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Happy Birthday, Herr Mozart

Big selection of essays, some long, some short, about the great composer who was born on this day 250 years ago. Even if you care little for the rather overblown commemorations in Saltzburg and the associated commercial circus, it is hard not to join in the Mozart mania if you are a music fan, as I am.

I particularly enjoyed this essay by Terry Teachout. He asks the question to which there is probably no easy answer: how did such a man churn out such a fantastic and enduring collection of music?

Out of balance, there is also a rather sour piece by Norman Lebrecht . He obviously feels the need to break wind at the party, so to speak.

He was a provider of easy listening, a progenitor of Muzak”

Oh, what a magnificent put-down! After all, great music is supposed to be difficult, not easily understood by the great unwashed (sarcasm alert). But why should ‘easy-listening’ music be inferior to the supposedly hard-listening sort? He also argues that Mozart was not an innovator in the way that J.S. Bach was. Now Bach was a genius, but I am not aware that originality – assuming we take Lebrecht’s argument at its face value – is always the virtue that it is cracked up to be.

Anyway, I think that attempts to define some kind of objective judgement on music is fraught with difficulty, but I do know in my own heart that the Austrian composer has the capacity to speak to me as he does to millions of people, and I rather suspect that is likely to remain the case as long as music is played.

Quick quiz: which of Mozart’s pieces of music do you like the best?

35 comments to Happy Birthday, Herr Mozart

  • guy herbert

    They were playing Mozart over the public address in Vauxhall tube station this evening. A great improvement.

  • GCooper

    Johnathanm Pearce asks:

    “Quick quiz: which of Mozart’s pieces of music do you like the best?”

    None of them. I’m afraid I’m with Lebrecht. I can’t abide Mozart – it’s just the demented buzzing of a ferbile brain.

  • Johnathan

    GCooper, “ferbile”? Is that contagious?

  • michael farris

    all vocal pieces from his operas:

    Don giovanni
    dalla sua pace,
    mi tradi,

    Le nozze di figaro
    voi che sapete (hint: it’s anguished and sad, not cute)

    almost the whole thing, but especially
    first act wind trio,
    come scoglio,
    late duet between dorabella and the gugliemo(?)

    parto parto
    die hoelle rache
    ach, ich fuehl’s

    oh, and one instrumental, the overture to le nozze di figaro

  • GCooper

    Johnathan Pearce asks:

    “”ferbile”? Is that contagious?”

    Not as such. But my lousy typing probably is, so just start praying you haven’t caught it!

  • Euan Gray

    Dear me, I agree with GCooper.

    Beethoven and Bach for me, I’m afraid.


  • That “Rock me, Amadeus” was pretty catchy…

  • The Requiem for me. And I mean THE Requiem.

    (Which is my way of covering for not remembering its actual name. It’s the one on the “Amadeus” soundtrack. [slinks off in shame])

    But generally, I’m a Bach man.

  • Verity


  • Christopher Hlatky

    Last movement of the “Jupiter” symphony. Also, any Piano Concerto from No. 15 up.

  • Well, currently I do like the new 5.7L HEMI Dodge Ram 1500 High-Flow Exhaust Package for the new RAM.

    What’s that?


    Oh. Sorry. I thought you said Mo_P_ar.

    Never mind.

  • Julian Taylor

    Yes he wrote lots and lots of minor string quintets – the 18th century equivalent of modern mainstream pop – but I certainly don’t think less of Mozart for that and I can’t quite see why Mr Lebrecht should as well.

    The hard-knocks son of a cynical court musician, Mozart was taught from first principles to ingratiate himself musically with people of wealth and power.

    Well, yes. Patronage was what all composers desperately needed then and the more powerful the better. Luigi Boccherini (in my opinion a far better cellist than Haydn could ever have aspired to be) was under the patronage of the king of Spain until he refused to change one passage in a composition, in much the same way as Mozart eventually lost favour with the Austrian court.

    Ignore the commercial onslaught. Play the Leningrad Symphony … Listen to music that matters.

    Sorry, I only listen to Dmitri Shostakovich when I feel what Churchill referred to as ‘the Black Dog’ coming on. I can listen to the brief march within the first movement , but the remaining hour-long dirge makes me either want to reach for the gin or for the shotgun.

  • Johnathan

    GCooper, actually, you should patent that word and use it for something else!

    I also love Bach. The Brandenbergs are the best, IMHO.

    Re-reading the Lebrecht piece, it is actually even worse than the first time around. Pretentious, snobbish, conceited, and basically says that if music appeals to a mass audience and – horrors! – is successful, it must be inferior.

  • RobtE

    For those not familiar with BBC Radio4’s output there is a weekly programme called ‘Desert Island Discs’. It’s been around since God invented dirt. The premise is that an invited guest gets to choose 8 records, a book and a luxury that he or she would like to take to a desert island.

    Once in a while a guest will choose all pop songs, but most weeks there is a preponderance of classical pieces. For some reason, guests from the worlds of the arts and the ‘soft’ sciences will often choose Mozart, while those from maths and the ‘hard’ sciences will often choose Bach. Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, of course, was a law completely unto herself.

    Maybe something, maybe nothing. Either way, Mozart could certainly write a nice tinkly tune.

  • GCooper

    Johnathan Pearce writes:

    “Re-reading the Lebrecht piece, it is actually even worse than the first time around. Pretentious, snobbish, conceited, and basically says that if music appeals to a mass audience and – horrors! – is successful, it must be inferior.”

    Oh, Lebrecht’s a prize chump at times. But I still agree with his conclusions on this occasion – if not the way he got there!

  • Ask a pianist about his sonatas. The hardest thing is that you have to make it sound effortless.

  • Young Fogey

    I feel all dirty. I agree with Norman Lebrecht on something. Ugh!

    Although, THE Requiem is the exception that proves the rule. And then he had to go and die, just when he was starting to get somewhere…

    Me, I prefer Shostakovich.

  • Verity

    For combining elegance and strength, nothing can beat the Duke of Wellington’s Victory Marches. I just love it. Interesting that the same man who composed such a telling piece about the Duke of Wellington, also composed The Eroica.

  • Mike

    Us ferbile types can listen to the 40th (THE 40th) over and over again and never get tired of it. Embrace your ferbility, I say.

  • Verity

    Mike – I don’t know the 40th and therefore cannot embrace my ferbility. I feel so diminished.

    OTOH, do we know whether the ridiculous Ian Blair has embraced his own ferbility? I think ferbility recognition should be one more requirement to get accepted into the warm, kissy-huggy warm embrace of London’s Metropolitan Policettes.

    As Paddick has never seen a human condition (except heterosexuality) that he couldn’t relate to, he may want to set up a liaison office for guidance counsellors in febrility among London’s gangland murdering community.

  • chuck

    The piano concertos: nos 20, 21, 23, 25, 27. Of course, there is plenty of more: Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutti, …

    Here is Bobby McFerrin on Mozart,

    “I love Mozart so much I could devote the rest of my life to conducting his music,” McFerrin says. “It’s absolutely serious fun. There’s something in Mozart that’s very compatible with me, the way he swings and rocks. There’s a lot of air, breathing room, in his music. It’s lots of fun, very energetic and joyfully interesting. I love where his music goes, the moods he emotes.”

  • Steve P

    “But generally I’m a Bach man”
    Yes, “You ain’t seen nothing yet” was a great song wasn’t it?
    Back on topic: was Mozart truly Austrian? I once heard it said that Austria’s greatest triumph was to convince the world that Hitler was German and that Mozart was Austrian.

  • mike

    Beethoven for me – in particular, the 2nd movement of the 7th symphony, which is what I want when I’m enjoying writing something. The largo movement of the 3rd piano concerto when I get back home shattered – there is simply nothing more relaxing than listening to this with a cup of tea.

  • Johnathan

    To be honest I don’t rank the composers on a “greater than” scale. Music is very subjective. I like Mozart’s piano stuff the best, OTOH, I am not a fan of his horn concerto, etc.

    For the Bach fans, try Jacques Loussier’s playing of his works, with an undertone of jazz. It works. (Purists might be appalled).

    Verity: yes, Beethoven was briefly bedazzled by Bonaparte. I actually went to the house in Bonn where the man composed some of his music. The atmosphere was rather spooky.

  • Verity

    Incidentally, a vicious aside: Google had a rather good graphic up yesterday for Mozart’s birthday. On 25 December, though, there was no hint of Christmas, a somewhat more impactful event than a composer’s birthday.

  • Luniversal

    As a matter of historical fashion, the canonisation of Mozart only happened after WW2 when music was indeed ‘democratised’ through LPs, radio networks, etc. He dethroned Beethoven and Wagner, who were felt to be a bit too, er, *German* (faint echo of jackboots or just taking life too seriously) and Bach, whose religiosity was an embarrassment to infidel academic musicologists. Mozart was neat, tuneful, spritely and safe: perfect for analysing in theses or putting calls on hold.

    OK, that’s Lebrechtishly unjust, but Mozart always strikes me for the most part as a churner-out of stuff I could do myself with a little training and a computer programme that would ring changes on the cliches which surface again and again in his work. The emotional temperature and philosophical intensity is moderate.

    He did rise above the limitations of incidental music or operatic entertainment on occasion, and he might have achieved summits of profundity if he had lived into the same ‘interesting times’ as the titanic Ludwig van; but to elevate him as St Cecilia’s indisputable best boy is daft. Apart from those composers already cited, I’d put Handel above him– Handel who had shown years earlier that you needn’t count on the Court to stay in business.

  • Robert

    I was almost gonna answer Moonlight Sonata but before I made an ass out of myself I googled it to make sure if I was getting the right composer or not.


    I am too damn new to classical music. But I’m getting better, I swear!

  • Steve P: good god, sir, that was just rotten.

  • GCooper

    Luniversal writes:

    “I’d put Handel above him…”

    Far above him.

  • michael farris

    GCooper, too many notes?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Luniversal, the idea that you could “churn out” some pieces like Mozart is proof, were it required, that you are a complete and utter idiot. You have also been banned from this blog so clear off.

  • Henry Kaye

    I have been disappointed at the debate about the value of Mozart’s music. I am a lover of classical music and find that my tastes are satisfied at different times by a wide miscellany of composers: from Gluck, Vivaldi and Handel through Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and on to Tchaikowsky, Sibelius and Mahler. Only in the 20th century do I find my tastes unsatisfied, particularly by the recent diet of “film” music which, divorced from the events and actions which they describe and support, seem quite unpleasing to the ear.

  • Mike: Beethoven for me – in particular, the 2nd movement of the 7th symphony Yes!!!

    To paraphrase Mr. Alisa: “Handel could not serve tea to Mozart”.

    I am too enjoying different composers at different times and moods, as is the case with pop, rock and jazz as well. Still, some great composers are greater than others. My list would be Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, followed by the romantics.

    I love Mozart’s piano concertos as well, but I have a soft spot for piano in general, and piano concertos in particular.

  • mozartbeethoven

    “Bach, whose religiosity was an embarrassment to infidel academic musicologists. Mozart was neat, tuneful, spritely and safe: perfect for analysing in theses or putting calls on hold.” -Luniversal

    Mozart was as religious as Bach,

    “I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness.

    It is a great consolation for me to remember that the Lord, to whom I had drawn near in humble and child-like faith, has suffered and died for me, and that He will look on me in love and compassion.

    God is always before my eyes, I awknowledge his omnipotence, I fear His anger; but I also recognize his love, His compassion and tenderness toward His creatures; He will never forsake His servants. If it is according to His will, so let it be according to mine.” –W. A. Mozart