Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at 250


If an unidentified page of a musical score drifted up on a wave at the beach one day, my question is: how long would it take an alert intelligence to recognize that there was genius in the notes? How long to decide that it was in fact a missing fragment from the pen of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?

Mozart is of course the universal definition of unaccountable, virtually divine creative energy — the moreso because his years (35) were so few, like Charlie Parker’s (34) and Franz Shubert’s (31).

But surely there is some accounting to be done of the magic we can all hear in Mozart, from “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” to the Rondo in A-minor, K. 511, which many millions of us piano students keep trying to play; to the Jupiter Symphony and the “Elvira Madigan” slow movement, to which we’ve all swooned, in his 21st Piano Concerto, in C.

The late composer Earl Kim used to tell me that there was a identifiable miracle in every measure of Mozart–a tie, a dot, an interval, a question, a pulse — that makes it not just unlike anything else in music but, for players, makes it a different elixir, a fresh statement, every time they meet it. The pianist Robert Levin likes to say that in every Mozart piece — the string quartets, the symphonies, the keyboard pieces — there is without exception a human conversation going on in the notes, and a clear trace of the musical dramatist that composed Don Giovanni and the rest of the operas.

All I want in this 250th birthday year is to hear more Mozart with bigger ears, with a better grasp of the drama and the details as well as the life.

We’ll begin the Open Source conversation on Thursday with two transcendent, unconventional performers: the pianist Russell Sherman and the conductor Craig Smith.

Once upon a time, Russell was Craig’s piano teacher at the New England Conservatory. For decades now they’ve had the standing of Zen masters and standing-room-only musical cult figures–individually and together. I think of Russell Sherman as the Glenn Gould of our time and our neighborhood: an exquisitely original interpreter of the most daunting piano literature, as mesmerizing as a teacher-talker-writer as he is at the keyboard. Craig Smith found himself a conductor by accident when the Emmanuel Church in Boston was suddenly without a leader and he emerged from the students in the chorus. In 30-plus years since then he has led Emmanuel through several complete cycles of J. S. Bach’s Cantatas, and with the director Peter Sellars he has made television history and a world-famous name for restaging the Mozart operas — and Bach cantatas, too — with modern meanings in modern dress.

Together Russell Sherman and Craig Smith have for years been marking Mozart birthdays with their joint performances of the piano concertos — church concerts with the electric tension of World Series games. For the 250th Russell Sherman will be making five concerts of the complete set of Mozart’s 19 piano sonatas, starting on the birthday night, January 27. But first they are going to share a few secrets with us.

Web Features

What Bloggers Say About the Piano Sonatas

Mozart Manuscript Now Online

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  • arthureisele

    it’s great that you are dedicating a podcast to Mozart’s life. it shows the wide range of quality topics discussed here. kudos!

  • Nikos

    One Mozart lover’s recommendations.


    ‘Mozart: A Cultural Biography’, by Robert Gutman; Harcourt; 1999.

    ‘The Mozart Companion: A Symposium by Leading Mozart Scholars’, edited by H.C. Robbins Landon and Donald Mitchell; Norton; 1956.

    ‘Mozart And His Piano Concertos’, by Cuthbert Girdlestone; Dover Publications, NYC; 1964.

    ‘Mozart’s Symphonies: Context, Performance, Practice, Reception’, by Neal Zaslaw; Clarendon, Oxford; 1989.

    ‘Mozart’s Operas: A Critical Study’, by Edward J. Dent; Clarendon Press, Oxford; 1947, 1991.

    ‘On Mozart’, by Anthony Burgess; Houghton Mifflin; 1991.

    My recommended recordings are all performances by virtuosos of period instruments, because I prefer to savor the sounds of the instruments for which Mozart wrote his music, instead of the modern-day metal-stringed instruments that somehow render saccharine all Eighteenth Century pieces.

    After all, would you rather hear authentic Balinese gamelans, or synthesizers playing the same melodies? With that disclaimer given –


    For the solo piano sonatas, you can’t do much better than the Malcolm Bilson set, on four discs.

    Bilson, with John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists also conspired to produce the seminal boxed set of the piano concertos. (Instead of my giving detailed CD info, try googling Mozart + Malcom Bilson + John Eliot Gardiner + piano concertos, etc.)

    Speaking of seminal, Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music did the entire set of symphonies. Neal Zaslaw wrote the liner notes. Get it if you can find it. More recently, Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert tackled the same 70- or 80-odd symphonies; these may be easier to find.

    Chiara Banchini and Temenuschka Veselinova did a serviceable set of the sonatas for piano and violin (probably now out of print), but Andrew Manze has evidently begun to do the pieces, and in that case, google up him. (ANYTHING by Andrew Manze is certain to be seminal.)

    The London Fortepiano Trio did a sublime set of the six piano trios. I never tire of it.

    The Salomon String Quartet has done all the worthwhile string quartets – and all the worthwhile viola quintets too, by adding Simon Whistler for the recordings.

    L’Archibudelli’s various Mozart recordings are all worthwhile. These are ‘various’ because the compositions in question call for varied instruments.

    Canada’s Tafelmusik did a good disc of the most popular opera overtures + ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – but Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music’s Nachtmusik disc has two other fine serenades that I’ve yet to see get a good period instrument treatment.

    Paul Badura-Skoda has done a disc (or more) of solo piano pieces (as has Robert Levin and many others); the one to look for has a beautiful period treatment of the b-minor Adagio. I believe this recording was made using Mozart’s very own Viennese fortepiano. (I can’t check because it’s in a box buried under other stuff, although the music emerges frequently from my computer’s hard drive. Thank goodness for music-playing programs like Winamp and Windows Media player, etc.!)

    Goodness knows I’ve PLENTY more period-Mozart to recommend, but I don’t wanna hog the thread. Keep in mind that classical music recordings in stores have very brief shelf-lives. Most if not all of my recommendations might only be available as used CD’s.

    I’d love to see the recommendations of others in this thread.

    Happy Mozart-Anniversary to one and all!

  • Nikos

    Oh! I ought to have made clear the existence of the international multiverse of period-instrument ensembles. You may not find ANY of the recordings I reccommended in the previous post, but you may not have to, either. Because plenty of excellent ancient music specialists are working hard every day to bring the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19h ceuntury sound-world to your CD players.

    So, if you’re eyeing a Mozart CD, by, say, the London Mozart Players, how can you know whether these folks with the promising name sound authentic or saccharine?

    By going here:


    It’s called the PIPE list, for Period Instrument Performance Ensemble list. It’s alphabetical, comes complete with explanatory notes, and its creators keep it up-to-date.

    A quick check of the ‘L’s’ will show the London Fortepiano Trio (because the PIPE list lists chamber ensembles as well as orchestras), the London Handel Players, and then the London Oboe Band.

    So: Nope! The London Mozart Players are fakers. Yeah, they play Mozart, but not on the gut-stringed instruments he composed for. Best to shop on, using the PIPE list as your guide. After all, do you want to hear muzak, or music?


  • Nikos

    Correction: this sentence: “Canada’s Tafelmusik did a good disc of the most popular opera overtures + ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – but Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music’s Nachtmusik disc has two other fine serenades that I’ve yet to see get a good period instrument treatment.”

    should have read: “Canada’s Tafelmusik did a good disc of the most popular opera overtures + ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ – but Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music’s ‘Nachtmusik’ disc has two other fine serenades (K.286/269a & K.239) that I’ve yet to see get ANOTHER good period instrument treatment.”

  • shriber

    Mozart is a great composers, but he is not the only great composer.

    A few years back radio programs used to play Chaikovsky almost every other day and while I like Chaikovsky I got tried of hearing this music so often. These days you can hear Mozart every day of the week and I have gotten sick of it.

    Great music should be played sparingly so that one doesn’t get so used to it that it becomes background music.

    I will try to ignore the musical offerings for the 250 anniversary so that I’ll be able to stand listening to it next year.

  • williamtheyounger

    Mozart would be the greatest composer in the world had he actually written all the music attributed to him. i have read scholarly works that dispute the mountain of work which were either claimed by him and attributed to him by musicologists.

    I would like to hear from those who are not so enamored with the legend that they can objectively review his detractors as well as his admirers.

  • This show was, for me, a classic conversation about playing and searching for meaning in Mozart’s music. It gave moments of clarity into how performers search for that meaning, what they bring to the scores and what they look for – often intuitively, without having an exact way of defining it. It’s interesting that Russell Sherman finds Chopin in Mozart, the instability, the darkness, the contradiction of the right hand by the left – it’s one compelling view of the composer, a agon of impulses.

    There are others, many others, but a performer has to know who he is performing, even if that who exists only as an image that comes from staring between the cage of the fine bar lines of the staff.

  • Potter

    I found it very hard to listen to the conversation. I think Stirling Newberry hits it when he says “it gave moments of clarity to how performers search for that meaning”. Moments. Okay, that’s valuable if you have the interest and patience which I did but only to a point. Talking about music is like talking about painting, (except you can hear music on the radio). So I found myself wanting to hear/experience more of the music, Russell Sherman’s version, not the talk which seemed more for an advanced conservatory student or other musicians.

  • A little yellow bird

    “Potter”: I didn’t even turn on the show–I couldn’t care less about TALKING about Mozart’s magnificent contribution to this otherwise tearful vale we inhabit for so short a time, though I am listening on CD to some of his violin concerti as I type here. However, I found this BBC article at http://lewrockwell.com/ today, Sat., 1/14): “Mozart’s music diary goes online: Net users are getting a chance to enjoy some of Mozart’s most rarely performed compositions.” LINK:


  • A little yellow bird

    D’OH! Above post re*dumb*ent–it’s already blogged here @ ROS: http://www.radioopensource.org/mozart-for-the-digital-age/.

  • Mozart rocks!

    Now why not do a show titled, “Anne Bradstreet at 333,” per the show suggestion thread?

  • Nikos

    William the Younger:

    Popular 18th Century composers commonly suffered from the publication, in their names, of spurious compositions. It was a way for competent but otherwise hack minor composers to make a little dough, by selling to music publishers something fraudulent they wrote while mimicking the style of a famous composer. Franz Joseph Haydn in particular suffered from this because he was the most famed composer of his times. And so here’s the point: Haydn—BY FAR—was the most famous—Mozart wasn’t. Mozart, after the novelty of his precocious talents wore off, was, in the minds of Europe’s music-buying nobility, relegated to a curiosity. A fad. This only worsened as he aged into a typically pimpled adolescent—a no longer ‘cute kid’ but the unattractive son of a minor musician from a backwards Austrian province (Salzburg).

    Musicologists debate the provenance of 18th Century compositions all the time. It’s their business (and obsession). Such debates never amount to much when the composers’ handwriting is obvious and the paper types (chemically tested) are known to be from mills their towns’ merchants traded with. The problems arise when a composition’s original manuscript can’t be found—when the musicologist can only study copies. Then the composer’s style – his usual, predictable use of musical grammar – becomes the musicologist’s sole authentication-tool. This isn’t as doubtful a proposition as it might seem: the misattribution of a pair of symphonies by Leopold and his son Wolfgang Mozart (the ‘Lambach’ pieces) was corrected a couple of decades ago using studious analysis. (The analysis overturned two centuries of conventional wisdom that the finer piece must have been the work of the ‘child genius’—it was ultimately agreed that father Leopold—an accomplished composer in his own right—must have written the longer, more lovely symphony, while young Wolfgang—still learnin’ his licks—must have written the shorter and less polished piece.)

    Haydn has many more spurious compositions than Mozart—although after Mozart’s death and the sudden, if belated, surge in his popularity, the hacks got active for sure. But these frauds are often easier to finger than the spurious ‘Haydn’s’. Because Haydn’s lifetime of output was prodigious to say the least (was paid by his noble employer to compose EVERY DAY), and not as self-documented as the musicologists might wish.

    (Pen)ultimately, it’s important to understand that until the 18th Century’s last couple of decades most compositions outside of opera weren’t taken as seriously as the same types of compositions in the next century. For example, symphonies were little more than glorified opera overtures: pieces designed to open a concert of somewhat more ‘serious’ stuff—like chamber music, whose scores the composer could then sell to the music-playing nobility and the newly emerging bourgeoisie. Thus the bulk of Mozart’s 80-odd ‘symphonies’ are nothing like Beethoven’s nine monsters. Most of ‘em are more akin to serenades—background music for soirees—than to the ‘serious’ symphonies Haydn was then pioneering, and that Mozart himself would write to great effect later in his short lifetime. Many of these early symphonies were written to be played only ONCE in his career. Mozart was able to compose such stuff in a day. Even later, when he applied himself to the ‘serious’ symphonies great composers were then becoming expected to produce (thanks to Haydn), Mozart could produce a complex symphonic masterpiece (like the ‘Paris’, ‘Prague’, and ‘Linz’) in only a few days.

    The point of all this is to dispute the implication of your Jan.13th post that Mozart wasn’t all he’s cracked up to be. I say just the opposite: as we piece together the fragmented details of his life and his talent, he actually seems all the more a living miracle (and his is coming from an avowed agnostic-atheist, mind you!) (Robert Gutman’s ‘Mozart: A Cultural Biography’ is a good starting point to test my disputation of your implication.) I rather think legitimate the 600+ compostions attributed to Mozart. Keep in mind that only the last couple of hundred of these are generally considered masterful.

    Lastly, the point of the radio show’s pianist guest was that Mozart put something new into music: emotions less cheerful than the nobility of his era wanted to hear expressed. He lived in a time wherein the nobles and royals of Europe wanted light, happy musical reassurance for their soon-to-be overturned hierarchies. Mozart managed to sneak anxiety into his music—and the Viennese music-loving public didn’t much like it. He expressed more too, like pathos—but not the pathetic type of pathos that would come later from the soggy and dreary Romantics—Mozart’s expressions of pathos were gorgeous, not overdone. He could just as easily express longing—and this, perhaps, was his finest gift. Yes, the ‘Mozartean gift’ was his graceful emotional expressiveness, not his prodigious output, much of which he composed while young and still learning.

    Listen to his clarinet concerto (K.622) or to the g minor viola quintet (K.516)—listen CAREFULLY (get stoned first! –no, just kidding!), understanding that NO ONE before him, not even the great Haydn, had yet produced anything nearly so perfect—and then tell me whether Mozart’s ‘detractors’ have a leg to stand on. I suspect you’ll find reason to revise your opinion.


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  • A little yellow bird

    Waxing rhapsodic on Mr. Mozart: “I can just imagine Mozart’s reaction to the Eroica symphony: “Not bad, kid! Not bad at all! But watch this!â€? And then he would have written an even better symphony under the influence of his younger rival, who, not to be outdone, would have come back with his own miracle, and so on, until all our lives were so full of astonishing sounds that the enraptured world would never go to war again.” (READ MORE): http://www.sobran.com/columns/2006/060126.shtml.

  • Nikos

    Thanks, Bird, for the link above. It provided not only a sweet thesis but several chuckles, especially after I read this: “Wagner…was undoubtedly a musical genius, but he did much to strengthen the stereotype of Germans as people who just never know when to shut up. (The philosopher Hegel must also bear some of the blame for this.)�

    And set me to wonderin’ how much hitherto unknown German I might have in me.

    Your post also inspired tonight’s music from my computer’s fine speakers: an early Haydn symphony (no.23), Mozart’s piano concerto no.8, his sym.no.18, then Beethoven’s quintet for piano and winds (inspired by Mozart’s earlier and seminal quintet of the same instrumental mix), Mozart’s piano concerto no.9, and then to top it all off, Beethoven’s First Symphony.

    See wat’chu dun, boy?

    Music to which I will finish my read of Daniel Dennett’s ‘Breaking the Spell’.

    How odd it will be to read a book of that title while a sound-spell enchants me!