Classical Music Commentary: Mozart Mania

The composer turns 250 this year and everyone is trying to cash in on the worldwide party.

By Mark Kroll

You might not know if 2006 is the year of the dog or the dragon in the Chinese calendar, but you couldn’t have possibly missed the news that this year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The entire world seems to be celebrating. There is a “Month of Mozart” in Portland, Oregon, a performance of the missing libretto to Mozart’s opera “Zaide” in Japan, and a screening of the first feature-length documentary on Mozart’s life throughout Australia. Mozart’s hometown of Salzburg is getting into the act in a big way, presenting for the first time all of Wolfgang’s 22 operas and theater works.

There must be a reason why almost everyone on the planet (the Taliban excluded) is celebrating the birthday of a composer who lived more than two centuries ago. Certainly, there is universal agreement that his music is sublime. Musicians love to play it and audiences love to hear it. But something other than musical devotion is lurking behind all of this frenetic activity. Mozart also means money! For example, recordings of his music represent 25 percent of all classical music sales, and Brilliant Classics is cashing in with a complete set of his works. At 170 CDs, it might weigh more than Mozart did in his stocking feet, but that hasn’t stopped more than 70,000 people from already buying it.

Publishers also anticipate a tidy profit from the Mozart year. Even though 12,000 books have already been written about the great composer, expect many more in 2006. Three early entries in the Mozart publishing sweepstakes are Stanley Sadie’s biography of the prodigy’s early years, Jane Glover’s “Mozart’s Women,” and “The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia,” 371 pages of facts and anecdotes written by 48 of the leading scholars in the field.

Commercial interests are therefore threatening to overwhelm the Mozart year, and many of the birthday offerings teeter precariously on the edge of bad taste. Salzburg, which treated its native son badly when he was alive, is now falling over itself to make amends — and a considerable profit. This year, you can not only buy its traditional “Mozartkugeln,” but also Mozart baby bottles, Mozart milkshakes and even Mozart golf balls.

Not to be outdone, Vienna will station costumed musicians all along the route of the City Marathon to serenade the runners with Mozart as they stagger by. After the race, everyone can snack on the “Mozart Salami” made by the Vienna-based Wiesbauer-Oesterreichische Wurstspezialitaeten.

The Austrian Government has given all of this its official blessing, and then some. It is spending 100 million euros to promote its “Mozart Year,” and expects to attract 300,000 visitors and their wallets. According to Arthur Oberascher, director of the Austrian Tourist Bureau, “Mozart is Austria’s most successful global brand,” one he estimates to be worth 5 billion euros a year in global music sales and tourist spending.

Can anything be done to prevent this “brand” from being linked to golf balls or salami? Very little, since there is no Mozart estate to object. The bloodline died out in the 19 th century with the passing of Mozart’s son, an adequate but hardly distinguished musician, leaving the name “Mozart” up for grabs. As Nick Lidell, valuations director of the London-based Interbrand explains, “if it was protected and did have an owner, there is no way you would just let someone slap the name on a salami. It’s not supporting the brand in any meaningful way.”

This still does not explain why it is Mozart who can inspire such a furor, and not Bach or any other composer — like Beethoven. After all, as recently as 1980 the “New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians” called Beethoven “the most admired composer in the history of Western music.” Yet he never had a birthday celebration like this.

The musicologist A. Peter Brown came up with a plausible explanation in 1991, when the world was gripped by a similar Mozart fever during the 200 th anniversary of his death. He suggests that “this popularization of Mozart did not come from the opera houses or concert halls…but from the stage and screen. More than any other factor, the Mozart mania of the 1980s was initiated by Peter Shaffer’s play “Amadeus.” It and the subsequent film did more for Mozart’s case than anything else in the two hundred years since the composer’s death.”

This seems right on the mark. But what is so bad about making a classical composer popular to millions of people? I personally loved “Amadeus” for this very reason, even though it played fast and loose with the facts. This includes the very premise of the plot — that the composer Antonio Salieri poisoned Mozart. It never happened. But this didn’t stop the story from making the rounds in Vienna before Mozart’s body was cold. Even Mozart’s widow Constanze endorsed the idea, hoping to make some money on the legacy of her supposedly martyred husband. Mozart does indeed sell, dead or alive.

The play and film repeated many other myths about Mozart’s life and character, and created a few new ones, causing a minor uproar among some musicologists. All of this is beside the point. Mozart doesn’t need any fiction or exaggeration to justify our sense of awe about him. He really is a mythical figure, a once-in-a-lifetime prodigy, a genius who wrote music of incomparable beauty that has spoken to the hearts of every succeeding generation. The staggering number of works he produced during his brief life only adds to our sense of awe. It would take three people their entire lifetimes just to copy out all the music Mozart composed. The name Amadeus (‘of God’) couldn’t be more appropriate.

So let us not worry about Mozart. He will certainly survive all the excess and exploitation of this “Mozart year” without a scratch. In fact, he might have even enjoyed the party. Now all we need is a movie about Beethoven called “Ludwig.”

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