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Do we have to accept an opinion as authoritative because a great composer said it?


One of the dangers of reading pianonoise is that you get encouraged to think. I mean really think, not think the way most people use the word most often, as in I think I'll have a sandwich or I think it's sunny out. I mean cogitate, think for yourself, puzzle it out, and if somebody is presenting an opinion, consider whether you ought to adopt it first before you click on accept. Read the fine print, figure out their agenda, try to find out where their ideas have come from, and whether or not you think they are still valid. It's not a popular concept, believe me.

And if that isn't obnoxious enough, we model it here by sometimes coming to blows with the august dead. For instance, here is a page about something Bach said and why he might have said it. And another one.

Bach didn't say very much in writing, and he didn't generally explain himself either. Mozart, on the other hand, wrote a lot of surviving letters, had lots of opinions to share with lots of people, and as such is an authority on practically everything.


One of his most oft repeated quotes, at least in the organ world, is the phrase "The organ, to my eyes and ears, is the king of instruments." I take Mozart to task for this, not because of what he said, but because he never wrote a single piece for solo organ. There are a few for mechanical clock which organists sometimes play, and around a dozen church sonatas which include organ parts, two of which are so intricate as to practically be organ concertos. But other than that, nothing. And at one point he turned down the possibility, sniffed at the very idea, of becoming organist to the court of Versailles, because who would want to be a mere organist, after all?

If the organ was really the King of Instruments, you might think he would have wanted to have more to do with it, wouldn't you?

Although, if you are an organist, you realize that that is not exactly the route to fame and fortune, and Mozart was certainly the kind of guy who wanted both.

There is another famous quote of Mozart's in which he says that music should "never offend the ear, but should please the listener. In other words, it should never cease being music." This is the sort of quote that can and frequently does do battle against those pesky modern composers who people feel often offend their ears with cacophonous noises. Mozart would never do that, they seem to be scoffing.

Except that Mozart was once a modern composer, and, particularly as his career advanced, he began writing things that did offend people's ears. Most famous is that quote from the movie Amadeus in which the Emperor tells Mozart he writes too many notes. The emperor probably never actually said that, but large sections of Vienna did feel that his music was too complicated (including, it appears, the Emperor), so there is a useful authenticity to the quote even if it is actually made up.

The larger point to be made here is that it isn't really what the composer said about his own time and place that matters to us when we trot out these quotes, it is what we think we are saying to ours. Having an authority figure from the past is just a lazy way of saying "case closed. This guy knows what he is talking about. Are you going to argue with Mozart? Didn't think so."

Only, I would argue with him--if I thought he was wrong. And, in this case, pleasing the ear is relative. But I would really like to know in what context he said what he said, and how old he was at the time. Did his stance perhaps change on that issue? Whose approval might he have been seeking when he wrote that? What if even Mozart didn't agree with Mozart? Or, at least, his idea of "offending the ear" might not have been yours if you had been alive back then.

Food for thought. In a world where many of us are starving.

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