30 May 2009

No Cigar

This past Thursday, I was driving back to Cambridge to fetch my wife from her work. Typical day, really. I tuned into WCRB on the car radio, and heard the announcer advise that next up was a complete Vanhal symphony (a Symphony in F, played by the Salieri Chamber Orchestra). No news there, either. But the next and unusual step, was my own.

Normally, on hearing a work by, say, Vanhal announced on WCRB (and if you, Gentle Reader, should be an ardent Vanhallian, I apologize to you in advance), I tend to retune the radio dial to another station. But that afternoon, I decided to listen, and listen to the whole thing, primarily because I had recently heard the eccentric suggestion that it was “actually” Vanhal who composed works “attributed” to Mozart. All right, I thought; setting aside all questions of history and documents, let us consider if the composer of the work I am about to hear, could plausibly have composed mature Mozart.

I am going to consider three questions, and the comparison of that day was made all the easier by the fact that I had been listening to so much authentic Mozart all week. (And I do apologize to our neighbors who enjoy Vanhal; I hate to seem to run down a ‘grade-B’ contemporary of Mozart, who was grade-triple-A fit to beat all grade-As.)
  1. Scoring (use of the orchestra). I am afraid that on this head, the Vanhal symphony struck me as staggeringly unimaginative, on the whole. On the plus side, there were some lovely solo-string passages (which modestly recalled the early Haydn symphonies I have been listening to). But the use of the winds was witheringly dull. There was not a single point at which the flutes, oboes or horns ‘broke free’ to play even a single independent measure; all of the wind writing (without fail) was simply a slavish doubling of something already being covered in the strings. The piece could have been composed for string orchestra alone, in other words, and the winds just added as an afterthought as a coloristic highlight. I needn’t tell anyone who has read any Mozart score, that the Salzburger could never be accused of such a paint-by-number approach to writing for the winds.
  2. Harmony. There is a scatologically amusing exchange in Peter Shaeffer’s Amadeus, in which Mozart is overheard saying, Have you heard his [i.e., Salieri’s] latest opera, The Chimney Sweep? Dog-shit. Dried dog-shit. Tonic-and-dominant, tonic-and-dominant, tonic-and-dominant — not one interesting modulation in the entire piece.” Subtract the tone of stagey scorn, and we have something close to a description of the Vanhal Symphony in F. All of the harmony, all the chord sequences, all the harmonic motion of every phrase, is dutifully correct, and unexceptional. There is nothing of the harmonic deftness and agility which can be found in practically any Mozart score which he composed past the age of 20. He had already milled out all that dutiful harmonic broadcloth as a youth, you see; so his compositional ear demanded flashes of inspiration. The difference (if you like) between a square dance, and the tango (harmonically speaking). The Vanhal is a thoroughly pleasant piece, mind you, but harmonically, it’s Mozart as a 15-year-old.
  3. Composition/phrasing. Essentially the same quarrel as (2.) above. Nice work, but two orders of creativity beneath the mature Mozart.

In good conscience, then, I can only report that, based purely on musical considerations, what I have heard of Vanhal takes him completely out of the running as any possible “ghost-writer” for Mozart.

Which, of course, cannot be any surprise to most anyone. We should not normally punish these ‘workmen’ composers for merely doing their work stylishly and characteristically; it is in comparison to the fiery creative spirits such as Haydn and Mozart that their works pale.

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