Friday, January 04, 2008

Playing Mozart, Watching Mozart

One of the reasons why this blog has fallen into a state of neglect is that I spend a lot of time practicing the piano. Toss in the various other time vacuums on the adult side of the family life equation, and well, blogging doesn't seem to fill a void because there's no void to be filled.

Moreover, my professional life is occupied with writing, and I've discovered that writing as a hack is not conducive to producing the (can I say it?) nicer, perhaps more elegant stuff I'd like to present here.

Nevertheless, I will continue to press on, and we shall see what comes of it.


I am playing Mozart again. I do not know why, but I have avoided playing his music on the piano ever since we bought it last January. Preferring to spend my time on Bach and Beethoven instead of tackling Mozart, I believe part of it was a genuine lack of interest on my part.

Nevertheless, about two months ago, I found myself taking out my volume of his sonatas and playing them, starting with K. 309. As I played it, I began to wonder why on earth it was I had stopped playing Mozart.

I have spent months playing Bach and Beethoven and I fear that most of that playing has been lifeless and uninspired. Then I sit down and play some Mozart, and suddenly the piano feels alive, or at least there's a pulse, and I finally feel capable of stirring this dry percussion into the joint pursuit of making music. With Mozart.

Mozart. The composer everyone warns you about, that playing his music is the hardest thing in the universe to do. Who hasn't been told in a piano lesson, or in a masterclass, that despite the sheer beauty a serviceable musician can produce when they're playing Mozart, that nevertheless, despite all evidence to the contrary, Mozart is really the hardest composer to play well?

Do I have any solid evidence for this bit of conjecture? No, but if there are any classical musicians who happen to read this blog, please support me here in my contention that saying Mozart is the most difficult music to play in the entire canon is the Pez of classical music's conventional wisdom, at hand to be dispensed by a journalist looking for a newspaper quote, or perhaps to a student learning to play K. 545 and who complains that it is too easy.

Please. Let's turn this view on its head, and argue that part of the reason Mozart is so hard to play is that his music is not intended for professionals, but for amateurs, but that professionals need some reason to justify their playing it.

I would never go so far as say that the brilliant techniques of many very fine pianists are, perhaps, wasted on Mozart, but that they want to play him too, and that the effortlessness of playing Mozart musically and beautifully presents certain philosophical problems to the professional musician.

The thing I find startling about Mozart is just how easy it is to make him sound good. Mozart does all the work for you.

But, instead of arguing, let's use the power of the Internet to demonstrate this. First, here's Vladimir Horowitz playing the last movement of Mozart's K.330:

Beautiful, isn't it? Well, how about Lang Lang? It's a tad slower, but he was just playing with a whole orchestra, so you can't really blame him for making his encore just a tad more subdued!

So then, what about this young lady - the 3rd movement starts at 3:40. Is she playing like Horowitz or Lang? No, but isn't the joy still there, the line? Do we not see the forest for the trills here?

Or how about this? The pickup on the camera is a bit weak, but should we be knocking on his door and confiscating his Peters Edition of the sonatas?

Mozart's music presents technical difficulties, and no one would argue that, but I'm not sure if there is any composer who rewards you with so much even if you can only put in a little. Mozart's music is some of the most charitable music in the world. So why does this myth of Mozart's secret difficulty persist?

Perhaps it has to do with the emergence of the musician as artist as opposed to journeyman. Out of this transformation emerged the deification of the composer, of which Mozart was perhaps the first, and the fetishizing of the score as sacred text.

[An aside - does anyone remember Gunther Schuller's The Complete Conductor? No other work better captures this sacred tone than his fundamentalist tome. I leave it to the reader to decide whether or not that's a church of which they are a member, except to say that Schuller's book is the only music book I have ever returned to a bookstore. I would also suggest a tonic of Richard Taruskin after attempting to read it.]

As Liszt et al composed music that only a few could play, and the concurrent emergence of piano playing as a profession, keeping Mozart well within the bounds of the professional, as an essential part of a professional pianists repertoire, given his status in the growing pantheon of greats, makes a certain part of sense.

The problem is that in order to divorce his piano sonatas and variations from their initial context as teaching pieces and for private performance, and raise them, as it were, to something worth a professional's performance time would have to find ways to talk about them that justify this.

Now I know that this sounds like some kind of mass conspiracy, but I do not mean it this way. Rather, finding new ways to talk about Mozart's piano music and its "special" difficulties for the performer, even though they are not really there, is a reflection of how practices shift and shape themselves to survive in new surroundings.

The upshot of this justification is that Horowitz plays Mozart. But need there be a downside, that Mozart is off-limits to the rest of us, when he so clearly needn't be, that his music is actually a boon to the amateur more than nearly any class of performer? I think it's time we set Mozart, and amateur musicians, free from this bromide.


Gawain said...

Perhaps what is hard about mozart is the same thing that is hard about slow arias. In their case there is no technical complexity to hide behind, no technical mastery with which the fool the audience.

To play mozart well requires -- a beautiful soul!

Sei Shonagon reports playing Mozart harder than Bach for this reason. but she claims playing Scarlatti is harder still ("it makes no sense", she says, meaning that it has a structure all of its own, not your usual theme-reprise-modulation-second theme-first variation and so forth).

I love Mozart madly. What beauty, what humor, what charm, what wit, what manners. And it is not true that he is happy go lucky -- just listen to Don Giovanni's La Liberta chorus!

I have a Mozart-related post coming up.

Andrew W. said...

As someone who's soul is blacker than tar, I take deep exception to that remark. I too can play Mozart beautifully, despite my limitless capacity for evil!

And I also love Mozart, although not in the way I do Beethoven, who I find as I get older is just increasingly under my skin. My enjoyment in playing or listening to Mozart is very close to yours.

Anonymous said...

Hi. In my opinion, I would classify it the opposite. Beethoven plays for itself. Mozart does not!

It requires a lot of shaping and concentration and hardwork to achieve a very "mozart" sound. Not quite sure how to explain it just in words but..
It has a lot to do with touch, sound quality and tone and the colours and direction. It would not be so much of a technical problem, but playing from the heart-ah that is difficult.

Yes the problem is that it "sounds" easy. But in fact there is so much hardwork behind a good mozart performance.

As brendal once said "Mozart, too easy for children, too difficult for artists.

Andrew W. said...

Anonymous, your comment seems to miss the thrust of my entire post. Of course one can polish a Mozart piano sonata, and do all sorts of things with his music; there's much to learn, but there's also something to be said about sitting down with some of his piano music and just walking through it. My point is that both are quite delightful.

That's why I completely disagree with Brendel here, because I think, in his attempt to convey the sublimnity of Mozart, passes over his humanity.

Mozart wrote his piano music mainly for amateurs, for his students, for publication. In other words, I suspect he wanted his music to be both nice sounding and reasonably easy to play.

Why is this so difficult for people to accept, that playing Mozart well is achievable to the amateur? Mozart certainly would be surprised by that pronouncement that it's not!

I guess all I'm saying is that you should continue to work on colour and tone, I certainly do, and play from the heart as you say, but don't deny those for whom Mozart intended much of his piano music of the simple pleasure that is playing one of his sonatas.

Isa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Isa said...

Mozart wrote pieces for his students but also pieces that he performed himself.

I don't think anyone has said that Mozart is "too difficult for amatures" like us. Just like every other difficult piece, it is accessable and playable -- it's just a matter of how well you are able to master it. For an experienced professiona, Mozart may be easier to master than less skilled amatures.

No one who really know how Mozart should sound like would call playing Mozart easy. And I agree with the post above that it's Beethoven whose music lends itself to the phrasing, the dynamcis, the atmosphere and such. Not Mozart. Mozart may be easier to play technically in a strict sense (even that's a stretch for many pieces, the undisguisable scales and trills can be a killer), but the precision and purity in technique that is required by Mozart, the style, phrasing, layers, colours - only the most musically sophisticated can do it justice. Even after you have gotten the notes down and are able to play at the correct tempo, it can still take days of continuous playing just to get one page of Mozart's sonata to sound "right". And there's no complexities to for the the slightest flaws to hide behind.

If really all that is easy for you and all comes naturally, then I must say you are one of the very, very lucky fews.