To some extent he has been a victim of his own success, and some of his best-loved compositions have become almost too well-known.

But it is unfair to pillory Mozart as predictable and as having failed to move music onwards. There are numerous examples of depths in his music – as shown by for example the opera “Don Giovanni”, the piano sonatas, the sublime string quintets, the Requiem.

In Austria, the capital Vienna and Mozart’s birthplace Salzburg are gearing up for a dizzying year of celebrations. In Britain “Mozart 250” will be marked by many concerts, CD releases and radio and TV programmes. Even if Mozart is not played back to back in his entirety by Radio 3, the station will during the year play very many of his compositions.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 3 January 2006

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