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Monday, August 3, 2009

Trouble in Salzburg?

Austrian pianist Florian Birsak recently delivered a high-profile performance primarily intended for the international media. It was of two piano pieces that have not seen the day of light for more than 200 years. Although the works have been unknown to the public, the composer is rather well-known. The works are believed to have been written around 1763 by an eight year old boy by the name of W. A. Mozart.

The music was discovered in the archives of the International Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg. Ulrich Leisinger, foundation's Director of research believes that these two pieces are in the handwriting of Leopold Mozart, the composer's Joe Jackson-like stage father. The music was found in a collection know as "Nannerl's Musical Notebook" but the manuscript does not directly specifically attribute a composer.

The notebook contains of music compiled by Leopold for Mozart’s older sister Maria Anna. However, the two works are believed to have many of the traits found in early Mozart, although Leopold may have transcribed, embellished, corrected, and improved upon the work of his young and talented prodigy son.

W.A. Mozart would have already been composing for a few years when these works were transcribed in 1763 (Mozart started composing at age 5). Over his lifetime, he would compose over 620 works, many of which are not heard often enough today.

The Mozarteum choose to showcase two these recently attributed piano works and perform them at a press conference this week. The works are a one minute "Prelude" in G major and a four minute "Concerto" in G Major. The Concerto movement in particular displays virtuosic piano writing (such as hand crossing) that is uncharacteristic of the time.

It's not all that unusual for new works by W.A. Mozart to come to the surface. A library in western France announced in September that it found a previously unknown draft of music handwritten by Mozart in their archives. Early symphonies and other fragments arise from time to time.

I suspect that there will be a steady stream of new Mozart works brought to the public's attention over time. It has already been announced that the modern day premiere of additional lost works by Mozart will take the stage in January where they'll be performed at the annual Mozart Week in Salzburg (the composer's home town). There are many groups who have a vested interest in keeping the Mozart mystique alive. Franky, it's big business.

Mozart-mania is a clear boost to tourism, and a good marketing strategy in a country where the Mozart franchise brings in billions of dollars of revenue. Mozart didn't profit from a savvy publicist during his lifetime (other than his father). Today it seems like the Mozart brand still packs a mighty punch. Just think, how many 21st century composers would command a media frenzy of international press for a little piano piece they wrote when they were just eight years old?

I have already blogged about Generative Musicology, and of the dangers that could derive from a blind worship of old music by dead composers.

It seems to me that this most recent Mozart frenzy is yet another example of "Musicology Gone Wild." The world-wide attention that has been paid to this musicological discovery is perhaps disproportionate to the value of the work itself. Not only is the authenticity of the work uncertain, but the music itself is incomplete. (Harvard's Robert D. Levin is said to be reconstructing an orchestrated version for harpsichord and strings of the Concerto that will be premiered in January of next year).

The Salzburg musical press conference seems to have included a version of Mozart's mini-Concerto in G major with orchestral parts reconstructed by musicologists (not heard in the YouTube clip below, but aired on BBC Television). Using their understanding of music from the classical period, they composed new music to sound something like what Mozart might have written. Yet, these works say more about the young Mozart's impressive keyboard abilities than his burgeoning compositional insight.

Close, but no cigar.

It's good media hype, but in my view the Mozart obsession distracts our attention from other important musical events of here-and-now significance, such as music written by living, breathing composers of our own age.

Sorry Mozart, I know that you are on YouTube, but these pieces are not your best. But you have a really good agent and marketing plan. Living, breathing composers everywhere are envious of your success.