Remembering Mozart II
Bill Long 7/12/06
"Reading" Mozart in 2006
If my thesis from the previous essay is correct, that biographical fashions owe a great deal to more current general cultural movements than to "rediscovery" of "lost" material, then we would expect a current generation of Mozart biographers to put more responsibility on Mozart himself for his own "failures" or "misunderstandings" in his life. Well, what do we find? In his article, "The Myths about Mozart," written for the 2006 Chamber Music Northwest summer program guide, Mozart scholar Cliff Eisen gives us his "reassessment" of Mozart from the perspective of today. He doesn't completely reject the previous generation's views, captured in the film Amadeus, for example, but he has this to say. See if it is consistent with the thesis I have been arguing.
After reviewing Mozart's often frosty relationship with the two Archibishops of Salzburg with whom he had to do (Schrattenbach and Colloredo), Eisen says:
"In light of this, it seems curious to blame Colloredo exclusively for the breakdown of Mozart's relationship with his native Salzburg. Increasingly in the 1770s Wolfgang took to composing instrumental music for private concerts and a small circle of patrons and friends, and his output of sacred music--the court musicians' primary obligation--is meagre compared with that of his peers. In short, Mozart's unwillingness to toe the line in Salzburg was apparent to everyone who knew him, including the archbishop, and by 1781 both of them had had enough. With an unceremonious boot to the behind, Mozart was dismissed from court service, a dismissal he himself had done much to provoke."
In the context of what I have been arguing in the previous essay, isn't this a remarkable statement? Mozart is "responsible" for his own problems in Salzburg principally because he decided not to play by the rules. Was this evidence newly-discovered by Eisen? No, but it was triggered, I would argue, because it is fashionable in presenting lives now to show how a person was responsible for his own problems. It is pop-psychology become scholarly explanation.
Who is "Right"?
Eisen's "case" of course is much more complex that this. He scrutinizes every segment of Mozart's life and ends up giving nuance to the traditional picture ("nuance" is also a word for our day) of Mozart, but he also puts a lot of responsibility for the way things turned out with Mozart squarely in his own lap.
So, who is "right?" Was Mozart really a tortured genius who was buffeted by the waves of his own day, taken advantage of by many, reduced to penury by unscrupulous people, or was he someone who basically created his own destiny by not playing by the rules of his time? Who is the real Mozart? In short, we don't know. All we have is a Mozart filtered through the philosophy, either conscious or not, of the era in which he is described. Certainly current-day biographical scholarship is known for its thoroughness and meticulousness in bringing every source of information about a subject's life to light before passing judgment on him/her. But we need to be aware that re-readings are simply that--attempts to understand a subject not only using the tools of the present day, but the canvas is supplied by people of our day. In some ways it is true that when you really get to the bottom of a subject, all you have are cliches. Yet in the process of reducing a person to the cliches of the moment you also sometimes have access to the most intimate exploration of the human psyche. Thus, philosophy comes to grips with and often wars with facts in the presentation of a great person's life.
Where do We Go From Here?
So, we live in an era in which the statements, "It's your own damn fault," or "You made your bed, now sleep in it," are the dominant philosophical observations with respect to the subject of personal responsibility. But will we as a culture change, and if we change, how is that change likely to occur? That is, we are in a cultural phase of "personal responsibility." Will we ever return to a more deterministic view of things and if so, what will be the means by which the root metaphor of determinism will return?
I think we will certainly return to a more deterministic view of things since the nature of the political or historical process is to see "swings" in which certain important values are emphasized. For example, the two "big values" of freedom and equality are often referred to as the curbstones between which we "drive" the democratic experiment in America. We veer toward one (freedom is definitely in the ascendency now) for a period of time, but then the other one will also have its day.
I believe that the move to determinism is already underway in American intellectual life, and it is being led, consciously or not, by brain researchers. The focus of much of their work is to learn the functioning of the brain, and as they go deeper and deeper into the matter, so to speak, they discover that the roots of many problems in behavior or lack of ability to adapt or motivation or so many other things in people result from biochemical imbalances. The "traditional" way of looking at behavioral problems was in a moral or "parent-blaming" way. If Johnny acted up, it could be because he was a bad kid or because his parents weren't raising him properly. Now, with the emphasis on brain work, there will be more and more attention to the way that Johnny is like he is because of I "biochemical imbalance." I recall in the late 1980s when the first whispers of "biochemical imbalance" hit the newspapers that the words were ritually discarded or pooh-poohed by many. But the relentless movement of research is showing that we may be determined, or at least defined, by the way our brain functions. I don't anticipate that we ever will fully excuse someone for his/her actions or that programs to "overcome" limitations won't always be useful, but brain research will make us less quick to condemn when we see a person acting in inappropriate manners.
Conclusion--So, What About Biography?
Thus, I imagine that in the next twenty years or so we will be facing changes again in how we tell someone's story, and I predict that these tales will become more and more "deterministic," even if they don't make reference to brain dysfunctions. What will be the "cliche" which will capture the movement? I don't yet know, but possibly something like, "That's just the way we are...." What do you think?
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long