Recently I’ve gotten into some debates against some casual classical music listeners who regard the works of Mozart and Handel to be ‘overrated’ because they don’t hold their modern ears’ attention as raptly and insistingly as music of the late Romantic period and beyond supposedly do. Being a lover of music from the early 1700’s to the late 1800’s, of course, I feel obligated to throw out a few things that modern audience should consider before pronouncing their judgment of any period’s music based on how it compares to music of different eras.
It is true that everyone is entitled to his own preferences and opinions, though not all opinions are created (or should be accepted as) equal. And to make your opinion more equal (so to speak) than others, it helps to spend more time and ponder the different contexts and circumstances that exist in different times and places before trying to make absolute judgment on things. This applies on many different fields than just classical music, of course, but I will only address two allegations in this article: that Handel’s operas are boring and musically unsophisticated and that Mozart’s music is bland and emotionally shallow.
First off, while I will readily agree that given a complete performance almost any opera by George Friedrich Handel will fail to hold my attention for the entirety of the show, I can’t honestly fault the composer for that. Opera-going practice was entirely different in the 18th Century from it is now. The auditoriums were kept well lit through out the show (they didn’t have electricity then and it wasn’t all that practical to keep putting out and relighting the gas lamps or torches) and the audiences weren’t required to be or stay quiet through out. Most of them actually loitered about munching on food and catching up with friends… The main auditoriums weren’t usually equipped with chairs (you had to bring your own). The aristocrats and well to do’s had their own loges and spent much of the show behind their curtain doing many different extra-performance (and sometimes extra-marital) activities – only popping up on the right side of the curtain to hear the bit of the opera that they liked before disappearing again.
Also, Handel the composer had to cater to the audience preferences of his days. That meant making room for a lot of onstage spectacles and allowing star singers (mostly castrati) showy numbers where they could let all of their (hopefully only) vocal assets hang out in order to interest and wow the preoccupied opera goers away from their food, books, and companions. Opera in that era was a long evening pastime where the music was expected to be used as background music much of the time and star-vehicle for the star singers during the rest. Taking that into consideration Handel really went above and beyond his duty in infusing his operatic music with obviously drama-oriented melodies and instrumental accompaniments. There is a valid argument to be had in presenting his operas in truncated form rather than in full now that the modern audience is expected to sit still and pay complete attention to every bit of music performed. What I would object to, however, is the use of modern standard to perform and to judge the works that were conceived in an era that did not live by the same rules.
The same argument can be made in the case of the ‘boring and emotionally shallow/superficial Mozart’ allegations… With a few additional contexts. Mozart composed more than 626 pieces of music in practically all form of classical music that existed in his era, starting from when he was only five years old. So, yes, some of his early music weren’t the paragons of deep thoughts and emotional insights.
Aside from that, Mozart composed mostly commissioned works that served a specific function or occasion. And so those commissioned music had to also conform to a certain mood that is appropriate for what ceremony they were commissioned for. He wasn’t free to compose what he liked how he liked and when he liked the way composers of the Romantic era and beyond were.
Thirdly, Mozart as played today is quite abused by modern perception of what the ‘classical style’ is and a lot of performers (and audiences) are making conscious decisions to put cleanliness and lightness above all other context that the music actually contains. Mozart’s contemporary critics often derided him when he gave concert for his extreme dramatic playing style. Some even called his indulgent use of rubato, dissonance, and dynamic variation ‘unmusical’. Nowadays when modern pianists play his music, however, they are derided if they try to interpret ‘too much’ into what the melody is trying to convey. It is a vicious circle; the performers serve up cleanly played but emotionally-dry-by-choice Mozart, the audience get used to hearing the music done in that manner and develop a comfort zone that demands to keep hearing it that way, to which the performers comply. Only once in a blue moon does someone come along and allow Mozart’s emotional content to come out and give a lot of folks an ear-opening performance (and pissing a whole bunch of critics off in the process for his/her ‘unstylistic’ performance).
I’m not saying that one should sing or play Mozart the way one does Wagner or or late Verdi, of course. The writing is different. You practically physically can’t… The Mazatlan musical line requires too much agility and nuances without as much volume. Old Wolfie was sneakier than later composers in how he expressed himself. To get Mozart, you have to be mentally and emotionally flexible and not always settling for the obvious. He was as big a drama queen as Puccini or Tchaikovsky were… but he was also coy and very witty – the type that can hide venom in a charming sounding phrase and you’d miss it (to your own cost) if you don’t pay attention.
Lang, Paul Henry. “George Frideric Handel” 1996. 203.
Lowe, Melanie Diane. “Pleasure and Meaning in the Classical Symphony”. Indiana University Press, 2007. 99.