Donald Tovey on Mozart

by on January 27, 2006 at 4:46 am in Music | Permalink

To
my mind, no one has done a better job of concisely explaining what makes Mozart
Mozart than Donald Tovey,
whose essay on the G Minor Symphony, K. 550, the greatest of the minor-key
works, is a convenient starting point. Tovey offers a
seeming paradox that will startle many readers: “We can only belittle and
vulgarize our ideas of Mozart by trying to construe him as a tragic artist.”
What could he possibly mean, especially with reference to the G Minor Symphony,
still widely regarded as the locus classicus
of tragedy in music? The answer, Tovey replies, is that
Mozart was up to something altogether different: “Mozart’s whole musical
language is, and remains throughout, the language of comic opera.”

This
bald-faced assertion, so surprising at first glance, turns out on closer
inspection to be all but self-evident. From the rush and bustle of the outer
movements of the G Minor Symphony (whose compositional language Tovey likens to Rossini’s Overture to The
Barber of Seville
) to the wittily “theatrical” exchanges between
soloist and orchestra in the later piano concertos, one finds in Mozart’s
mature instrumental works an abundance of proof that he thought of all his
music in dramatic terms–and that the kind of “drama” he had in mind was
18th-century opera buffa,
abstracted at times to the point of sublimity but still essentially comic.

Here is the Commentary article which cites Tovey.  The article also offers a useful discography of Mozart in minor keys; it was Alfred Brendel who said:

The pieces in the minor
do more than just present a dark backdrop to Mozart’s brilliance. . . . I know
of no other composer fundamentally transformed while writing in minor keys.

Happy Birthday Mozart!

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