Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Mozart's symphonies: weighing their significance

When I casually remarked that Mozart wrote only 41 symphonies, a friend rightly corrected me. According to one authoritative enumeration, the Austrian composer is now known to have written 68 surviving ones (a few others may have perished.)

The ostensibly canonical roster of 41 stems from the edition of Mozart’s publisher Breitkopf and Hartel (1879-82). Yet by 1910 fourteen additional symphonies had been recovered (sometimes known, despite their early date, as 42-55). Now rejected as spurious are 2, 3, 48, 49, 51, 52, 53. So, subtracting 7 from 55, we get 48.

But that is not the end of the story. More recent work has identified twenty more symphonies. The musicologist Neal Zaslow had analyzed and consolidated these findings in a major book of 1989 entitled “Mozart’s Symphonies.” Zaslow also collaborated with the Academy of Ancient Music in their complete recording, available in nineteen CDs. To show that he is not simply some wild expansionist but one whose opinion must be accorded full weight, Zaslow is one of the editors of the forthcoming edition of the Koechel Catalogue, the bible of Mozart’s works.

Yet how much do these discoveries really matter? Mozart first started his symphonic career when he was 8 ½. Although a prodigy, he was not t h a t remarkable. Moreover, the symphony itself was then in its childhood. Etymologically the word symphony simply means playing in unison. In those days, many performers were not adept enough to attempt complex works. It was safer to write some straightforward oom-pah piece they could negotiate. There was often only one rehearsal or none. Symphonies could serve as overtures, entr’actes, or just background music. Many manuscripts were lost, because they were regarded as pieces d’occasion—no need to save them.

More consistent in quality (relatively speaking) and active over a longer period, Haydn is probably justly regarded as the father of the symphony. Again the record is patchy, though. In short, we should refrain from retrojecting the qualities of Mozart/s last six and Haydn’s London symphonies back through the entire series of either composer.

So how many of the Mozart symphonies are still worth listening to? As someone who has long admired Wolfgang Amadeus (though less so now than formerly), I would judge the following worth listening to more than once: 25, 29, 31 (Paris), 35 (Haffner), 36 (Linz), 38 (Prague), 39, 40, 41.

Specialists, and some others, will want them all (as in the AAM CD set). But I think that there is a difference between archaeology and enduring contributions to world culture. Most of the 68 are not enduring contributions in this sense. To be sure, we can be glad that (unlike the case of Aristotle's lost treatise on comedy) we have the full collection and can judge for ourselves.

Today many rightly express concern for the fate of classical music, where audiences seem to be dwindling day by day. Sometimes razzmatazz, as the Met’s new production of The Magic Flute, brings the crowds back—but for how long? I do not know how to measure what contribution archaeological piety has made to this decline, but it may account for some of it.

When I was in college I revered W. A. Mozart more than any other person of the past or present. I was horrified when I saw the novelist Kingsley Amis (that ignoramus) refer to him as “filthy old Mozart.” Looking back on those days, I suppose that my youthful hero-worship reflected a need for a stabilizing force to hold my chaos in check.

Mozart’s best instrumental works display a cosmic dimension, a sense of order, balance, and completeness. Together with Haydn’s comparable achievements, they set the pattern for “absolute music,” a medium of s o u n d a l o n e that did not require the help of sung words or a printed program. Still, this advance was only accomplished with the major compositions of each: our understanding is not enhanced by a fetishistic concentration on a large mass of indifferent ‘prentice work. Even Zaslow seems tacitly to acknowledge this distinction.

This new autonomy of sound was also the great contribution of Germany to music. To the orientation of Haydn and Mozart, which can rightly be termed cosmic, Beethoven added a huge accretion of subjectivity—his colossal ego. This modification is not to everyone’s taste. But arguably it set the stage for all later music. The mighty heritage of Beethoven has stretched even to rock and roll. So classical music unknowingly generated the seeds for its own supersession. “Roll over, Beethoven,” indeed.

Thank goodness, though, we have the Mozart symphonies on CD. Even all 68, if you wish.