Thursday, July 28, 2005

Einstein Mozart Biography: Disgraceful

It’s almost impossible to finish any one chapter of the Alfred Einstein Mozart biography (1945) without encountering some horrible misstatement, inaccuracy, or illogical conclusion. For the sake of brevity, let me discuss just two:

The chapter entitled “Mozart and Counterpoint” contains this gem:

“Although before 1780 Haydn had sometimes treated the finales of his quartets and symphonies fugally, he did not do so in a single one written after that date.” (p. 154)

This, I assume is referring to a movement which is entirely fugal (like the finales of Haydn's Op. 20 #2, 5, and 6), and not one that is “treated fugally” by introducing a fugato in the development (otherwise, his statement would be astronomically more false than it really is). As it turns out, Haydn did write an entirely fugal finale in his Op. 50 # 4 quartet in f# minor. This was composed in 1887, seven years after Einstein’s cutoff.

Little errors like this are certainly irritating (the book is riddled with them). It’s more discouraging, however, that his overall concepts are often flawed. In the abovementioned chapter, for instance, he claims that Mozart’s discovery of Bach’s music resulted in a “revolution and crisis in his creative activity.” Anyone who has listened to a large portion of Mozart’s works, spanning his entire career, knows this statement is nonsense. Stanley Sadie, who knew better, made a rather emasculated reply in The New Grove Mozart:

“Some scholars (notably Einstein, 1945) have ascribed a deep significance to Mozart’s encounter with Bach and with fugue in particular; but although some absorption of contrapuntal techniques cannot be excluded, their influence on Mozart’s central musical development is easily overrated.” (p. 90)

While Mozart’s encounter with the music of Bach is perhaps responsible for his preoccupation with fugues from 1782-83 (of which the most outstanding product is the fugue for two pianos in c minor) it is difficult to understand Einstein’s conclusion that the event “resulted in a revolution and a crisis in his creative activity.” The fugal finales of the two 1773 string quartets, K. 168 in F and K. 173 in d minor are certainly more Bach-like than anything Mozart wrote after the encounter (except possibly the works for mechanical organ, K 594 and K 608, and the church music, which is understandably Bach-like in character). Moreover, Mozart’s incorporation of fugato into sonata and rondo movements (beginning with the K 387 quartet in 1783), is simply a continuation of a tradition represented by a vast repertoire of works composed between 1750 and 1782 (see Fugue and Fugato in Rococo and Classical Chamber Music, by Warren Kirkendale). The increase in the contrapuntal nature of his music was actually very gradual, and since he lived in a time when counterpoint and craftsmanship were still valued, this was a natural development, and had little to do with any specific encounters.

I realize that debunking a silly book from 1945 might seem like a foolish undertaking. However, many of today's popular misconceptions of Mozart stem from books like this one, which somehow has managed to escape the critique it deserves.


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