In defense of Bach and Mozart

November 28, 2010 at 10:46 am | Posted in Composers, Repertoire/Programming, Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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While riding in the car with my violinist son (aged 20) this week, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto came on the Sirius Radio (one of the greatest inventions of the past 20 years, Howard Stern notwithstanding).  “I can’t wait to play that”, he said.  “When?”, I asked.  “Not for a while.  They say you shouldn’t play it until you are at least thirty.  It’s not very difficult, but it’s very hard.”

Bach wrote 6 unaccompanied Partitas and Sonatas for violin.  Mozart wrote five violin Concerti and thirty-six violin Sonatas.  My son told me that he hears a lot of violinists play the Bach or the Mozart and “you can tell from the first bar that it’s not going to be music, it’s just going to be note-note-note-note-note.”  He told me that every good violinist is musical when playing music from the Romantic period.  What’s really impressive is playing the seemingly simple and less “sophisticated” works with musical maturity.

“Beethoven created music.  Mozart discovered music” – Albert Einstein

There are a lot of ways to describe the difference between music of the Classical period and music of the Romantic period.  And while Beethoven is usually described as a “transitional” composer, the distinction that Einstein made is useful.

Albert Einstein loved Mozart.  He also loved Bach, about whose music he said “I have this to say about Bach’s works: listen, play, love, revere – and keep your trap shut”.  But mostly, he loved Mozart.  Einstein was an accomplished violinist.   He once said that had he not been a scientist, he would have been a musician. “Life without playing music is inconceivable for me,” he declared. “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music…I get most joy in life out of music.”  He never went anywhere without his violin.  He particularly loved to play Mozart Sonatas and Quartets, often playing the quartets with other scientists and professors who also played music.

Einstein credited his violin playing experiences with leading to some of his greatest insights. Einstein explained that he loved Mozart because it seemed that Mozart was capturing a pure music that was simply formed by the universe or divined by God.  Mozart himself would sometimes say that he felt like he was not composing so much as taking dictation.  Einstein would go on to explain that while Beethoven was a revolutionary genius, that his music was “too personal” and thus overwhelming and unnerving.

This makes sense though.  Einstein never saw himself as creating anything.  His quest was to simply discover how the universe worked, perhaps to explain it.  Mozart and Bach had a structure and simplicity that he saw as coming naturally from the universe, not from Mozart or Bach themselves.  It fits with his life long quest to explain the physical universe in a complete and organized way.

Another great figure of the 20th century, physician, philosopher, and theologian Albert Schweitzer, was a devotee of Bach.  Among his many accomplishments he was a music scholar and organist who studied the music of Bach extensively, examining its symbolism and imagery which he said illustrated with sublime simplicity the religious themes of the hymns the works were based on.

There is a belief so long held that it is axiomatic among many musicians.  It is that Baroque Music and Classical (period) Music is too simple to be given any more attention than the occasional “roots” performances.  It is a belief that Romantic Music, 20th Century Music or Post-Modern music is the only music with sufficient sophistication to be taken seriously.  It is a belief that only the common rabble prefers Mozart or Haydn or Bach over Mahler or Bruckner or Stravinsky.  It is a belief that the earlier music is not sufficiently complex to warrant much attention.  It is no small thing that Mahler and Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky revered Mozart and Bach.  It wasn’t nostalgia.  It is in their music.  The third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony works because even if the melody is altered just enough to not be obvious, something in is will still subconsciously recognize and be moved the simple folk tune Frere Jacques.   Percy Grainger, Aaron Copland and Anton Dvorak had a reverence for simple accessible folk songs that informed their greatest works.

I would submit that it is in this simplicity that genuine sophistication lies.  Countless philosophers, educators and scientists have opined, researched and concluded that music is a basic human need.  It is a need for all humans, not just the initiated.  If that is true, then accessible music is far from being inferior music.  Music that reaches humans at a basic level regardless of their level of musical sophistication is “classical music” regardless of when it was written.

Einstein said, “ the music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it—that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed”.

You won’t hear Mozart and Bach at the next IWS concert.  But you will hear some great Holiday music – much of it very familiar, accessible and comforting to the human soul.  Not a bad thing to accomplish on a chilly Sunday afternoon (Sunday December 12th, 3:00 p.m. in the Auditorium at Arsenal Tech High School).

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1 Comment »

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  1. Thank you! This is exactly what I needed to hear!


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