Monday, December 19, 2005

A Different Kind of "Mozart Effect"

This is a rare day off for me, so I thought I'd enter a post. This is a subject that I've been thinking about since I read an article by Kyle Gann.

Kyle is one of my favorite writers on music, and since he's a world-class composer (And a classy guy as well, it seems), his views carry a lot of weight with me. A few days back, I read an article of his at Post Classic that really got me thinking... about a lot of things, so be prepared for a rugged, stream-of consciousness type of deal here.

In Something that has Always Perplexed Me, Mr. Gann wonders why middle-aged composers are seldom, if ever, discovered. He explains a lot about truisms we are all aware of: The obsession of our culture with youth and beauty, the marketing maven's slavish pandering to same, &c, &c.

This is all very easy to understand, as child prodigies and youthful talent fascinates us all. But in the case of music composition, this should be the other way around, shouldn't it? History proves that composition is a late-blooming phenomenon: Without exception, all great composers wrote their best works at or near the end of their lives. I'm trying to think of an exception to prove this rule, but I can't come up with anything. Paganinni stormed the stage in his forties after a year or two of intensive practice, but he was still considered a virtuoso before that time, and 'tis composers who we're talking about, so he doesn't really apply... Or does he?

Even with the great virtuosi, the peak performances come later in life. Usually the forties or fifties (Or, even the sixties if they remain healthy) are a performer's best years. This is understandable because the same maturity and deep artistic understanding that manifests itself in the late compositions of the great composers are at work in the great performer's interpretations. But still - as Kyle laments (Or, was it a commenter?) - we get a constant parade of young performers with great technique and no depth because they look good and the promoters hope they'll fill seats (Has anyone other than myself noticed the increasingly overt sexual marketing of young female classical music performers over the last few years? Could the red sequin gowns cling any tighter or be cut any lower? That cut up the side, does it have to go all the way to the hipbone? I suppose that I, of all music bloggers, probably shouldn't have brought that up, but please!).

My hunch is that the reason middle-aged composers and performers don't pop out of the woodwork more often is due to the fact that many of them simply quit: Life, love, families, and finances force a lot of potential talent to abandon art for more secure income generating activities. It seems to me that if a truely compelling middle-aged talent were to appear - be it a composer or a performer - there would simply be no denying them their place in the limelight. If, that is, they were to seek said limelight.

Mr. Gann goes on to note that some older composers do get discovered, so some of the talented ones with sticktoitiveness are finally rewarded. However, he notes that these composers are often "discovered" by students, so perhaps there is more to it than the fact that many middle-aged family folks are former-musicians and former-composers.

Well, as I alluded to above, I'm guessing that the majority of middle-aged folks who don't quit have given up on the idea of being discovered: They do it "for the love, man", and have long since shed any big ego investments in potential fame (I don't know how great - or even good - I am, but I fall in to this category vis-a-vis my attitude about the whole thing).

But, why aren't the music industry "scouts" even looking for the middle-aged composers and performers that we all have a feeling are out there laboring in obscurity? Why don't they think that a good composer or performer could stand on their own musical merits without necessarily having to arouse the prurient interests of members of the complimentary sex? Why are they seemingly unaware of the fact that composing (and performing) are really late-blooming activities?

I blame Mozart. Not the real Mozart; the mythical one. And, even behind the mythical Mozart, there is another.

One of my favorite love/hate relationships is with the movie Amadeus, starring Tom Hulce as Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as Salieri. As I mentioned previously, I met Tom Hulce once and complimented him on his brilliant performance, and it was a very brilliant performance. But the movie as history is... well, it's fiction is what it is. How many laymen understand that? I'm betting not very many. Heck, I meet plenty of musicians who ought to know better who think Mozart was a hopeless man-child who conformed to all of the stereotypes presented in that feature. And hey, how about those costumes the females wore? Woo, hoo! All those tender parts bulging out and heaving with every breath. Looks like today's music marketing gurus watched Amadeus with pad in hand and took copious notes. Problem is, the women portrayed in that film didn't dress anything like that.

But anyway, was Mozart really the child prodigy he was touted as?

Back when I was making the transition from being a rock/jazz guitarist and songwriter into the classical realm, I bought just about everything by Mozart that I could find on CD. I first fell in love with the Piano Concerto No. 21, which has one of the most romantic slow movements in all of the literature, in my opinion. Most Romantic era composers never came close to that, as far as I'm concerned. I eventually came to some inexpensive recordings of the early symphonies of Mozart. I was impressed, but I was not impressed: Coming from a very young man, they impressed me; but as music compared to his later works, they didn't.

My first hint that something was wrong with the Mozart myth came when I was a doctoral candidate. I stumbled across some facsimilies of his notebooks from his time taking counterpoint lessons from Padre Giambattista Martini. They sucked! I mean, they sucked ass! By that time, my counterpoint was far superior. Just wacky weirdness permiated these notebooks: Abortive fugal attempts with inappropriate harmonic passages and... hopeless. At the beginning, that is. He was indeed... ah... a very fast learner. But he was a teen at this time, so what about all of that imposible-for-his-age early stuff?

Well, it now seems that his father Leopold probably corrected a lot of that early music, and he may even have written some of it entirely! (I can't find the article that mentioned some of the scholarship that came to this conclusion, so please forgive the "linklessness" here: If you know of articles that express this view, I'd appreciate a link in the comments).

Isn't it rich? The irony, I mean? Leopold Mozart was (In addition to the inventor of the double-dotted note) a promoter who padded his son's portfolio to sell him. And so, today's promoters have been had by one of their own antecedents. What's not the least bit funny is that both musicians and the music-loving public have paid the price for this ancient deceit.

"That really isn't funny at all."

I knew you'd agree.


Blogger dulciana said...

Yes, it is rich. And I think you're right on the money with your analysis.

7:14 PM  
Blogger Codonauta said...

I think in what Mozart would had composed if he lived until 55-65 yaers old, as Beethoven , Bach.
The precoce death of him deprived us of a lot of great compositions, more than probably.

9:00 PM  

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