WDAV Blog

2020 Grammy Awards: 5 Classical Moments We Loved

Pictured: Nicola Benedetti by Simon Fowler.

By Mary Lathem

The 62nd GRAMMY Awards were stacked with dynamic performances and historic wins, including plenty of thrills for fans of classical music. For those who missed the broadcast (or just want to relive the glory), we’ve rounded up some of the classical moments that defined the GRAMMYs this year:

 

1. Nicola Benedetti’s powerful performance at the GRAMMY Award Premiere Ceremony left the audience in awe.

The Scottish-born violinist’s rendition of “Bye Bye Breakdown” from American jazz composer Wynton Marsalis’ “Fiddle Dance Suite,” evoked thunderous applause from the audience at the GRAMMY Award Premiere Ceremony, where the majority of GRAMMYs are awarded prior to the televised ceremony. She later received the award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo for her recording of Marsalis’ “Violin Concerto and Fiddle Dance Suite.” Benedetti was the first classical solo violinist to perform at the GRAMMY Award Premiere Ceremony in a decade.

Watch Benedetti’s performance here:

VIDEO: Nicola Benedetti performs “Fiddle Dance Suite” at the 2020 Grammy Awards.

 

2. Lizzo’s opening performance featured an all-female string and horn orchestra (and, of course, her famous flute).

Singer-songwriter and rapper Lizzo kicked off the GRAMMYs broadcast with a medley of her hit songs accompanied by an orchestra of her own vision. An outspoken former “band kid” and classically trained flutist, Lizzo has often commented positively on her own musical education and encouraged others to try playing an instrument.  Lizzo proclaimed “Tonight is for Kobe” as her performance began, paying tribute to basketball legend Kobe Bryant, who lost his life in a tragic aviation accident earlier in the day.

The multidimensional artist went on to win three GRAMMY Awards for Best Pop Solo Performance (“Truth Hurts”), Best Urban Contemporary Album (Cuz I Love You), and Best Traditional R&B performance (“Jerome”).

Watch Lizzo’s performance here:

VIDEO: Lizzo performs “Cuz I Love You” & “Truth Hurts” at the 2020 Grammy Awards.

 

3. John Williams received his 25th Grammy Award, winning the Best Instrumental Composition category for “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge Symphonic Suite.”

Subtitled “Music inspired by the Disney themed land,” Williams’ winning composition was written for the Disneyland theme park Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, where it will greet visitors via overhead speakers for years to come. The suite is Williams’ first work for Star Wars that does not weave in previously written themes (no Imperial March here).

Hear Williams’ “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge Symphonic Suite”:

VIDEO/AUDIO: John Williams’ “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge Symphonic Suite”

 

4. Classical giants Joshua Bell and Lang Lang joined several famous faces in a tribute to producer Ken Ehrlich.

After 40 years leading the show, GRAMMYs executive producer Ken Ehrlich announced that the 2020 ceremony would be his last as he enters retirement. In true GRAMMYs fashion, a colossal, diverse group of talents joined together in a salute to Ehrlich’s contributions, performing “I Sing the Body Electric” from the 1980 movie musical Fame. Along with violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Lang Lang, the star-studded ensemble featured singers Camila Cabello, John Legend, Gary Clark Jr., Cyndi Lauper, and Ben Platt; rapper Common, and ballet dancer Misty Copeland among others.

Watch Joshua Bell and Lang Lang’s opening moments with Camila Cabello:

 

5. Hildur Guðnadóttir won Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media for the miniseries Chernobyl, another history-making award for the Icelandic composer.

Guðnadóttir has had quite the awards season already, becoming the first solo woman to receive the Best Original Score award at the Golden Globes for Joker in early January. Her most recent win marks another historical moment: she is now the first solo woman to take home the Best Score Soundrack for Visual Media GRAMMY award as well. To match the industrial grittiness of the destruction onscreen, Guðnadóttir knitted the score for Chernobyl together with sounds recorded in a real power plant in Lithuania.

Watch Guðnadóttir’s explanation of the creative process:

VIDEO: ‘Chernobyl’ composer created entire haunting score from real power plant sounds.

Read the list of nominees and winners in the Classical, Music for Visual Media and Arranging/Composing categories, here.

2020 Grammy Awards: Complete List of Classical Nominees & Winners

Image Credit: Courtesy of the Recording Academy™/Getty Images © 2019

The 62nd Grammy Awards marked a banner year for excellence and innovation in classical music, including numerous history-making wins. For more on the 2020 Grammys, don’t miss our roundup of 5 Classical Moments We Loved.


CLASSICAL


 
Best Orchestral Performance

WINNER Norman: Sustain
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor (Los Angeles Philharmonic)

Bruckner: Symphony No. 9
Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)

Copland: Billy The Kid; Grohg
Leonard Slatkin, conductor (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)

Transatlantic
Louis Langrée, conductor (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)

Weinberg: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 21
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, conductor (City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra & Kremerata Baltica)

Best Opera Recording

WINNER Picker: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Gil Rose, conductor; John Brancy, Andrew Craig Brown, Gabriel Preisser, Krista River & Edwin Vega; Gil Rose, producer (Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Boston Children’s Chorus)

Benjamin: Lessons In Love & Violence
George Benjamin, conductor; Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, Peter Hoare & Gyula Orendt; Raphaël Mouterde, James Whitbourn, producers (Orchestra Of The Royal Opera House)

Berg: Wozzeck
Marc Albrecht, conductor; Christopher Maltman & Eva-Maria Westbroek; François Roussillon, producer (Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra; Chorus Of Dutch National Opera)

Charpentier: Les Arts Florissants; Les Plaisirs De Versailles
Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs, conductors; Jesse Blumberg, Teresa Wakim & Virginia Warnken; Renate Wolter-Seevers, producer (Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble; Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble)

Best Choral Performance

WINNER Duruflé: Complete Choral Works
Robert Simpson, conductor (Ken Cowan; Houston Chamber Choir)

Boyle: Voyages
Donald Nally, conductor (The Crossing)

The Hope Of Loving
Craig Hella Johnson, conductor (Conspirare)

Sander: The Divine Liturgy Of St. John Chrysostom
Peter Jermihov, conductor (Evan Bravos, Vadim Gan, Kevin Keys, Glenn Miller & Daniel Shirley; PaTRAM Institute Singers)

Smith, K.: The Arc In The Sky
Donald Nally, conductor (The Crossing)

Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance

WINNER Shaw: Orange
Attacca Quartet

Cerrone: The Pieces That Fall To Earth
Christopher Rountree & Wild Up

Freedom & Faith
PUBLIQuartet

Perpetulum
Third Coast Percussion

Rachmaninoff – Hermitage Piano Trio
Hermitage Piano Trio

Best Classical Instrumental Solo

WINNER Marsalis: Violin Concerto; Fiddle Dance Suite
Nicola Benedetti; Cristian Măcelaru, conductor (Philadelphia Orchestra)

The Berlin Recital
Yuja Wang

Higdon: Harp Concerto
Yolanda Kondonassis; Ward Stare, conductor (The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra)

The Orchestral Organ
Jan Kraybill

Torke: Sky, Concerto For Violin
Tessa Lark; David Alan Miller, conductor (Albany Symphony)

Best Classical Solo Vocal Album

WINNER Songplay
Joyce DiDonato; Chuck Israels, Jimmy Madison, Charlie Porter & Craig Terry, accompanists (Steve Barnett & Lautaro Greco)

The Edge Of Silence – Works For Voice By György Kurtág
Susan Narucki (Donald Berman, Curtis Macomber, Kathryn Schulmeister & Nicholas Tolle)

Himmelsmusik
Philippe Jaroussky & Céline Scheen; Christina Pluhar, conductor; L’Arpeggiata, ensemble (Jesús Rodil & Dingle Yandell)

Schumann: Liederkreis Op. 24, Kerner-Lieder Op. 35
Matthias Goerne; Leif Ove Andsnes, accompanist

A Te, O Cara
Stephen Costello; Constantine Orbelian, conductor (Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra)

Best Classical Compendium

WINNER The Poetry Of Places
Nadia Shpachenko; Marina A. Ledin & Victor Ledin, producers

American Originals 1918
John Morris Russell, conductor; Elaine Martone, producer

Leshnoff: Symphony No. 4 ‘Heichalos’; Guitar Concerto; Starburst
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Tim Handley, producer

Meltzer: Songs And Structures
Paul Appleby & Natalia Katyukova; Silas Brown & Harold Meltzer, producers

Saariaho: True Fire; Trans; Ciel D’Hiver
Hannu Lintu, conductor; Laura Heikinheimo, producer

Best Contemporary Classical Composition

WINNER Higdon: Harp Concerto
Jennifer Higdon, composer (Yolanda Kondonassis, Ward Stare & The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra)

Bermel: Migration Series For Jazz Ensemble & Orchestra
Derek Bermel, composer (Derek Bermel, Ted Nash, David Alan Miller, Juilliard Jazz Orchestra & Albany Symphony Orchestra)

Marsalis: Violin Concerto In D Major
Wynton Marsalis, composer (Nicola Benedetti, Cristian Măcelaru & Philadelphia Orchestra)

Norman: Sustain
Andrew Norman, composer (Gustavo Dudamel & Los Angeles Philharmonic)

Shaw: Orange
Caroline Shaw, composer (Attacca Quartet)

Wolfe: Fire In My Mouth
Julia Wolfe, composer (Jaap Van Zweden, Francisco J. Núñez, Donald Nally, The Crossing, Young People’s Chorus Of NY City & New York Philharmonic)


 

MUSIC FOR VISUAL MEDIA


 
Best Compilation Soundtrack For Visual Media

WINNER A Star Is Born
(Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper) Paul “DJWS” Blair, Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Nick Monson, Lukas Nelson Mark Nilan Jr. & Benjamin Rice, compilation producers; Julianne Jordan & Julia Michels, music supervisors

The Lion King: The Songs
(Various Artists) Jon Favreau & Hans Zimmer, compilation producers

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
(Various Artists) Quentin Tarantino, compilation producer; Mary Ramos, music supervisor

Rocketman
(Taron Egerton) Giles Martin, compilation producer

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse
(Various Artists) Spring Aspers & Dana Sano, compilation producers; Kier Lehman, music supervisor

Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media

WINNER Chernobyl
Hildur Guðnadóttir, composer

Avengers: Endgame
Alan Silvestri, composer

Game Of Thrones: Season 8
Ramin Djawadi, composer

The Lion King
Hans Zimmer, composer

Mary Poppins Returns
Marc Shaiman, composer

Best Song Written For Visual Media

WINNER “I’ll Never Love Again (Film Version)” from A Star is Born
Natalie Hemby, Lady Gaga, Hillary Lindsey & Aaron Raitiere, songwriters (Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper)

“The Ballad Of The Lonesome Cowboy” from Toy Story 4
Randy Newman, songwriter (Chris Stapleton)

“Girl In The Movies” from Dumplin’
Dolly Parton & Linda Perry, songwriters (Dolly Parton)

“Spirit” from The Lion King
Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Timothy McKenzie & Ilya Salmanzadeh, songwriters (Beyoncé)

“Suspirium” from Suspiria
Thom Yorke, songwriter (Thom Yorke)


 

COMPOSING/ARRANGING


 
Best Instrumental Composition

WINNER “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge Symphonic Suite”
John Williams, composer (John Williams)

“Begin Again”
Fred Hersch, composer (Fred Hersch & The WDR Big Band Conducted By Vince Mendoza)

“Crucible For Crisis”
Brian Lynch, composer (Brian Lynch Big Band)

“Love, A Beautiful Force”
Vince Mendoza, composer (Vince Mendoza, Terell Stafford, Dick Oatts & Temple University Studio Orchestra)

“Walkin’ Funny”
Christian McBride, composer (Christian McBride)

Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella

WINNER “Moon River”
Jacob Collier, arranger (Jacob Collier)

“Blue Skies”
Kris Bowers, arranger (Kris Bowers)

“Hedwig’s Theme”
John Williams, arranger (Anne-Sophie Mutter & John Williams)

“La Novena”
Emilio Solla, arranger (Emilio Solla Tango Jazz Orchestra)

“Love, A Beautiful Force”
Vince Mendoza, arranger (Vince Mendoza, Terell Stafford, Dick Oatts & Temple University Studio Orchestra)

Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals

WINNER “All Night Long”
Jacob Collier, arranger (Jacob Collier Featuring Jules Buckley, Take 6 & Metropole Orkest)

“Jolene”
Geoff Keezer, arranger (Sara Gazarek)

“Marry Me A Little”
Cyrille Aimée & Diego Figueiredo, arrangers (Cyrille Aimée)

“Over The Rainbow”
Vince Mendoza, arranger (Trisha Yearwood)

“12 Little Spells (Thoracic Spine)”
Esperanza Spalding, arranger (Esperanza Spalding)

For a complete list of winners and nominees from the awards ceremony, click here.

Five Things I Learned from My Year with Mozart

By Lawrence Toppman

A confession: I’m still digging into the deep cuts in his catalogue. I have vowed to finish them before death, assuming that’s not coming for at least another decade. But I figure that, even without listening yet to “La Betulia Liberata” (a long oratorio written by the 15-year-old WAM) or all of his dozens of concert arias, I can say five things with assurance:

1) Genius sometimes sleeps, and often knows it sleeps. One disc in the Mozart 225 “complete” edition (which, as I noted in the first blog, isn’t quite that) consists of chips from the master’s workbench: Dribs of music, none more than a few minutes long and some as short as 40 seconds, that Mozart scribbled down and cast aside. He knew what he was doing.

2) He seems to have played more instruments than almost any other composer: Violin, organ, viola (probably his special love), harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano. He was also curious about winds, working closely with friends to understand the clarinet, horn, bassoon and flute. Thus he wrote idiomatic, wonderful music for those instruments, too.

3) There is no “right” performance. I have listened to symphonies that tingle with tension or roll grandly along, piano concertos that are crisp or sentimental. For me, there is generally one best way to perform any piece by Schubert or Mahler or Copland; I enjoy other interpretations, but there’s always one in first place. That’s less true for Mozart than any other composer.

4) You have to love him to play him well. If not, you get performances that are blandly polished (Itzhak Perlman’s violin concertos), energetic but shallow (Vladimir Horowitz’s Piano Concerto No. 23) or ploddingly dutiful (too many to list here). You may competently whip up excitement in Tchaikovsky or Brahms without giving them your heart; that doesn’t work with Mozart.

5) Familiarity has bred not contempt, as the saying goes, or even indifference, but joy. Whatever mood I’m in, Mozart has a piece to suit it. I can’t imagine anyone else I could listen to weekly for 12 months, possibly excepting The Beatles and Frank Sinatra, and still come away treasuring the chance to hear more. Mozart’s a composer meant not for a year but for a lifetime of exploration, and I hope I’ve inspired you to take that journey yourself.

Lorenzo Da Ponte: Mozart’s other half

By Lawrence Toppman

According to legend, the wife of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II heard a guy at a “Show Boat” reception praise “Jerome Kern’s song ‘Ol’ Man River’.“ Dorothy Hammerstein quickly corrected him. “Jerome Kern wrote ‘Dum dum dum dum’,” she said, humming the famous melody. “Oscar wrote ‘Ol’ Man River’.”

Because we often speak of “Mozart’s operas,” it’s easy to forget one man wrote words for the wittiest, most beautifully proportioned, most warm-hearted pieces: Lorenzo Da Ponte. By my count, he supplied 27 complete libretti for 10 composers, plus words for pastiches, cantatas and oratorios. But he’s remembered for “Cosi Fan Tutte,” “Le Nozze de Figaro” and “Don Giovanni.”

He had more enduring partnerships with Antonio Salieri (six operas, written before and during Da Ponte’s time with Mozart), Giuseppe Francesco Bianchi (five) and Vicente Martin y Soler (five including “Una Cosa Rara,” of which we hear a snippet in the banquet scene of “Giovanni”).

Whole books, including his autobiographic “Memorie,” have been written about Da Ponte’s extraordinary life. He was born an Italian Jew but converted to Catholicism at 15 with his father, when dad wanted to marry a Catholic woman. Lorenzo became a priest at the church of San Luca in Venice but was banished from the city for taking a mistress and fathering two kids.

He spent the years between 1783 and 1805 in Vienna and London, writing all his opera libretti, but debts forced him to flee to the United States with another mistress and their four children. He lived mostly in New York, became a professor of Italian at Columbia University and founded the short-lived Italian Opera Company at the age of 84 in 1833. But except for the words of “Hymn to America,” written by fellow Italian immigrant Antonio Bagioli, he produced no more lyrics.

Why does his work with Mozart endure, when all his other operas have been forgotten? I’m reminded of Katharine Hepburn’s comment about the appeal of dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: “He gives her class. She gives him sex.” Mozart would be Astaire in that analogy: unflappable, often a little cool and detached, ceaselessly inventive and graceful in every bar. Da Ponte would be Rogers: down-to-Earth, elegant where necessary but more at ease being playful and a little naughty. No better pairing of composer and librettist has ever taken place.

Pictured: Lorenzo da Ponte by Michele Pekenino (engraver, 19th century) after Nathaniel Rogers (American, 1788-1844), Public Domain.

Genius: Neither brains nor sweat

By Lawrence Toppman

You know the quotation attributed to Thomas Edison, right? “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” He said that because he came up with ideas, and workers in his laboratories experimented endlessly, until one worked out. (Genius is also partly marketing: The first home lit by electricity was in England, using bulbs designed by Joseph Wilson Swan. Do you think of him as the father of incandescence?)

But what, really, is genius? It’s not just an intuitive gift for grasping a situation with which others struggle. When I see the Jumble in the newspaper, mixed-up letters rearrange themselves instantly into words without effort on my part, and I seldom use a pen to solve the puzzle. That doesn’t make me a genius, just a guy with a quirky brain.

It’s not diligence, or writers turning out millions of words would qualify. The most prolific author in America today must be James Patterson, but neither he nor anyone else could seriously consider him a genius.

It’s not always about creating things from scratch. My late friend Chuck Foley came up with the idea for Twister, an insanely popular 1960s product marketed by Milton Bradley and the first game to use human bodies as playing pieces. Smart, creative guy — but not a genius.  

It doesn’t necessarily involve profound insight. Multimillionaire Gilbert Kaplan spent 50 years in his devotion to Gustav Mahler, specifically his Symphony No. 2. He considered the “Resurrection” Symphony the greatest piece of music ever, conducted it more than 50 times and recorded it twice, never accepting a fee. He probably understood that masterpiece (and in some ways, Mahler) better than anyone on Earth, yet nobody thought of Kaplan as a genius.

If I had to offer one description, it would be this: To see possibilities – perhaps a nearly infinite range of possibilities – that no one else has considered, choose precisely the right one and explore it thoroughly in a unique way. Haydn, rightly considered the father of the string quartet, was a genius because he had a new understanding of what two violins, a viola and a cello could do. Mozart took the same four instruments in unprecedented directions, then added another viola to write quintets. His gifts lay not so much in invention as re-invention, transforming accustomed models in miraculous ways. That’s genius at work.

Mozart and Masons

By Lawrence Toppman

You cannot fully appreciate Mozart without knowing something about his connection to Freemasonry. He entered the Beneficence Lodge in Vienna just before his 29th birthday, rose from the ranks of Apprentices to become a Journeyman the following year, then shortly after became a Master Mason. He remained active until his death six years later.

He wrote a lied, “Gesellenreise,” to be used at the induction of journeymen shortly after he became one. Then came a cantata for tenor and male chorus, “Die Maurerfreude” (“The Mason’s Joy”), Masonic Funeral Music for a memorial service for two brethren, a cantata (of which a fragment remains), various songs and brief orchestral works – nearly two hours’ worth of music total. “The Magic Flute,” his comic opera masterpiece, pays tribute to both the ceremonies and philosophies of Freemasons.

A cynic might say Mozart signed up to have a personal connection to wealthy and influential people. He attended meetings not only at his lodge but others, where some of Vienna’s most powerful citizens gathered. But he’d lived in Vienna for four years when he joined in 1784 and made a name with his Great Mass in C Minor, late piano concertos and the opera “Abduction from the Seraglio.”

He certainly felt drawn to Freemasonry’s philosophy. The Age of Enlightenment had run for a century when Mozart became a Mason. Western Europeans everywhere, even those ruled by an Emperor (as Austrians were) had begun to stress reason and scientific exploration over unquestioning obedience to church or government authorities. Emperor Joseph II embraced Masons because they favored separation of church and state, then clamped down when they sought political reform.

Yet Beneficence and True Concord, its sister lodge, remained places where philosophers and scientists exchanged ideas. Mozart respected the Masons’ undogmatic approach to Christianity, their vision of salvation coming through love and reason, their ideals of tolerance, fraternity (though women were excluded) and personal liberty. According to fellow Mason Anton Stadler, for whom Mozart wrote his incomparable Clarinet Concerto and Clarinet Quintet, Mozart sought to form his own mini-society, “The Grotto,” within the order – though Stadler never explained what it would do.

We can’t know how well Viennese Masons stuck to their high ideals. But their beliefs inspired Mozart to write some of his most noble and profound music, right up to the last months of his life.

10 Mozart pieces you need to hear

By Lawrence Toppman

A friend familiar with this blog suggested a post titled “The Best of Mozart.” Those would be impossible to choose, and WDAV listeners already know “Don Giovanni,” the late symphonies, the requiem, famous piano concertos, etc. But it’s worth suggesting 10 works you may not know as well but might love if you heard them.

Piano Quartet No. 1 – Publisher Franz Hoffmeister commissioned three piano quartets for amateurs in 1785 but deemed this one too difficult for buyers and cancelled the others. (WAM wrote a second anyway.) This warmly touching work is the first piano quartet masterpiece.

String Quintet No. 3 – Mozart’s fondness for the viola (which he played expertly) came out in his six works for string quartet with a second viola added. If you don’t know them, start with this profound, melancholy outing.

Horn Concerto No. 1 – He allegedly didn’t warm to the sound of the French horn, but he wrote four concertos and some fragments for it. We don’t associate the adjective “fun” with this composer as much as we should, but this buoyant piece makes me smile.

“Die Entführung aus dem Serail” – We needed an opera on this list, so I chose the first of his great comedies. “Abduction from the Seraglio” has wonderful roles for soprano, tenor and bass and an early message about his favorite operatic subject, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Adagio in B Minor for Piano – One of Mozart’s most forward-looking and emotional pieces plants the small, early seeds of romanticism that would bloom in Beethoven and Chopin.

“Gran Partita” Serenade – We don’t hear much these days about serenades, a genre Mozart converted from pleasant background music (usually for outdoor listening) to a longer, grander, beautifully balanced series of movements designed to give pure pleasure.

Symphony No. 25 – If you like the “big” G minor symphony, the tumultuous No. 40, try the “little” one in the same key. He wrote its wide-leaping melodies and unusual rhythms at 17, and it’s the first of his symphonies that stamp him as a genius.

Masonic Funeral Music – This somber march, written for the memorial service of two of Mozart’s brethren in Freemasonry, proves that a masterwork can say all it needs to in six minutes. The shift from minor to major midway through lightens the load upliftingly.

Piano Concerto No. 8 – My first music teacher said this concerto was “where Mozart became Mozart,” revealing his compositional gifts for the instrument most associated with him. Many great Mozart players (Murray Perahia, Wilhelm Kempff, Alfred Brendel) have agreed.

Sinfonia Concertante for Winds – Some scholars doubt he wrote this work for bassoon, oboe, clarinet, horn and orchestra. Its merry elegance makes me grin, so I stuck it in. It may have inspired Haydn to write his delightful sinfonia concertante for violin, cello, oboe and bassoon.

Separating the Artist from the Art

Lawrence Topman

Critics have no harder job than distinguishing between the thing they’re watching or hearing and the person who made it. The average citizen doesn’t need to do that: Jane Fonda posed atop an enemy tank during the Vietnam War (a decision she regretted), and my dad has refused to see her perform for more than 50 years. A critic can’t think that way. I’ve given positive reviews to actors I believed were creeps and negative reviews to those I enjoyed meeting.

The genius and the jerk can coexist in the same brain: Richard Wagner cheated people in business deals, fled debts and responsibilities, treated women badly yet composed music of extraordinary power and beauty. We can be disgusted by his anti-Semitism – which Europeans of his time commonly expressed, and the Nazis blew out of proportion – while being swept up in the nobility of “Lohengrin.”

Classical music seems to encourage this identification of composer with composition. We assume that wild emotions swirled through Berlioz like summer storms, and a graph of his brain would look like his notations for the Symphonie Fantastique. Tchaikovsky wrote heart-on-the-sleeve emotional music, so he must have been a big hot psychological mess.

Shostakovich’s symphonies churn with suppressed terror and hollow happiness, so his stomach must have churned the same way. Beethoven’s music rings with revolutionary ire, spiky wit, love of nature and an indomitable spirit, so those things must also have been true of the man.   

To some extent, that’s all accurate. Yet Berlioz wrote the suave opera “Beatrice et Benedict,” Tchaikovsky composed four untroubled orchestra suites, Shostakovich let his lyrical and humorous sides come out in film scores, and Beethoven knocked out dozens of songs (admittedly, on commission) full of light-hearted humor or blandly conventional sentiment.

Where, then do we find Mozart in his music? Is his personality best represented by the gravity of Symphony No. 40, the detached elegance of Piano Concerto No. 27, the weird mix of buffoonery and philosophy in “The Magic Flute,” the sparkling diversions of his serenades, the crude songs, the sonorous grandeur of the Mass in C Minor? Or was his restless mind a musical universe too expansive to measure? I think that’s it. All of his works, the most diverse catalog in history, represent aspects of his extraordinary personality. That’s why I never tire of him.