Mozart the Maverick

Portrait of Mozart

MSA Session at Mostly Mozart Festival, Lincoln Center

Mozart the Maverick

Sunday, 29 July 2018, 3:00–4:30 p.m.

“…I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame – I mean, until people have heard the work as a whole. I simply follow my own feelings.”

In this statement in a letter to his father, written on 8 August 1781, Mozart evinces a strong independent streak with regard to musical style, an attitude in conformity with his recent rejection of continued service, under humiliating conditions, to the Salzburg court of Prince-Archbishop Colloredo. But Mozart could only go his own way to a limited degree: of necessity (given the prevailing musical language), he relied to a large degree on formal and stylistic conventions even in the best of his works, and he enjoyed various forms of patronage throughout his Viennese decade, even while mostly remaining a free-lance composer.

This year’s panel at the Mostly Mozart Festival addresses the theme “Mozart the Maverick” – whether as an innovative composer who broke with (or at least stretched) musical traditions, or in terms of his (largely) independent professional path. The panel will include three papers and there will be time at the end for questions from the audience.

  • Edmund Goehring (University of Western Ontario): “The ‘New Rule’ of Genius: Mozart at the Boundaries of Originality and Tradition”
  • Edward Klorman (McGill University): “A Sociable Virtuosity? Challenge and Complexity in Mozart’s Music of Friends”
  • Laurel E. Zeiss (Baylor University): “Mozart the Maverick? Mozart the Competitor? Or Mozart Purveyor of Grace?”
  • Bruce Alan Brown (University of Southern California), moderator


Edmund Goehring (University of Western Ontario): “The ‘New Rule’ of Genius: Mozart at the Boundaries of Originality and Tradition”

Works of genius stand in a complex relation to artistic tradition. Genius’s demand for originality implies antagonism toward tradition; its demand for exemplarity implies respect for it. A wholly original work, showing no regard for learning, would by definition be incoherent, betraying the work of a “bungler” who prefers parading around “on a horse with the staggers than “one that is properly trained.”

That verdict comes from Kant and his Critique of Judgment, which appeared in 1790, the year before Mozart’s death. In trying to negotiate the tensions between innovation and tradition, Kant invokes another distinction: that between “succession” and “imitation.” If ingenious artists cannot imitate another work without sounding derivative, they can turn to past works for examples of what it looks like to forge something original, “to exercise freedom from coercion in art in such a way that the [art] itself acquires a new rule.”

Some passages in Mozart’s correspondence anticipate Kant’s view of invention. The finest testimony comes, however, in the music itself. The majority of this presentation will be devoted to showing how Mozart forged a new rule from old art in his G-Minor String Quintet (1787), a treasure of the repertoire that is on the program this summer. Remarkable about its first movement is how it thoroughly folds a Baroque rhythmic continuity into a style oriented around rhythmic contrast — all without sacrificing the integrity of Mozart’s own style. The movement thus exemplifies the dynamic sense of tradition and innovation later philosophized by Kant and, after that, espoused by Proust, who, probably serendipitously, also speaks of “succession”:

These great innovators are the only true classics and form an almost continuous succession. The imitators of the classics, in their finest moments, give us only a pleasure of erudition and taste which is of no great value.

Edward Klorman (McGill University): “A Sociable Virtuosity? Challenge and Complexity in Mozart’s Music of Friends”

During a period that praised “the natural” as an aesthetic ideal, Mozart composed music that was on various occasions criticized — by critics, composers, and even his father –for its complexity and artifice. In the case of symphonic music, detractors held that highly ornate compositions — e.g. the “Jupiter” Symphony’s elaborate fugal finale — would overwhelm non-connoisseur audiences. But for chamber music intended for domestic musical gatherings, there was also the practical consideration that compositions rife with complex passagework were difficult for amateur players to manage. One author in the Journal des Luxus und der Moden (1788) lamented that whereas other pieces “keep some countenance even when indifferently performed, [a Mozart piano quartet] can … hardly bear listening to when it falls into mediocre amateurish hands.” Indeed, Dittersdorf suggested (in a 1788 letter) that the challenges posed by Mozart’s string quartets limited their commercial viability for publishers since such complicated music was “not everybody’s purchase.”

Nevertheless, he persisted. Although Mozart did indeed compose some pieces in a deliberately simple style (such as the “Sonata facile”, K. 545), he continued to incorporate virtuoso passagework and contrapuntal complexities into chamber music throughout his career.

This paper takes up complex passages from two compositions: the finale to the Quartet in G, K. 387 (dedicated to Haydn) and the minuet movement from the “Kegelstatt” Trio (written for his friends Franziska von Jacquin and Anton Stadler). Like a chef preparing a spicy meal to be shared with friends, Mozart surely took pleasure in “serving” technical and musical difficulties to his companions in these pieces, hurdles that would surprise, challenge, delight, and impress them when these friends eventually gathered to play these pieces together. In sum: I argue that a sociable muse may have influenced Mozart to compose these passages, even at risk to his commercial or critical appeal.

Laurel E. Zeiss (Baylor University): “Mozart the Maverick? Mozart the Competitor? Or Mozart Purveyor of Grace?”

Perhaps no other string quartet opening is more audacious and surprising than that of Mozart’s String Quartet in C Major, K. 465 (“The Dissonant Quartet”). Harsh sonorities gradually dissipate and then give way to a jaunty allegro. What is going on here? I will argue that the quartet’s introduction reflects several aspects of Mozart’s compositional personality. First, it reveals Mozart the competitor. K. 465 comes from a set of quartets dedicated to eminent composer Joseph Haydn. Mozart’s work takes one of Haydn’s favorite techniques, tonally ambiguous openings, to an extreme. However, the opening also reflects what theorist Scott Burnham has called “Mozart’s Grace”: each part has a distinct role and is interesting in and of itself. It is how the individual parts combine that make the opening so shocking and give it a maverick quality. Lastly, I will examine the quartet in light of how it was performed in the 1700s. As Ed Klorman has shown, chamber music was a “music of friends.” It was designed for home entertainment. Instrumentalists played the music from individual parts. Much of the fun was discovering how the individual lines interacted or “conversed” with one another. On the page, the opening of K. 465 appears fairly straightforward, if a bit more chromatic than was customary. The interaction between the parts is what surprises. Was the opening intended as a joke? A challenge? Or both?

Many of these concepts also apply to the opening of “The Prague” Symphony, another work scheduled to be performed at the 2018 Festival.