An Interview With Patrick Mackie
Mozart in Motion: His Work and His World in Pieces by Patrick Mackie (Granta, 2023)
PM: You know, I come from a very rock and pop sort of background. And so hopefully that’s something that you’ve sort of picked up on in the book; trying to sort of see Mozart from that sort of perspective.
TR: Yeah, definitely. Well, let me just start by saying, I just love the book. I found so many beautiful descriptions in there and so many wonderful aphorisms, and great little word combinations, little tensions of words put together that are very flavorful and very spicy.
PM: That’s great to hear.
TR: Let’s just start this way, one of the things I love to do with an author is trying to guess what their background is just from reading the text, but I seriously could not figure out what your background might be.
PM: I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing [laughs].
TR: So tell us a little bit about your background, what you studied and what you’re focused on now, and how you came to Mozart as a subject.
PM: Well, I mean, maybe one of the reasons why that’s a little hard to figure out is that there’s a sort of underdetermination about the whole project that I hope has a different sort of energy to it from the ways in which books tend to give these days, which seems to me to be intensely overdetermined, either by where an author is coming from, where the marketplace is taking them, or where their careers are dragging them. And I mean, to say the least, there are extremely good reasons for that in any number of cases. But as it happened, I was in a position where I had been writing poetry for a number of years — or at least mainly publishing poetry, I’ve been writing other stuff too, and done the odd essay but I came from the poetry world primarily — so I really had a sense and a sort of vision of writing as being something that you just do, because you need to write the next thing, and the subject tells you what the next thing is going to be. And that’s in a way both the joy and the downfall of the poetry world, that’s the way that it operates. And so I guess it seemed like a sort of worthwhile experiment to see whether I could take the joy of that and avoid the downfall, which is to say, take the sense that the writing should be determined by a passionate commitment to having something to say, no matter what it is, but avoid the downfalls of civilization, that the poetry world seems to sometimes fall into. So that was in a way the risk of the book. I studied literature originally, and indeed modern literature. Oxford was my first degree, so that brings an entirely vast historical span, but I ended up concentrating on modern literature and modernist literature. I had sort of the very beginnings of an academic career in that field, so I guess that the other strand I was bringing to this book was a sense of wanting to figure out what modern experiences and what modern art is, and what modern life is, and had been casting around for different ways to explore that topic in my life for a number of years dating back to my sort of teaching days and, you know, developing a sort of passion for Mozart, just as a listener, with a sudden sense that there was a real subject there, in this topic related to modern life, modern experience, modern history, the modern world beginning to gestate complicatedly. This with all sorts of historical glitches, elements of prophecy, and relatedness at the end of the 18th century. All of that was what made the book feel possible, occasionally even necessary to me. But on the other hand, I’ve always been very proud of the fact that it was a circuitous route to writing this book. It took a long time to write partly because there was no reason for me to be writing it. And suddenly, no one wanted me to be writing it. And I mean, eventually, people wanted me to be finished writing it so I stopped claiming to be writing it [laughs]. That’s one way of making it seem as though people want you to write a book, just banging on about it enough that they want you to get it done.
TR: Fascinating. Well, now I can definitely see the poetry background. I was actually guessing more sociopolitical, like you seem to know a lot about the Habsburg Empire and about Leopold and that whole period, and obviously, that’s a fascinating period. I had this one literature professor who used to say that we get away with this horrible crime of describing every single period in literature as a period of transition. But tell us exactly what the salient aspects of that transition are in the 1780s in Vienna.
PM: I’m glad that you’ve taken that line out of my lips, I was probably just about to say it and I can now claim that this is what I was going to say all along, whereas in fact, I’m really adapting myself to what you’ve already set me up for [laughs]. But the really interesting aspect of that period is actually the weird combination of intense change with extraordinary stability and permanence. It was such an odd juxtaposition, I think, and Mozart is really at the center of it. And I think, in a way, that’s one of the reasons why I felt like this was a good topic for getting into modernity, you know. I grew up and I was learning this in critical theory in the 1990s when postmodernism was all the rage and modernity was taken to be this phenomenon of sort of permanent liquidity and flux, and all that is solid melts into air over and over again. And it’s not exactly that that account of modernity is wrong, but I felt like there was something a little stifling and oddly repetitive about something that seems to be in favor of flux and change. I think that’s one of the reasons why post-modernism has sort of dropped out of view as a critical topic, while nevertheless still being really predominant as a sort of sensibility. It feels like those arguments are still the arguments that we’re having, but we just don’t call it that anymore, we sort of take that level for granted. And I think one of the things that the late 18th century helped me to get into focus is actually that extraordinary combination of permanence and change, and the ways in which the change is sort of dialectically related to in some ways horribly repetitive, intense, violently solid forms of power and authority, and how that’s what modernity has always been about actually, that sort of tension. As soon as I start using those phrases to myself now — because I’ve been going over those ideas for such a long time — they already start to feel to me like descriptions of Mozart’s music as well; this extraordinarily powerful drive towards both transformation and stability, towards classical balance and poise and clarity on the one hand, and mischief and metamorphosis and expressive liquidity on the other. And so I think Mozart is particularly well placed to tell us about this particular feature of modernity. I guess, in a way, this book has also been a product of what you would broadly call the Brexit years over here. I both hope and do not hope that that term means as much to you over there as it does to us [laughs].
TR: I understand that, the Brexit tension actually rings a big bell.
PM: Yeah. And I guess, you know, people writing in the States, obviously — we’re not going to necessarily use the T word — but, you know, we all know that talking about modernity has taken a different sort of dark turn from previously. It has had plenty of dark chapters, but it feels as though we’re in the end game of a certain sort of vision of liberal progressive teleology, which we need different accounts to develop out of. This felt like a sort of way through that for me. In a way, the socio-political stuff, it’s been a sort of hard journey for me, I think, to get to a place where someone might make that mistake about me [laughs]. I think I began more as a sort of modernist esthete, you might say, someone who is quite committed in embattled ways in 1990s seminars, and I think because I was wrong, rather than because anyone else was wrong. I was really interested in and moved by the topics of modernist abstraction and formalism and artistic advance and that sort now old version of the new and it’s taken me a while to sort of continue my load to put together my loyalty to that sensibility with an absolute acknowledgment of the historical sociopolitical stuff that I guess we’re all sort of grappling with these days anyway.
TR: Fascinating. So I really want to circle back to post-modernism, but I have a number of things I want to get to first. So the first two subjects I want to talk with you about are some of the key relationships in Mozart’s life. You say something to the effect that he was almost as talented at being a son as he was a composer. I thought it was a fascinating insight. Tell us about that relationship with his father, and how history tends to sort of flatten out and two-dimensionalize that particular relationship.
PM: Yeah, exactly. I mean it’s so interesting and Mozart scholars tend to split loosely into sort of pro and anti-Leopold factions, right? I really tried to maintain the sort of balance between the two, but his father was such an excruciatingly strong character that he always dared everyone to take sides for and against him, including historians and biographers ever since he was a very gifted talented commanding fellow, from a very interesting and peculiar background. He was a sort of version of an enlightenment intellectual in his peculiar sort of auto deductive way, but all mediated through a sort of small-town Germanic Bürgerlich background with no small link to poverty, and close links to Bohemianism, that he was always extremely at pains to dispute and to distance himself from. But he really had a lot of different social loyalties pulling away at him. He was intensely conventional, but also strange and idiosyncratic, and egotistical. He was sort of bombastic and he was slightly less talented than he thought he should be, but he was smart enough to know it. Then this very strange thing happened to him, which is that all his dreams came true in the form of his son. And, you know, in a way that of course is the ultimate dream, but also in a way the ultimate nightmare. I mean, getting your dreams to come true is famously always the ultimate nightmare, particularly when it takes on this sort of autonomous, strange, life-disrupting, and life-changing form that he couldn’t not recognize. So in a way, I guess I ended up thinking that the point of Mozart’s father is that he set Mozart an interesting enough problem that Mozart had to be Mozart. And so in that sense, at the very least, we should be grateful to him for bringing so much material to the table. I think one of the key analogies I guess the book is built on is between these two facets of what I consider Mozart’s talent, which is his musicianship and his talent for being a son, which were sort of forged in the same, very strange high heat in the Mozart family. And the two were really indistinguishable for him at so many stages. And what’s particularly exciting about that, and was pretty productive about it, why it made the difference that it did to music history — rather than just one particular set of family psychodynamics — is that I think 18th-century music was full of fathers, you might say. Essentially, there had been this great generation of Handel and Bach, these two absolutely Titanic names, but there are many, many lesser names that were also in some ways equally important. The two Scarlatti, Alessandro Scarlatti and his son, Domenico Scarlatti, are vital ones for me, but Telemann equally, and then the French equivalents of Rameau. And so the first half of the 18th century had been a period of extraordinary and staggeringly productive, domineering figures who had really determined, you know, cultural authority and possibilities of pleasure and style and wit over the entire continent. It had been an amazing efflorescence, but that means that there was something really quite paralyzing about it. And I think by about 1750, the musical language was at such a pitch of saturation. You can sort of hear it in quite a lot of Handel and in late Bach because all the virtuosity of late Bach is that he needs to be able to elaborate these unbelievably wiry and complex traps that he’s made for himself and only he can navigate them and no one can keep up. So we have the Bach sons, this generation of Bach’s and actual sons, but we also have in a way a generation of lost sons between I think about 1750 and the emergence of Mozart. Haydn of course is older but bites his time for all sorts of complex reasons and indeed has the advantage of his strange retreat to the Hungarian Esterhazy palace in order to distance himself from the scene. And we have a strange world where actually no one’s quite sure where music is going to go and there are all these quarrels about it. [Christoph Willibald] Gluck does an extraordinary job of trying to define how music should go in very polemical terms, but for all sorts of interesting reasons, his music doesn’t quite command the scene. And so the world in a way was ready. The musical language was ready for a great son, someone who could actually experiment precisely with extraordinary quantities of cultural inheritance if you like, with a different sort of freedom and dexterity and an extraordinary mixture of loyalty and mischief, you might say, loyalty and disloyalty. I think this is sort of what the Mozart musical phrase is made of; getting back to that idea of intense desire for stability on the one hand and change on the other. Another way of putting that is being a good son and being a bad son. And it’s as though the musical language, you know, by someone who is extraordinarily good at both around 1775.
TR: He’s one of these. He’s like a Lincoln or somebody who just seems to suit the period so beautifully, it’s like the period is constructed for this person to walk onto the stage.
PM: I like that analogy, I suppose Lincoln was also very good at working with others to be that person, to have an extraordinarily astute sense of what people need and what people are capable of.
TR: Yes, and you were describing Leopold’s acute self-awareness, right? That seems to be a wonderful thing that Leopold was able to pass on to Mozart in a degree that really served Mozart very well. He wasn’t overwhelmed or paralyzed by self-consciousness, but he was able to apply a certain degree of self-consciousness that actually enhanced all the wildness and menace that he was trying to funnel into these forms. So there are other relationships I’d like to ask you about. First off, just parenthetically, you never hear anyone talk about Mozart’s mother. I’m curious if you learned anything about her or what that relationship was like? Was she completely marginalized?
PM: I’m sure it’s a flaw of my book, that I hadn’t managed to dramatize that enough. I mean, in a way it was because I was trying to begin the story at the end of the 1770s. So one whole strand of the book begins in Paris where she died on the great journey that she and Wolfgang finally took together after — for complicated reasons — it had been decided that Leopold should sort of just step aside from the great enterprise of Mozart’s career for a period. Mozart’s mother has this sort of extraordinarily strange and intense last year or so of her life, traveling with Mozart through provincial Germany — through the parts of Germany that she had been from in the first place — and ending up in this very strange episode in Paris that I think was a really crucial time for Mozart. It was a crucial time because I think he really burst out of sonship of sort of literal and familial sort and that was connected tragically with her unpleasant and early death at the hands of Parisian illness and very bad 18th-century doctors. Yeah, it’s really hard to catch on to her with anything like the intensity that she deserves, but she does come to life in their letters to each other, and she has all sorts of cameos in the correspondence. She was obviously very funny and she was very long-suffering with these peculiar people in her life. The daughter, Mozart’s sister, was also an incredibly talented musician, so the whole world was dominated by these brilliantly talented, very strange children. There’s a good book by the conductor Jane Glover called Mozart’s Women. Again, Mozart’s mother, she’s so hard to read even for Jane Glover, who does the best job on these sorts of topics. I hope maybe someday someone will, but Glover is incredibly brilliant on Mozart’s sister and brings the female side of the family to life in that sense of greater clarity than we’ve had before.
TR: So then we move on to this other family and a sister whose older sister he had actually dated and then he married the younger sister, that family, and his encounter with that family.
PM: So that actually comes from the same period. It’s the first time he’s been allowed to travel without Leopold, with his mother being sort of still a chaperone — and was meant to be a sort of ghost version of Leopold from Leopold’s point of view — an experiment with idiosyncrasy and independence for the most part. And the crucial encounter was in Mannheim, where there was an extremely powerful musical scene for all sorts of interesting reasons. It was really the crucible of the modern Symphony taking place with the Mannheim orchestra at the time, which was the great center of instrumental practice. And so it was a magnet for musicians and there was this extraordinary family, the Weber family, with its singing daughters. Aloysia Weber was the most talented of them, the one who went on to have the most important career and the one that Mozart fell in love with really. I mean, he became really quite besotted by her on the course of this journey. It’s hard to know how much of it was ever genuine on her part. It’s clear that it was an absolutely defining passion on his part, but with the ruthlessness of genius, he eventually managed to shrug it off which was quite bizarre ease given the excitement and high heat of a lot of his talk while it was ongoing. During the period after she rejected him and when they went into contact, her family moved to Vienna, via Munich. And when Mozart himself was there in the early 1780s, he managed to reunite with the entire Weber tribe now lacking the pater familias — an opponent of Leopold Mozart’s, who had been another very interesting figure in the sort of wandering circles of semi-enlightened semi Bohemian German intellectuals at the time. So Aloysia was already beginning to make a proper reputation for herself as a singer, and Mozart had actually shown this extraordinary capacity in a way for emotional metamorphosis already in recovering from the shock of discovering that she didn’t love him a couple of years or so earlier. But he moved on with it again, with disarming, almost sort of brutal pragmatism to her younger sister Konstanza, who turned out to be, in my view, a really talented, brilliant person in her own right, but not precisely as a singer. She was possibly the least talented singer of the sisters, but she was, an all the more important sort of collaborator and help for Mozart himself. And as his relationship with his father soured over the years — which was partly because Leopold disapproved of the Weber sisters and all of their deeds — I think Constanza really became an increasingly important sort of organizing figure in his son’s life and someone that he really relied on for his sense of himself, for motivation, for organization, and for all sorts of stuff that he wasn’t very good at.
TR: Fascinating. All right, so now you have a wonderful passage where you compare Mozart to Prince and specifically Prince’s Little Red Corvette. So why did you choose that particular song? And, you know, when we talk about Prince, a lot of us rock critics talk about the Mozartean aspects of Prince. His talent, which is just sort of oceanic in its breadth and scale and unstoppability. And I find the Prince comparison apt, but I’m just really curious as to why you focused on that one song?
PM: The funny thing about the Prince comparison is that, you know, people really separate into two camps. So I feel like it’s not really perfect for either of those camps; there are people who either just didn’t get it at all and can’t figure out what I’m getting at, or there are people from whom it’s so obvious [laughs]. I mean, in the world of people who were interested in both classical music and rock music, it’s sort of almost a cliché, the Mozart in Minneapolis. So it felt to me when I was writing it that that was the right person to go for. But it’s the writing that I liked the best and that means the most to me. I suppose what really decided it, in the end, was that precise song, and the way that that song really seemed to come out of a similar sort of intense inhabitation of different approaches to musical form and to what passion is and to what life is. You know, it seems to be a very casual song, it’s about the sort of clichés of nightlife and pickups and beautiful lovers and all of this sort of stuff, but it’s built around this rhyme between the word fast — as in you know, “you’re way too fast” — and wanting something to last. And that’s the sort of pivot of the song for me and indeed the pivot of the career of someone like Prince or Mozart; this extraordinary sense of velocity and veracity, of having a talent so extreme that it seems to sort of eat up the ground underneath you like a sort of cartoon character, where you’re having to lay down the tracks as you’re running along. And at the same time, you’re the demolition merchant of those same tracks beneath your own feet. At the same time, you’re also doing all of this to show off to others anyway, with the fact that you need your feet on the ground, you need to know where you’re running, otherwise, all this is gonna go nowhere, and you’re going to self-destruct. I think there was an intense, self-destructive element in both Mozart and Prince because of the speed with which they went at their lives, there was a sort of accelerated contact with the world with both of them. And I think Little Red Corvette, for me, the title of the song says what it’s about; it’s about a world that’s going too fast and needing to make a shape within it that’s going to last. And the sound of the song, it’s very hard to say whether it’s a ballad or not. There are versions of it where it sounds like a ballad more than others, but there are versions of it where it sounds like disco, it’s got a very strange relationship to speed… it’s a song that I like very much. And that reminded me, in a very different way, of the playfulness of Mozart’s music in relation to time. I wanted a song that would speak with this intensity of direct appeal to the senses and the emotions. I guess that’s the sort of broader analogy that I wanted to draw between classical music in the 18th century, and, broadly, American pop music of the 20th century. There couldn’t be anything more obvious than that song; it’s rivetingly pleasurable and hedonistic, almost unpleasantly so, unpleasantly direct in its pleasure. It ends up, I think, posing the question of pleasure, when and what we’re doing with all these pleasures, what these pleasures mean, and whether lives based on these sorts of pleasures can actually make sense and can actually cohere, and can actually build a coherent world for us, let alone others. You know, it raises those questions with this startling clarity that’s also easily missed precisely because it’s so pleasurable.
TR: So fascinating to hear you talk about that, because most people I converse with about that song, or rock criticism anyway, tend to just think about the shiny object, the car. So that’s one of the great symbols of speed and lust and design, modern culture, right? So what would be the analogous shiny object in Mozart’s world? And would that be the quintet where he’s trying to invent maybe a new form or a shiny new fancy?
PM: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, it’s got an extraordinarily brilliant sound, that song, where you can hear a lot of 80s pop music, including Prince’s later sound. It sort of defines, what I think a lot of American pop music was gonna sound like for the rest of that decade, that we sort of take for granted now. But there’s an intense love of sonic possibility itself and of layering, and of juxtaposition, and of little harmonic crunches. And I think the work that I juxtapose it with is mostly with the K452 quintet, which was equally not just musically innovative, but sonically innovative. It was a really totally different sound world. It was a quintet but for piano and winds. I talked about how it sort of came out of the experiments that had been undergoing at the time with the keyboard concerto. The keyboard was in a state of intense flux as an instrument around 1780, and I sort of talked about it in pretty exhausting length in the book at various points because of the transition, broadly speaking, between the harpsichord and the piano. To put it in sort of broad terms, that to me is analogous to the becoming of electronic music through the 70s and 80s and the displacement of the world of the band by the world of the studio. I think that’s one of the things that’s going on in Prince’s career and that his particular artistic personality is sort of built around a very strange and comprehensively diffuse navigation of it. What Mozart is doing in that particular quintet is taking two elements from the world of the piano concerto — which is to say a new version of the keyboard side and a new version of how to compose for the keyboard and the new wind sonorities that he’d used in order to provide different sorts of accompaniment and juxtaposition and analogy to the keyboard — and extracted them from the stuff that held them together, which is to say the string orchestra, which had been the sort of glue of concerto form while he was innovating with all the different possibilities in the early 1780s. And with that quintet, he sort of gets rid of the glue, if you like, and sees what happens when you just try and make the pieces stay together on their own terms. And it means that every sound feels both intensely fluid and extraordinarily neatly organized; it has to sort of hold its own with an extraordinary level of dexterity and structural tension, while also feeling intensely new. And you know, if you like the shiny and fluid, Little Red Corvette type of adjectives. If it’s as red as Prince’s one sounds, you’re going to see the surface float past you but actually, there’s also this extraordinary sort of extraordinary machinery going on beneath it that holds it together.
TR: Yeah, it’s great. When I hear you talk about that, I can definitely hear in Prince’s recording a tension between the ravishing and the spareness, great detail, sort of an etching but also a profusion of color through that spare quality…
PM: Yeah, exactly. You sort of follow that through, you get “Kiss” on the one hand. Do you know that song?
TR: Yeah, definitely made me think of “Kiss.”
PM: [Unintelligible], which is an album of his that I particularly love and that I think is underrated these days, and also Around the World in a Day. He tries to do this with a psychedelic and sort of cosmic feel, it doesn’t even work quite as well, but it’s a very brilliant attempt to sort of do the Hendrix-type studio recording and is mediated through the late Beatles.
TR: Yeah, I think psychedelia is really hard. It’s like a comedy. I think it’s delicate and I think it’s fragile. I think you’re going for an effect of multiplicity and color and vibrancy which is extremely difficult to pull off. The Stones don’t pull it off. Prince is a sort of a noble attempt and some songs work better than others. But psychedelia is a very odd beast, I think.
PM: Yeah, I think “psychedelia is really hard” would make a great slogan for a T-shirt to sell at Grateful Dead concerts [laughs]. You know, I think it could catch on, “It’s harder than you think.”
TR: I just read this book on Nebraska and there’s a section on Little Steven about how he says “Pink Floyd is easy, ‘Louie Louie’ is hard.” I think it’s a really great distillation of that idea. So let’s dive a little bit deeper into Mozart’s music. What do you find are some of the harder-to-describe aspects of Mozart’s music?
PM: I mean, when I set out, I assumed it was kind of all hard. And in fact, I wasn’t even sure there was going to be a book because everyone talks about how hard it is. That was really the premise that I started off with, so in a way, I was astonished to find any of it possible at all in the first place. But if I just took a moment to speak about the technique that I developed, for why I find it possible at all, maybe that’ll help clarify that. I just decided, okay, I just need to assume that whatever these things are about, they are about the same things that our lives are about. You know, there’s a sort of directness and concern with ordinary human emotion and need and questioning and so on, and that if I just take the questions that raise themselves in normal life — or at least my abnormal life insofar as it seems to connect with other people’s more normal ones [laughs] — to the music and stick with those questions and see if the music can come up with answers to them, then we’ll see whether that counts as a description. And that was my sort of way. And as someone who’s not a musicologist and whose own musical training is rudimentary at best, that seems to be the way to do it. The thing that I continued to struggle with was how to put that back together with the musical logical descriptions that I’ve learned a lot from and in particular what to do about the sonata form. This question kept on raising itself through my thinking about it. And, you know, that’s also partly a generational thing, because I’m not a professional musicologist. I had done a lot of reading around this stuff, but a lot of my original reading was from a few decades ago because I wasn’t necessarily reading the most up-to-date stuff. I was learning from the sort of greats of mid-20th-century classical musicology. So I felt like I was very saturated. I have a little sort of homage to Charles Rosen’s famous book The Classical Style in the bibliographic section of my book because it’s very important to me and it continues to be very important to me. But that vision of sonata form — Rosen’s is an extraordinarily brilliant, and I think, sort of existentially very alive and vital version of it — I find the more diagrammatic and virtually mathematical versions of it riveting and often very plausible too, and yet, I found them difficult to piece together with my experience of the music. And at the same time, they’ve become increasingly unfashionable, bordering on derided, within classical music criticism and scholarship. Suddenly, it’s more cutting-edge areas as I understood them over the last couple of decades at least. So I was grappling with a lot of those issues; what to do with the fact that I felt like it’s not a form was right as a description of a lot of how this works formally, not fully or easily to be rectified with my other ways of looking at the music, and anyway, being treated as wrong by a lot of people who are more informed and more up to date in their thinking of classical music. So that’s a very broad brush take on it.
TR: But the thing I liked about the book was that it brought a new kind of fresh intelligence to the material. And so, by it not feeling beholden to the musicological approaches, I think it felt very refreshing to hear someone describe this music in terms that they understood and that felt true to them. It was very convincing, very persuasive.
PM: That was the sort of gamble with it. But, I also in a way had the advantage of knowing that if I found something difficult, I didn’t have to do it. You know, no one was asking me to write the book anyway. But certainly, they weren’t telling me “this has to be in it.” I guess for me one of the major lacunae in the book — which is probably where this particular problem of what to do with sonata forms already raised its head — goes back to what I was saying about the quintet a minute ago, there isn’t quite as much on some of the piano concertos, as certainly in terms of my understanding of the central impetus of Mozart’s artistic identity and achievement, and so on. They were really like the heart of it for me, you know, along with the operas. So I have one chapter about one of the big concertos, but I think that was for good reasons. They’re the most consistent body of achievement, the sort of major piano concertos. So I think of this as the heart of it all insofar as there’s something that makes me think “Ah, I’d like to have another go at that aspect,” it’s probably those works.
TR: So do you have any favorite Mozart quotes from critics that you read that you would like to reflect upon?
PM: It’s been quite a while since I’ve read the book and I sometimes can’t remember which ones I cut from it and which ones I didn’t. But I think one from George Bernard Shaw, the line that I used as a way of talking about his own originality, the fact that he’s this sort of great anthologist of the 18th century. I think that one was really important to me because I started off really feeling that I had something to say about Mozart as a gateway to modernity. And I felt like when I was starting out, I was trying to distinguish him from the 18th century, and show how he was innovating and rebelling and doing something new and the product really came into focus for me and the Shaw quote was part of that. It was because he was so characteristic of the 18th century that he was able to escape from it if he liked it, because he had absorbed it more fully than anyone else alive — partly because of his extraordinary childhood as well as his extraordinary talent and because of the nature of 1780s Vienna and all sorts of complicated factors that aren’t just saying, “Okay, he was this individual genius.” You know, it’s that combination. I think Shaw really helped me with that.
TR: Interesting. I mean, Shaw lit me up when I discovered his music criticism, it just blew me away. And nobody knows that he has three volumes of really terrific criticism; some of that reads like Lester Bangs.
PM: It’s so funny and passionate, and sort of opinionated. But also, there’s an extraordinary generosity of spirit to it as well. I love Shaw as a writer generally, but that sort of grandiose dandyishness somehow is under control, I suppose because of his admiration. He’s so passionately devoted to Mozart, of course, but also to Wagner and Beethoven. I think he’s brilliant on Elgar too. I mean, it’s probably not so important to Americans for all sorts of reasons to try and find a way to love Elgar despite everything [laughs].
TR: Oh, I love Elgar. You don’t have to persuade me on Elgar.
PM: That’s interesting. Yeah. Well, you know, he’s so good on Elgar as a great German composer essentially, which was refreshing.
TR: And do you have any favorite Mozart players who you turned to over and over again, that helped you hear him in a new way?
PM: Yes, absolutely. That’s another aspect of the book that previous drafts had a bit more of. There were so many. I love Eric Kleiber as a conductor, he’s an amazing Mozart interpreter. Of previous generations, Friedrich Gulda, the pianist, I don’t know if you’re a fan of his at all, very classically oriented, brilliant Viennese virtuoso, who became extraordinarily outlandish later in his career and got into jazz and then deep psychedelia. He discovered how hard psychedelia could be by insisting on giving some of his concerts naked and all sorts of goings on like that. But his later Mozart recordings that he did just for himself — that Deutsche Grammophon managed to extract from very strange sort of homemade tapes in recent years — are absolutely remarkable I think, because they show him sort of fusing these two sides of his career towards the end. I mean, when I was getting around listening to Mozart, I went to so many concerts. It was one of the joys of writing this book; it just gave me an excuse to go to concerts and operas and call it work. Just to name a few, there’s a British conductor — his group indeed has to change its name to being called the Mozarters because of his devotion to Mozart — but also Ian Page, who’s done an extraordinary job of juxtaposing Mozart with other music of the period. I think there’s a whole new generation coming through now of people who sort of got an extraordinarily liberated grasp of what I think was originally a rather embattled, and occasionally — for all sorts of good reasons — pedagogically rigid version of historically informed performance practice. That was this huge sort of battleground particularly around late 18th-century music because music from before sort of always belonged to the early music specialists. So if they’d started to treat it evermore didactically as something that only they could understand in particular ways that was okay by people to a certain extent. But the battleground really became Mozart and Beethoven and late 18th-century music, and I feel like we’re now getting the fruits of that battle, we’re now getting people who know that language inside out, but who also are able to explore it on their own terms and with great sort of passionate inventiveness and so on. There’s a keyboard player called Kristian Bezuidenhout, who’s done a complete recording of Mozart’s solo keyboard music and is now doing a slightly more unpredictable sort of survey dance-around of the concertos. I learned a lot from him. Another advisor — I use the word advisor because he plays the piano with a great sort of old-fashioned sonority — he’s called Christian Blackshaw, really extraordinary figure who had a long hiatus in his career. I remember getting along to one of the concerts, he was doing a survey of Mozart’s Sonatas at Wigmore Hall. He’s really not very well known, and it’s obviously because of him taking this decades-long sabbatical for complicated personal reasons. And so I turned up to one of these concerts, and there in the audience were Alfred Brendel and Bryn Terfel, so I was like okay, the word must be good on this guy [laughs]. He built an extraordinary reputation.
TR: Those are a lot of names to investigate, I don’t know a lot of those. I find the original instrument movement was, I don’t want to say failed in its first generation, but we’re really reaping the benefits in the second generation as those ideas flow down even on people who are playing stuff on steel strings because they are understanding how it’s about vibrato and stuff like that. Do you know, the Andras Schiff Brahms Piano Concerto recordings?
PM: I don’t know them, but I should really look that up.
TR: I think it’s an 1860 instrument, which means it’s all wood. It’s not steel. And I can’t tell you how beautiful it is and how much sense it makes. So the instinct he had trickled down to Brahms and it’s very chamber-oriented sound.
PM: So I heard Schiff in concert playing the Emperor Concerto five or so months ago and it was one of those real sort of warhorse concerts, really old-fashioned. It was like an overture of a symphony. And I thought, well, it’s Andras Schiff, maybe it’ll be great. And it was extraordinary, actually staggering, the commitment to it and the sense that he’s really been rejuvenated by contact with all these different instruments.
TR: He has a new recording on the clavichord that I haven’t listened to yet, but I can’t recommend the Brahms enough, it’s very intimate and sort of like you get your brain washed up. All the histrionics from those Brahms, those are so interesting. Well, Patrick, I really I’d love to keep chatting forever and there’s obviously a lot of stuff that we can keep talking about, but if you have just a couple more minutes, I really am curious — because I teach post-modernism — what definition of post-modernism you find most useful?
PM: This is taking me back decades to the 1990s when I was lecturing on this stuff. What I found most helpful were Jameson and also Charles Jencks, architect and theorist who has some claim to be the person who first used the term post-modernism and specifically in the architectural setting. I think that that was how I ended up on post-modernism, partly for the purposes of pedagogical charity, because it feels good to have a sort of area in which to locate a term. So the thing to do is to double down on architecture as the major narrative and talk about how other things emerged from that, in a way because it’s so hard to get a building built, and it’s so expensive, and it takes such an institutional commitment and financial commitment and commitment of engineering, etc. etc. The style really takes hold in architecture and modernism really took hold through architecture, which is just one of the stunning achievements and amazingly resonant, grand institutional facts on the ground. So I think when that started to get eroded and when people started to look for new possibilities there, post-modernism had to sort of prove itself and move on from modernism towards something that much more traumatic and interesting aspects. And, you know, that’s why there are these interesting books and architecture in the 1970s, which was such an extraordinary period for architecture with Learning from Las Vegas and Delirious New York and books like that. And it of course links it to urban experience so directly too. So that’s the area where I ended up finding my feet.
TR: Yeah, it’s always a good example for students, because you can show it and you can say this is not a structural element, this is a decorative element, to comment on aspects of structure that otherwise would go uncommented. That’s a way of drawing their attention. But I also try to use Sergeant Pepper as one of the early major pieces that actually lays it in in a kind of self-conscious way that’s very easy to explain. Yeah, we’re a band. We’re not the Beatles. We’re a different band. We’re going to do our first studio record that starts out with crowd noises. And then by the end, the curtain comes down, and then we have this epilogue that actually is not part of the show. And then you have this sort of nervous breakdown at the very end and then you have to also explain the word existential because A Day in the Life is existential and what does that mean? And you’ll get 16 different explanations of the word existential right? For me, the Beatles are the ones who actually do this great uniting integration of the high and the low. And that’s one of the great themes. A book you should know about, if you don’t, is called Magic Circles by Devin McKinney. Not many people know it. It is really a fantastic book and he’s such a wonderful writer. He also has a great biography of Henry Fonda called The Man Who Saw a Ghost. He reminds me of you actually. He’s got really great style and really great ideas.
I’d love to keep chatting. It’s, it’s really fun to meet you. Thank you so much for your time. And thanks so much for the enthusiasm about the book and I’m really grateful for you’re putting it out there. Thank you so much, Patrick.