Where is Mozart?

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Tagged: music, contemporary classical

Classical music is a somewhat obscure matter to many people; I know this because I often get questions on the subject. I am glad to answer (if I know), but one common question in particular—or a version of it—eventually prompted me to write about it. It goes along the following lines: we used to have Mozart and Bach and Beethoven, where are they now?

This inquiry reminds me of an episode I experienced in Japan, while visiting a German friend who lives there. We were discussing about the large quantities of Brazilians living and working there and he asked me: "if they are so numerous, why don't I see them? Where are they?" My answer caught him off guard: "it's because they don't look Brazilian." (At least not the stereotypical Brazilian, I must add.) Notoriously, the largest Japanese community outside of Japan is located in Brazil. These immigrants didn't really mingle with the locals until roughly the third generation. In the absence of the local genes they look exactly the same as their ancestors and, therefore, contemporary counterparts.

A similar phenomenon happens in classical music: if you are looking for Mozart today as the author of the Kleine Nachtmusik you would be searching for the keys under the proverbial light pole despite them having been lost in the dark. You would be in a similar situation as my German friend in Japan: you might have even heard his music, but were unable to recognize it. In short: if Mozart were alive today he would not be writing classical music.

This sounds like an aristocratic wedding reception soundtrack to modern listeners, but there is more to Mozart than meets the ears.

A note about the term classical music might be appropriate at this point. Unfortunately it has two meanings: one strict and one broad (and more popular). The latter encompasses the whole of the concert, chamber, choral and opera music of the so-called West from about the Middle Ages (give or take a couple of millennia). The former is a strictly defined musical style that occurred within the aforementioned period between the Baroque—think Bach—and the Romanticism—think late Beethoven or Wagner—of which Mozart is the best known example, second to Haydn and Beethoven's early phase.

Expanding the horizon

But why am I so convinced that Mozart would not be writing classical music (in the strict sense) if he were alive today? For the same reason I am convinced that, were da Vinci to be alive today, he would not have painted the Mona Lisa. Likewise, Christopher Columbus would not have sailed to the Americas, he would take a plane and would not need to "discover" it at all. (I guess he would be trying to convince someone to send him to Mars.) All of these things have already been done.

Mozart, like all the other "gods" of the classical music pantheon, was an experimenter. He happens to have lived in Austria when Europe was going through the Neoclassical period. So it is not surprising he was writing in this style. But he also redefined its boundaries. He even wrote music to shock people, as his correspondence with his father shows, although it is difficult to see it from our modern vantage point. Even when that was not the case you can see from his music—in historical context—that he was always trying to push the limits of the language.

People sometimes call Mozart a genius, a word whose modern connotation came around the nineteenth century and is a manifestation of the Romantic pathos, which craves for gods and goddesses to look up to. But this notion has done a disservice to the actual creative métier. The word carries a sort of superhuman connotation and isolates the creators from their context.1 It also demerits the effort those people put into their education and refining their work.

A more productive way of thinking about creators is as people who don't fit inside the box they are given by their historical context and—collectively with their contemporaries—explode it to create a bigger one. That bigger box will then host the next generation of creators, some of which will not fit in it either and do the same, and so on. This is similar to the "discovery" of the Americas by Europeans: their boundaries then were—quite literally—expanded. The next generation of explorers started with a bigger world. It is no coincidence that these things (maritime exploration and a dramatic development in musical language) were happening at about the same time: they are closely related to the idea of progress, which is not universal (many cultures are more concerned with cherishing the tradition than challenging it).

This evolutionary process has been driving Western classical music (in the broader sense) since at least the Middle Ages and has not stopped after Beethoven died. During all that time the audience followed this evolution, but in the beginning of the twentieth century there was a plot twist: the expansion of the music language (the "box explosion") was so dramatic that the audience started to disband, presumably toward other, nascent genres, or just got stuck with music from the past. (Incidentally this is why I call concert halls music cemeteries: it feels like we go there to pay homage to our dead patriarchs—the pantheon mentioned above is filled almost exclusively by men). At any rate, it is not so much that the Mozarts disappeared, it is just that their music became so weird so quickly that their popularity decreased by the same proportion.2

The musical outer space

But that doesn't mean we should stop looking. In fact, this article inaugurates a three-part series on Contemporary classical music in which I will give what I think are good reasons to listen to this genre as well as explain how to go about it if you are a total beginner. Of course, no one knows what kind of music Mozart would be writing if he were alive today; but I will take you on a journey of possibilities. It will be like an enology crash course. And, just like in an enology course, if you are not careful you might end up inebriated.

If finding Mozart does not compel you (between us, I don't even like Mozart), I will now reveal the actual agenda behind this series. It spawns from the refrain "I don't understand about classical music" (sometimes followed by an extenuating "but I know what I like"). What I am really after here is not only to challenge that statement, but to invalidate it altogether. For that I will also try to answer the question "what is music?" while exploring what is underneath the seemingly innocent refrain above.

Finally I would like to address a historical wrong I only hinted to above: the almost absolute lack of women in the pantheon. If we know no (or very few) female composers from the Baroque or Romantic era, there are plenty who are alive today and creating great music. We have the chance to do them justice while they are alive, we do not need to start digging the past for female Mozart equivalents (although that would also be timely). So check back soon and enjoy the trip to the musical outer space.

Read the next article in this series →


  1. An interesting take on this is sprinkled around Daniel Denett's book From bacteria to Bach and back.

  2. Here it is worth to remind ourselves that the composers occupying the pantheon today are not necessarily the same as when they were alive. Bach is a typical example: during his days he was mostly known as a talented organist, but his reputation then was dwarfed by what it became after the nineteenth century.