András Schiff on this year's anniversary of Mozart's 250th birthday

It has become fashionable to mock Mozart, and pianist András Schiff is tired of it. He salutes a composer whose music is full of surprises

This year will be remembered as Mozart year, in which the whole world pays homage to one of the greatest artists of all time, on the anniversary of his 250th birthday. Mozart's popularity has reached new heights, performances of his works are ubiquitous, and books and articles about him are so numerous that they could fill a whole library. This is indeed a cause to rejoice, so why does he need to be defended? After all, everybody loves Mozart.

Really? Let me quote from a recent article by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, published on the paper's arts blog, Culture Vulture: "Armando Iannucci recently had the sheer bottle to stand up in front of many of Britain's most distinguished classical musicians and confess that he didn't much care for Mozart."

Now, this is very important indeed. (Forgive my ignorance, but who is Armando Iannucci?) Elsewhere Norman Lebrecht has attacked Wolfgang Amadeus in a most unfair manner. I refuse to quote from his writings because they represent - to me - musical journalism at its most disagreeable. Glenn Gould - one of the most brilliant musical minds of the 20th century - wrote an essay in which he tries to explain why the C minor Piano Concerto (K491) is not a good work. He also didn't care for the piano sonatas, which he nevertheless recorded - to prove their mediocrity.

Why is it that certain people get such immense pleasure from this kind of iconoclasm? Does attacking the greatest artists in history make them feel better? It's good to enjoy the benefits of democracy, such as freedom of speech - let's remember the recent affair with the Danish cartoons and not ever take it for granted. But Mozart's greatest admirers included Haydn, Goethe, Kierkegaard, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Nietzsche, Debussy, and Britten. Putting this list against that of a few detractors, whose side would you like to be on?

How can we understand Mozart? His wonderful letters are an invaluable source of information, but is it acceptable to read other people's most private thoughts - would he have given us permission to eavesdrop? Hardly so. Today, everyone feels an urge to contribute to our image of Mozart. Scientists try to explain the neurological phenomenon of genius, psychologists see him as a victim of his tyrannical father, stage directors - many of whom can neither speak Italian nor read music - use his operas as vehicles to express present-day social and political ideas that are totally alien to the works in question.

The mysteries are not in the biography, they are in the music itself. Many feel that the Peter Shaffer/Milos Forman film Amadeus has helped us to a deeper appreciation of the composer's art. I beg to differ. Great artists eat, drink, sleep, laugh and cry - just like us. But they also do something else that others cannot begin to comprehend. In our quest to understand Mozart we should be concerned with the differences, not the similarities. I'm afraid that Amadeus has told us more about the latter.

"Too easy for children, too difficult for adults," said Artur Schnabel of Mozart's solo piano music. A musical child can certainly play a Mozart sonata well, even beautifully. There are not too many notes - contrary to what the Emperor Joseph II stupidly says in Amadeus - only as many as necessary. For a child it all seems natural: melody, harmony and rhythm coexist in perfect equilibrium. Later, at the ripe age of 18 he begins to think about the music and begins discovering its complexities. It is not as simple as it first seemed, and he realises with horror that he can no longer play it with natural innocence. Paradise lost. If he or she is lucky then there is a good chance that it may return with old age. The pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski amazed us all at the age of 102 with interpretations of Mozart that combined the purity of childhood with the wisdom of experience.

One of the misconceptions about Mozart is that he composed effortlessly. This was not always true, although he did possess the greatest possible facility. When he wanted to write something extraordinary - like his six string quartets dedicated to Haydn - he took great care of all the details and needed a long time to accomplish his goals. Studying his autograph manuscripts, we can find numerous corrections in them, contrary to the common belief that the music flowed effortlessly from his pen.

In about 1780, in the library of Baron van Swieten, Mozart discovered the works of JS Bach. In those days nobody was interested in the music of the past: the public only wanted to hear the newest creations. (Today it's almost the other way around.) This encounter with Bach was a very significant event for the young composer. In his subsequent compositions, melodic genius and youthful exuberance are coupled with a mastery of counterpoint and polyphony that he had learned from the older master. The tiny piano piece, Eine Kleine Gigue (K574) was written in Leipzig and is a homage to Bach. Try playing this to someone who is unfamiliar with it and ask them who the composer is. There will be some strange guesses, even Schönberg and Webern, because the music is so daringly modern. Another piano piece, the A minor Rondo (K 511) sounds like a forerunner of Chopin - no wonder Mozart was Chopin's idol. Both of these works will be heard at the recital I'll be giving at the Proms next month.

The Royal Albert Hall as a venue for such delicately intimate music? It's true that they were written for the fortepiano with a small audience in mind. I have had the rare privilege of playing them on Mozart's own fortepiano in the very room where he was born. It was an unforgettable and moving experience - yet I feel that the music is of such sublime quality, its message so universal, that it can also be transferred to a large space and played on present-day instruments. Mozart is a gift to mankind, but do we deserve this gift? In the vast space of the Albert Hall a piano will first sound lost, like a soft voice in the desert. But gradually people will realise that it's worth listening to Mozart's voice - it transcends time.

· András Schiff performs an all-Mozart programme at the Proms on August 17. Box office : 020-7589 8212

András Schiff

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Another Proms, another load of controversies

Another Proms, another load of controversies ... director Nicholas Kenyon responds to his critics.

Nicholas Kenyon

03, Jul, 2006 @2:18 PM

Article image
A great British tradition?

The Last Night of the Proms should reach out to the world, not trot out tired old British warhorses, says Tom Service.

Tom Service

01, May, 2006 @2:55 PM

Article image
David Ward: on Young Musician of the Year, Mark Simpson

His mum tried him at judo, gymnastics and trampolining. Then she gave him a clarinet - and the Young Musician of the Year was born. By David Ward.

David Ward

17, Jul, 2006 @9:52 AM

1916 and all that

The Young Composers competition throws up some amazing talent - and some surprising titles. Peter Kingston reports.

Peter Kingston

27, Jun, 2006 @2:57 PM

Letters: Proms' gender imbalance strikes a sour note
Letters: Nicholas Kenyon needs to stop being so complacent (Not enough women? Well ... July 3). Instead, he should apologise and start addressing the gender bias at the Proms. The absence of female composers is indefensible, but the figure of 15% for female instrumentalists featured as soloists is in many ways more shocking.

12, Jul, 2006 @11:05 PM

Article image
A lot less pomp, a bit more circumstance

We all like to moan about the Last Night of the Proms: its cliches and its jingoism. We asked the experts to play artistic director and tell us how - or if - they would change it.

07, Sep, 2006 @11:17 PM

Article image
Philippa Ibbotson: Jingoists, take your last bow
Philippa Ibbotson: Last Night of the Proms should lose its British accent and celebrate music's internationalism.

Philippa Ibbotson

16, Aug, 2006 @11:04 PM

Leader: In praise of ... the Proms
Leader: The Proms are truly part of Britain's hope and glory.


08, Sep, 2006 @11:16 PM

Article image
András Schiff review – a spellbinding account of the Goldberg Variations
Schiff’s playing was buoyant and dazzling in a performance that underlined the cogency and integrity of his approach to this monumental work

Andrew Clements

23, Aug, 2015 @3:02 PM

Article image
Michael Berkeley on musical completism

Bach's complete works, every Beethoven symphony, the Ring in a day - could we be overdoing the greats? By Michael Berkeley.

Michael Berkeley

11, Aug, 2006 @10:48 PM