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· A Style Forever Young and Old — Mozart at 250 ·

I well remember distinctly asking myself on my turning thirty-six: "Well, what have you accomplished? Mozart was dead now!" Here today on his birthday, I thought we might all, young or old, likewise reply: "Not much!" For Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is the gold standard of real human achievement. · Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ·

Lest you alloy any regret in artistic appreciation, I thought to offer here a famous pianist's take on the great musician's art. It comes at the end of Charles Rosen's 1971 National Book Award winning study, The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. Rosen's subject is, I think, more perennial still, and it gives us perspective, whatever our own genius, on what it means to make, and then release, such a "classical" style.

A style, when it is no longer the natural mode of expression, gains a new life — a shadowy life-in-death — as a prolongation of the past. We imagine ourselves able to revive the past through its art, to perpetuate it by continuing to work within its conventions. For this illusion of reliving history, the style must be prevented from becoming truly alive once again. The conventions must remain conventional, the forms lose their original significance in order to take on their new responsibility of evoking the past. This process of ossification is a guarantee of respectability. The classical style could originally bring no such assurance. Don Giovanni and the Eroica were scandalous, the London Symphonies sublimely impertinent. . . . just as the Handelian fugue in Mozart served to match the high seriousness of a sacred ritual, the sonata-forms in the symphonies and chamber music of Mendelssohn and Schumann are essays in decorum and respect. In these works, sadly out of favor today, the evocation of the past is only incidental: the intent was to attain the prestige of the style imitated. The sense of the irrecoverable past, however, is omnipresent in the music of Brahms, resignedly eclectic, ambiguous without irony. The depth of his feeling of loss gave an intensity to Brahms's work that no other imitator of the classsical tradition ever reached; he may be said to have made music out of his openly expressed regret that he was born too late [or maybe lived too long]. For the rest, the classical tradition could be used with originality only through irony — the irony of Mahler, for example, who employed sonata-forms with the same mock respect that he gave to his shopworn scraps of dance-tunes. The true inheritors of the classical style were not those who maintained its traditions, but those, from Chopin to Debussy, who preserved its freedom as they gradually altered and finally destroyed the musical language which had made the creation of the style possible. [emphasis added] Charles Rosen, The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, New York: Viking, 1971, 460

Isn't it good to know that even Mozart first failed to get (if you'll forgive the pun here) a "Handel" on things?

But then again, when Mozart did get a grip on his own style, he just couldn't — as we now must — at last "Let it go."


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