Sparkle dimmed by hagiographic encrustations

The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia - Mozart - Mozart and His Operas
January 27, 2006

It is impossible to recreate music in words, but one of these books at least does justice to Mozart's genius, says Hugh Wood

Ours is a culture obsessed with its own, admittedly glorious, past, its calendar marked out with centenaries and sesquicentenaries, a continual series of festivals celebrating the births and deaths of the illustrious dead. Now it is Mozart's turn: as he was born 250 years ago on January , 1756, we may expect even more performances than usual and a rush of new books about him in the coming year.

Though one shudders at a sentence on the first page of The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia , that "Mozart remains an iconic figure in Western society", the use of this tired trendyism is for once accurate: for many people Mozart does enjoy iconic status as a devotional object. This does not promote rational consideration and produces a lot of bad literature.

If you make an idol, you create idolatry. Biography is replaced with hagiography; legends about Mozart are legion. Alas, a myth is as bad as a mile. The first job must be to chip away at these encrustations and reassert that Mozart was a composer like any other - although an amazingly good one.

Each age creates its own Mozart image. His fabulous childhood years of tours across Europe perhaps gave rise to Mozart the angel child, the impossibly idealised saccharine sylph-like figure playing his violin in Vienna's Stadtpark. The 19th century had its own idea of the darkly romantic angst-ridden artist: so the "daemonic Mozart" was born. Two hundred years later we have a much more down-to-earth Mozart, as revealed by Emily Anderson in The Letters of Mozart and His Family . If the "spiteful, sniggering, conceited, infantile" Mozart conjured up by Salieri in Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus is a hostile vision, at least David Cairns's Mozart - "the composer of such angelic strains was an unprepossessing, pale little man with popping eyes and a taste for scatological jokes" - rings a bell with us. All these interpretations contain more than a smidgen of truth. Each age, in fact, creates the Mozart that it desires - one might almost say, deserves. The gulf between anything one learns of his personal circumstances or his personality and the experience of listening to the best of his music remains completely and mysteriously unbridgeable, and will always remain so.

Meanwhile the work of scholarship goes on. Although a great deal is known about Mozart, there are still discoveries to be made, gaps to be filled and endless reinterpretations to be attempted. What is a continual process appears to quicken during an anniversary year. Inevitably, opportunistic pieces of ephemeral journalism also appear. But occasionally there is the personal testimony that reaches the height of literature.

There are examples of all three of these approaches to Mozart under review here. The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia is a straightforward book of reference. The body of it consists of a sequence of alphabetically arranged entries - from "Abel, Carl Friedrich" to "Zinzendorf, Count Karl", and "Aesthetics" to " Zaide ". The appendices begin with a 50-page "worklist"

arranged in genres, with key, scoring, place and date of composition, New Mozart Edition references and notification of spurious and incomplete pieces. There is then a list of "Mozart movies" or, as we tend to call them over here, "films" - the book is, after all, published by the Cambridge University Press; Mozart operas on DVD and video; Mozart organisations, the majority of them in Germany; and then an index of works arranged first according to Köchel (K) number, then according to genre. In their omniscient useful comprehensive nature, the appendices remind one of the old days of Whitaker's Almanac .

In the main text, Mozart's biography takes centre stage, with pendant subsections on his personality, education, religious beliefs, medical history and death; on Mozart as an author (a short section), as a letter writer, and as the subject of biography; on his relationship with the theatre of his time and also with its literature (somewhat minimal); finally, on his own appearances in literature (this is a rather good collection, by Peter Branscombe). The next entry, unsurprisingly, is about Mozartkugeln , the sweet confection made of marzipan, nougat and chocolate.

The editors' ambition seems to match those of the fictional Morris Zapp in David Lodge's Changing Places , who wished to write a study of Jane Austen so all-embracing that it would make any further book about her quite impossible.

It is all very American in its gravity and lack of irony. An odd impression is given of an overwhelming wish to avoid giving offence - a dubious aspiration that poisons so much of our social and intellectual discourse.

There is a general miasma of middlebrow blandness, as if the text had been censored in order to exclude anything controversial or any difficult musical discussion; analysis is avoided like the plague and there is not one music example. But a good encyclopaedia should be idiosyncratic, not conformist, as entertaining as a good comic novel, as exciting as a thriller. A faint odour of political correctness is occasionally to be detected; it is certainly responsible for embarrassing moments in one of the feebler entries, that on Die Zauberflöte .

At least the Cambridge encyclopaedia will be useful. The same cannot be said of Jeremy Siepmann's book. This is published by an offshoot of Naxos Records - the Kerry Packer of the record industry - and could be described as disc-driven; its main features are the two substantial CDs tucked in the front and back covers. Each has a dozen extracts or short complete pieces - the longest being the first movement of the "Dissonance" quartet K465: Mozart for the busy man, in fact. They are not didactically chosen - that is, related to specific episodes in the text - but may be listened to independently. The preface says: "The hope is that the text and music will be mutually nourishing." There are programme notes ("annotations") at the end of the book.

"Chapters" are interleaved with "interludes", the latter being about the music rather than the life. The chapter titles give fair warning of what to expect: "A miracle in Salzburg"; "The prodigy phenomenon"; "The eternal child"; "Mozart marooned"; "A friend in need"; "Mozart the immortal". With the interludes we descend into the world of the evening class for beginners: "For a balanced assessment of these first symphonies, a certain amount of demystification is in order." Alas, exactly the opposite happens.

An attempt at a sustained comparison between musical and verbal grammars soon lands us in the magically satirical realm of Humphrey Lyttelton on I'm Sorry, I Haven't a Clue , explaining the idea of "one song to the tune of another" in such a way that confusion is increased. A page further on, there is a naive expose of sonata form: "Put at its crudest, it might almost be likened to 'painting by numbers'." Siepmann tells us that the child Mozart "clocked up two more symphonies". The reader who has survived 133 pages is informed: "Apart from anything else, the [violin and viola duos] are diabolically clever, using the technique of double-stopping (playing two notes at once on a stringed instrument)." Further down the same page he suggests of the string quintets that "they are only marginally harder to listen to than the string quartets, and then only by virtue of having five parts instead of four to follow".

"Dumbing down was not born yesterday," Siepmann declares on page 17. No indeed. This is a book without a single original thought about Mozart or his music, dealing entirely in commonplaces, leaving no cliche unturned.

David Cairns begins his Mozart and His Operas : "Another book on Mozart and his operas may not be needed." He is wrong: books as good as this one are always needed. The art of writing meaningfully about music is difficult to master and rarely encountered. Felix Mendelssohn's words about the superiority of music itself to any words about it hover in the back of one's mind.

The gulf between the composer's circumstances and their transcendence in his creation has already been mentioned; no useful comment can be made on the central mystery of the creative process. But it is possible to survey the composer as a working musician - playing, performing, conducting, collaborating with colleagues and librettists. And this is feasible, above all, in the field of opera.

Cairns remains true to his title; the operas are convincingly placed at the centre of Mozart's achievement, the seven undoubted masterpieces being given a chapter each, preceded by one chapter on the operas of Mozart's adolescence. But these are set in a coherent biographical frame, with ample use of Anderson's translation of the letters (which of course are those of the Mozart family, not just Wolfgang) and many other contemporary documents. Already in the preface there is a prolonged and warmly perceptive discussion of both the G major quartet K387 and the G minor quintet K516, and the presence of Mozart's other music throughout the book is a continual joy and strength.

It is invidious to pick out one chapter to the exclusion of others, but the writing on Idomeneo shows Cairns's technique at its very best. Idomeneo was for many years the ugly duckling among Mozart's mature operas (even La Clemenza di Tito enjoyed quite a vogue in early 19th-century England) and has only in our own times achieved regular performances on the stage. Even then there have been hiccups along the way: Cairns mentions Richard Strauss's 1931 version and is trenchant about the shortcomings of Bernhard Paumgartner's 1956 edition - "for a number of years the only vocal score of the work in print". I have a copy, covered with puzzled pencil marks noting discrepancies between it and any performance heard. As soon as a replacement can be found, it will go into the wastepaper basket.

The fact that Cairns is in this instance defending a cause makes him fervent and his writing all the finer. He also has the advantage that the composer and librettist had to carry on a lengthy correspondence about the text: Mozart prepared the opera in Munich, Giovanni Varesco was in Salzburg, Leopold Mozart acted as go-between and put in his halfpennyworth.

There was to be no similar interchange later with the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte because the two men both lived in the same town and presumably had no need for letters.

Mozart emerges as being absolutely clear in his artistic vision of Idomeneo and exacting over getting the technical and practical details right, while being sensible of the needs of singers, in particular Anton Raaff. He is prepared to fight with a court official, Count Seeau, over getting trombones, which were to play such a vital role in the drama.

But this gripping narration is only a preliminary for Cairns. He goes on to discuss the music, and there is the welcome appearance of music examples, although they make only occasional, albeit significant, additions to the rest of the book.

The music of Idomeneo , for which Mozart himself always retained a particular affection, causes Cairns to write quite beautifully, with great clarity and eloquence, driven by understanding of, and sympathy with, what Mozart intended. Pace Mendelssohn, one reflects that, at its best, writing about music can provide a sort of pale parallel experience to the real thing, recalling not only the music itself but also simultaneously providing a commentary, which enhances our experience of it. To achieve this can only be the result of great labour.

Over many years, Cairns has through his writings contributed greatly to the musical life of this country; his volumes on Hector Berlioz have already achieved classic status. It is a pleasure to salute him as the doyen of this critical community. He writes that his devotion to Mozart's music goes back some 60 years and one suspects that this volume has been many years in the making. And he knows well that there is really only one way to write about music and that is con amore , as he does about Mozart. That his labours should have reached fruition now suggests that there is something to be said for anniversary years.

But the Mozart year has only just begun and one wonders what else it will bring forth. We will be lucky to get a book as good as H. C. Robbins Landon and Donald Mitchell's Mozart Companion of 1956, or an article as stimulating and aggressively provocative as Hans Keller's on the chamber music.

Meanwhile, the reader should be directed to a book not on review here, but certainly worthy of attention: Nicholas Kenyon's The Faber Pocket Guide to Mozart . This is a lucky dip of a book with all sorts of up-to-date information about Mozart and Mozart scholarship, served up with a very light hand. If you had to confine yourself to one small Mozart paperback to see you through the anniversary, this should be the one.

Hugh Wood is a composer who taught at Cambridge University.

The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia

Editor - Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keefe
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 662
Price - £95.00
ISBN - 0 521 85659 0

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