Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Ubiquity of Mozart's Opera Technique

Earlier this year, at the Annual Meeting of the Music Critics Association of North America, I saw a video by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, produced as part of an effort to build up his “Web presence.”  In introducing the video, he said he was motivated by a desire to promote the same interest in serious music that Leonard Bernstein had achieved through television.  His example involved a keyboard demonstration to warrant the hypothesis that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s finest operatic qualities could also be found in his instrumental music, Tommasini’s example being a movement from one of the piano sonatas, easily demonstrated through his talking above his own keyboard performance.

I have to confess that I like this thesis.  However, I can also confess that my interest in Bernstein was already waning once I got out of high school.  I think that one of his problems was that he always seemed to resolve everything into cut-and-dried answers;  and now, looking back on all of that stuff, I realize that the greatest joy in listening is that it is always capable of stimulating new questions and new perspectives.

I also later learned that Bernstein could be sloppy when it came to giving credit where credit was due.  His best ideas often came from some source that tended to be left unacknowledged.  (Television is not very kind to footnotes.)  Therefore, I was not surprised to discover that Tommasini’s thesis about Mozart was not original.  By the same count I should not have been surprised to discover that the “prior art” could be attributed to Arnold Schoenberg.  I guess I was surprised because I encountered it in Schoenberg’s famous “Brahms the Progressive” essay.  Here is the text from Schoenberg that he then generalizes from opera to other genres:

Accommodation of the music to every change of mood and action, materially or psychologically, is the most essential problem an opera composer has to master.  Inability in this respect might produce incoherence—or worse, boredom.  The technique of the recitative escapes this danger by avoiding motival and harmonic obligations in which it might have engaged.  But the ‘Finales’ and many ‘Ensembles’ and even ‘Arias’ contain heterogeneous elements to which the technique of lyric condensation is not applicable.  In pieces of this type a composer must be capable of turning within the smallest space.  Mozart, anticipating this necessity, begins such a piece with a melody consisting of a number of phrases of various lengths and characters, each of them pertaining to a different phase of the action and the mood.  They are, in their first formulation, loosely joined together, and after simply juxtaposed, thus admitting to be broken asunder and used independently as motival materials for small formal segments.

This may lack the “multimedia appeal” of talking over a keyboard performance;  but it also goes beyond the what-a-pretty-mud-pie rhetoric to seek out just which nuts and bolts of Mozart’s operatic scores generalize so well.  Alas, this is the sort of argument that ultimately resides in the power of words and the kind of reflective thought we can bring to reading from the page, rather than watching a demonstration through video.

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