Lawrence Toppman

The Concertos Mozart Never Wrote

By Lawrence Toppman

I don’t mean disputed or spurious pieces attributed to him, such as the Adélaïde Concerto. French violinist Marius Casadesus claimed in 1933 that he’d edited a long-lost manuscript by the 10-year-old Wolfgang and dubbed it Violin Concerto No. 7. Only 44 years later did he admit writing it himself. (The sixth concerto also turned out to be the work of someone else, possibly Mozart’s contemporary Johann Friedrich Eck.)

No, I’m thinking of masterpieces Mozart might have written and didn’t – or maybe did write, at least in part, and later lost or discarded.

The most obvious neglected instruments are trumpet and cello. Composers had written trumpet concertos since Baroque times, and Haydn produced a festive one a few years after Mozart’s early death. The cello had already emerged from obscurity in Mozart’s time, and he’d have heard both of Haydn’s cello concertos. Some scholars do think Mozart started one concerto for each instrument but didn’t finish them.

Why not? His letters don’t show any distaste for their sounds. By contrast, he made multiple snarky comments about flutes and flute players. Yet he wrote four quartets and a concerto for flute, an andante for flute and orchestra and a concerto for flute and harp. He also adapted his concerto for oboe into a second one for flute.

If you count the Sinfonia Concertante, a double concerto for violin and viola, he wrote at least one concerto for every string and wind instrument except double-bass. He also wrote four horn concertos, but that’s as far as he got into the brasses – nothing for trumpet or trombone, which Handel and Gluck popularized but which wasn’t thought of as a concerto instrument. (Mozart did use solo trombone to great effect in his Requiem.)

The answer must have been money. He wrote the world’s most sublime clarinet concerto, but not until virtuoso Anton Stadler wanted a piece for a Prague concert. When Mozart became the first freelance composer, as discussed in an earlier blog post, he no longer had a patron to provide a steady salary. He wrote on commission, supplying himself and others with showpieces as required. We can’t fault Mozart for ignoring corners of the repertoire that his genius might have enlivened. We have to blame the trumpeters, cellists and other instrumentalists who could have hired him and didn’t.

Mozart’s Music: Shorthand for Arrogance

By Lawrence Toppman

Ken Burns filled his documentary series “Baseball” with music from the period it covered, roughly 1870 through 1990. He used marches, jazz, folk songs, patriotic music, big band swing, pop tunes and protest anthems. Only in the segment where he focused on greed, lies and collusion among wealthy team owners out of touch with fans did he choose … the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro.”

Think about that. The most buoyant, witty and exuberant of comic-opera overtures underlined disgusting human traits.

This happens over and over with WAM. His page at the Internet Movie Data Base credits him with 1,574 appearances in films or TV shows. (My favorite factoid from that page: He received a best music nomination from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for “Amadeus,” losing that 1984 award to Ennio Morricone’s “Once Upon a Time in America.”)

Sometimes Mozart’s tunes get used for moments that are poignant (the slow movement of a piano concerto), frenetic (“Figaro” or another overture) or spooky (the Queen of the Night’s vengeance aria from “Magic Flute”). But his music often indicates meanness, cruelty, a sense of privilege and other unattractive behavior. I first noticed this in “Trading Places” 36 years ago. It happened again in the 1989 “Batman,” the 1994 “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and countless places over the last quarter-century.

Poor old “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” has been used a whopping 159 times — mostly in a dismissive way – from the TV series “The Simpsons” (12 times!) and “Bates Motel” to the feature films “Borat” and “Dr. Dolittle: Million-Dollar Mutts.” Mozart’s most beautifully crafted string serenade, graceful and sometimes touching, has become a none-too-subtle tipoff that some pinky-extending social bigot is about to get his comeuppance. That’s been going on since 1934, seven years after the synchronization of movie sound, in “The Scarlet Pimpernel.”

This clichéd thinking tells us more about filmmakers than Mozart, who felt superior to others only as a composer-pianist. They equate formality and elegance with elitism, absence of deep feeling and snobbery. For them, WAM becomes a symbol not of classiness but class division.

You’ll search in vain for another composer treated in the same way. Beethoven (who’s in second place on IMDB with 1,465 credits), Bach (third place with 1,452) and all other classical composers get more respect than Mozart on the big and small screens.

Pictured: Madame François Buron by Jacques-Louis David; oil on canvas.

Do Mozart and Asia go together?

By Lawrence Toppman

Half an hour into “Let the Bullets Fly,” an insanely complicated Chinese movie about bandits and warlords in 1920, the mayhem stops long enough for the antihero to put Mozart’s clarinet concerto on a gramophone.

As the bandit and his adopted son listen to the mournful slow movement, the boy asks, “Where is this Mozart? How can I find him?” His father musingly replies, “He is far away from us.”

He speaks geographically and chronologically, assuming he knows Mozart died 129 years earlier. But does he also speak aesthetically, suggesting they cannot connect with this music? Soon, they go back to shooting people.

That got me wondering why so few Asian pianists and violinists play Mozart. Look at the discography of Lang Lang, the world’s best-known Asian pianist: Out of 20 live and studio albums, he has devoted one to Mozart. Yundi Li has played one piano sonata on a recital album; Yuja Wang has recorded nothing. Yekwon Sunwoo, the Cliburn winner who played here in the final Charlotte Concerts season, has recorded nothing and told me he hardly plays any.

Kyung-Wha Chung, who has cut dozens of albums and gets my vote for greatest Asian violinist of all time, hasn’t recorded a note of Mozart. (Neither has her brother, conductor Myung-Whun Chung.) Versatile Sarah Chang hasn’t recorded any. Nor has pop/classical sensation Vanessa Mae, unless you count the “Adelaide” concerto scholars no longer think WAM wrote.

I came up with one notable exception in each case: Violinist Midori has recorded concertos and sonatas, and the great Mitsuko Uchida (who moved to Austria at 12 and is now a naturalized British citizen) plays a vast repertoire of piano concertos, sonatas and works for four hands.

The issue can’t be technical difficulties, lack of interest in pre-Romantic music – Asian soloists play Bach and Schubert – or anxiety about conveying certain moods or emotions, because Mozart runs the gamut from orderly serenity to tempestuous drama. There’s something in him for any pianist or violinist to explore.

Yuja Wang handles heavyweights from Ravel to Rachmaninov, Yekwon Sunwoo glories in Brahms’ complexities (and plays him soulfully), and Kyung-Wha Chung can be poised in Bach or passionate in Dvorak. Mozart’s music simply doesn’t seem to speak to them as it does to pianists and violinists from Russia to America, and I can’t figure out why that should be.

Pictured: Yekwon Sunwoo; credit Carolyn Cruz.

Wolfgang Mozart: Father of the gig economy

By Lawrence Toppman

Once, all classical composers had permanent jobs.

They taught music at a preparatory school, as Vivaldi did. They had a patron such as Prince Esterhazy, who bankrolled Haydn. J.S. Bach wrote some masterpieces on spec, such as the Brandenburg Concertos, but he hung onto day jobs in churches.

Mozart changed that in 1781. You might think of him as the patron saint of freelancers, musically speaking.

For the first seven years of his adult life, he sought to emulate papa Leopold and everyone else in the composing business. He tried to become a kapellmeister (literally a “chapel master,” figuratively a court composer) or get hired by a rich person who’d give him creative freedom and an ongoing stipend.

But the traditional route yielded only a job as court organist in his native Salzburg, and his father had to arrange that for him. WAM dutifully wrote church works, including the 1779 Coronation Mass, and those inspired Archbishop Colloredo to summon the 25-year-old Mozart to Vienna in 1781.

Mozart figured he’d finally found a long-term patron, but the arrangement didn’t work out: He was sent to live in the servants’ quarters, treated as ordinary hired help and forced to take a pay cut. They quarreled, and the angry Archbishop let him out of their agreement at last.

Then he went solo and transformed forever the way people thought about composers.

The decision liberated Mozart. Within little more than a year, he had written the Haffner Symphony, three piano concertos he played and conducted in subscription concerts, his first mature string quartet, his oboe quartet, three long serenades for winds and his first great comic opera, “Abduction from the Seraglio.”

This outpouring of genius changed the business, as employers learned to pay composers for specific periods of time or sets of works. Haydn supplied 12 terrific symphonies to a London entrepreneur near the end of his creative life, making more money than he’d ever earned. Beethoven, who was 20 when Mozart died in 1791, accepted no permanent positions, composing on commission and occasionally on his own inspiration. Composers still took students, privately or in schools, to pay the gas bill. They became church organists, an especially popular job in Paris: Franck, Saint-Saens, Duruflé and many others held those positions for years. But the daring young Salzburger had changed patronage forever.

Turkey – a delight and a terror to Vienna

By Lawrence Toppman

Perhaps you’ve read the recent news that Turkey has bought a surface-to-air missile system from Russia, making America and Europe wonder once again where that nation fits in the scheme of international diplomacy. Turkey, connecting the west to the east across the narrow Bosporus, has long puzzled and fascinated Europeans, especially in the time of Mozart and beyond.

The Orientalism movement in the arts came from the generation after Mozart. Napoleon occupied Egypt from 1798 through 1801, and Europeans first visited the Middle East in significant numbers. Painters (the best being Eugène Delacroix) set works of splendor and cruelty there, not always travelling outside their home countries to get facts.

In Mozart’s time, Austrians viewed the declining but significant Ottoman Empire as a menace. It had tried to conquer western Europe in the late 1600s and had gotten as far as the outskirts of Vienna. The Austrians and Turks fought wars again in 1716-1718 and 1735-39, with Austria and Russia teaming up to defeat the Islamic enemy 17 years before Mozart’s birth.

Young WAM never visited Constantinople on his tour of major cities as a child and never went east of his homeland as an adult. But images of harems, autocratic sultans and janissaries (mercenaries who fought for the Ottoman emperor) swirled in his head.

He first gave them musical shape in the “Turkish” finale of his Violin Concerto No. 5, where slashing martial rhythms interrupt a calm rondo with exciting results. Later, he wrote a “Rondo alla Turca” as the pounding finale to his Piano Sonata No. 11.

His best-known Turkish work remains “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” (“Abduction from the Seraglio”), an opera without recitatives. There the Spanish nobleman Belmonte attempts to rescue his beloved Konstanze from Pasha Selim, who has bought her from pirates. Mozart showed unusual enlightenment for the time, depicting Selim as a benevolent man who not only frees Belmonte when he’s captured but allows him to depart with his betrothed.

This musical craze burned out after about 50 years, though Beethoven added one more fine piece to the repertoire: The “Turkish March” from his incidental music for the play “The Ruins of Athens.” My own favorite Turkish-themed music, the full-length “Turkish” Symphony in C, comes from Franz Xaver Süssmayr – who’s known today only as the guy who completed Mozart’s Requiem.

Pictured above: Cafe House, Cairo (Casting Bullets); provided by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Why Mozart wasn’t hard to Handel

By Lawrence Toppman

This week brings the 302nd anniversary of my favorite Baroque orchestral hit, the set of three suites known as “Water Music.” It’s a good time to discuss the composer Mozart apparently admired above all others: George Frideric Handel.

Mozart adapted music by Johann Sebastian Bach, his son Johann Christian, and many lesser composers. He deeply respected Franz Josef Haydn. But he spent months laboring over four of Handel’s oratorios, re-orchestrating “Messiah,” “Acis and Galatea,” “Alexander’s Feast” and “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day.” And he did that at the height of his creative powers, in his last three years of life.

Today we revere Bach as the pinnacle of Baroque composition. Composers and audiences in the late 18th and early 19th centuries didn’t think so, especially before Felix Mendelssohn revived Bach’s masterworks in 1829 and beyond. They adored Handel.

Haydn called him “the master of us all.” Beethoven reportedly said “Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived … I would uncover my head and kneel down on his tomb.” Mozart allegedly said that, if he’d had to be born any other composer, he’d choose Handel.

Handel died in London in 1759, a few years before young pianist Mozart went there on his amaze-the-royals tour of European cultural centers. Though we often think of music history as neatly defined periods, the Baroque had only just begun to evolve into what we call the Classical era, and Mozart heard music by J.S. Bach and Handel.

His love for it and for reinventing it never died. Though connoisseurs of his day still studied and played the original scores, the general public had mostly forgotten them. Mozart wanted to bring Handel into the 1780s in a way every Viennese could appreciate.

He added viola, clarinet and horn parts to make the sound richer, shortened sections he thought ran on too long for Classical-era listeners and added drama in places: Handel gave unison string backing to the bass aria “The people that walked in darkness,” but Mozart made this somber “Messiah” moment even more ominous with contrapuntal accompaniment.

The results honor the originals while setting them off in fresh ways, as a great film adaptation might do for a great novel. They don’t improve on Handel – Mozart never claimed they did – but they inspire us to listen to his oratorios with reawakened ears.

Composer prodigies: Baby geniuses? Maybe….

By Lawrence Toppman

A New York Times article last month acquainted me with Alma Deutscher, who at 14 has been writing and playing her own work for a decade.

Writer Melissa Eddy tells us, “In December, she will make her debut at Carnegie Hall, where she will play the solo violin and piano in her two concertos, while the orchestra will play selections from her opera (“Cinderella”) and her most recent work, a Viennese waltz. Next month, she will record a retrospective album with Sony of piano melodies she composed, going back to when she was just 4 years old.”

You can learn more at her YouTube channel, where you’ll get complete performances of her violin concerto – it reminded me of Bruch’s first, which also starts with a slow section — and Mendelssohnian piano concerto. She’s an accomplished soloist and polished composer who grounds her music in 19th-century structures, melodies and harmonic patterns.

The headline reads “A Musical Prodigy? Sure, but Don’t Call Her a ‘New Mozart’.“ Yet it’s hard not to.

Like him, she’s Austrian, a native of Vienna. She plays multiple instruments with unusual proficiency. She writes quickly in various genres. And like him, she has public eccentricities: She goes everywhere with a pink jump rope and skips to provoke inspiration. (Sviatoslav Richter, one of the 20th century’s great pianists, could not play near the end of his life unless his red plastic lobster sat atop the piano.)

Would we be so receptive to her story if she were less pleasantly modest, less photogenic, less young? Would these pieces excite the same interest if she were a 28-year-old New Yorker with purple hair and rings through her nose and lips? Never. This old-fashioned music, coming from such a person, would excite mostly scornful comment or be ignored altogether.

We’re taken with Alma Deutscher mostly because she fuels the myth of genius: God’s finger (or Fate, if you prefer) touched this baby and set creativity aflame. She fascinates us like a lottery winner who never had to buy a ticket: Why should she be so lucky?

Mozart the Patriot: Missing In Action

By Lawrence Toppman

Because America celebrates its 243rd birthday this week, I looked through the list of Mozart’s compositions for works celebrating Germany or Austria. I found exactly none.

Many major composers from the Renaissance through the late 20th century wrote music to commemorate a great public figure, an important event, the anniversary of a political or military action, the noble or sacrificial behavior of citizens, etc.

The most famous early example must be Handel’s “Water Music,” played for King George I on trips up and down the Thames in 1717. Shostakovich wrote pieces to celebrate the 1917 Russian Revolution more than 200 years later, though some of his public conformity to Soviet policy was lip service. Along the way came Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory,” Brahms’ “Triumphlied” and many more.

F.J. Haydn, Mozart’s greatest contemporary, wrote marches in honor of the Prince of Wales, the Royal Society of Musicians and Hungary itself. The adagio of his “Emperor” string quartet (No. 62) is a set of variations on “God Save Emperor Francis,” an anthem he wrote for Emperor Francis II that became the German national anthem. Carl Maria von Weber, whose cousin Mozart married, sometimes wrote songs to texts provided by a duke or prince.

Often these composers later trashed their occasional pieces. Prokofiev disowned the fervor of the cantata “Seven, They Are Seven,” written right after the Russian Revolution and revised under Stalin. Tchaikovsky had harsh words for his “gun for hire” work, from the Slavonic March (inspired by Russia’s part in the Serbo-Turkish War) to the “1812” overture, written for the 70thanniversary of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

But nobody asked Mozart for such a thing. Or, if someone did, he said no. Why would that be?

Perhaps, though he repeatedly described himself as a good citizen of his homeland, his constant travels around Europe prevented officials from thinking of him on state occasions. Perhaps other composers, such as Antonio Salieri, sprang to mind when a “Parademarsch” for wind quintet needed to be whipped up for a state function.

Perhaps people in power thought Mozart would be insulted by the idea, too unreliable to deliver on time or likely to grind out hackwork nobody liked, although his pieces commissioned by the Freemasons include minor masterworks. Whatever happened, patriotic music is about the only type he never gave us.