Bowdlerizing Mozart

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Mozart and (?) his cousin Basle. (Book cover art: Maurice Sendak/Farrar Staus Giroux)

In a passage from Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s biography, Mozart, the author discusses posterity’s attempt to sanitize the composer, including his operatic music, some of which sang out in the sort of joy that stuffed-shirt guardians of society’s morality can’t abide. But some of the most compelling instances of “bowdlerization” spring, it seems, from the irrepressible ability of Mozart’s musical sense to uplift the lower aspects of the librettos which, high or low, he cloaked so elegantly in music. [Trigger alert: Naughtiness ahead.]

Wherever his words lack the appropriate tone, his music corrects them. In these opuscula growing out of a good-natured, mindless, or vulgar mood, the spirit and elegance of the musical thought usually softens the intended shock of the theme. This is especially true of those canons whose texts deal with – so to speak – fecally immanent imperitives, like “O du eselhafter Martin” (Oh, Martin, you jackass), K. 560 (1788) (given by Herr  Breitkopf as “Are you yawning, lazy fellow” in order to divert the phrase “Aufs-Maul-scheissen” [Shit on the mouth] into other channels), or “Leck mir den Arsch fein recht schön sauber” (Lick my arse until it’s nice and clean), K. 233/382d (1782?), in Härtel’s version “Nichts labt mich mehr” (Nothing comforts me more), or Breitkopf’s bowdlerization “Lasst froh uns sein” (Let’s be happy) for “Leck mich im Arsch,” K. 231/382c (1782). … Here, too, the music does not reproduce the unsublimated text. The slightest touch of vulgarity is alien to Mozart’s music, even where the words seem to dictate it; here he has composed aainst his own text. We wonder if the seeming evidence about even ignoble things deceives us, too.

In other words, Mozart always composed against his own texts – against the text of his letters, his notes; against appearances, his bearing, his behavior. Or vice versa: his true language, music, is fed from sources unknown to us; it lives from a suggestive power which rises so far above the object of its suggestion that it evades us. Its creator remains unapproachable.

Classical architects are always, likewise, rushing to the defense of their buildings from the uses put to them by their occupants. In one sense they ought to worry because idiots are always on the lookout for evil – Nazism, for example – to supply the guilt by association that modernists apply to all but their own style. In another sense, however, the defenders of classicism need not worry because the architecture can and does do a fantastic job of defending itself. You really have to have to have a long stretch of nose to peer down in order to believe that Hitler’s evil can be blamed on the loveliness of a column, a pediment, an architrave or a balustrade.

Vulgar classicism doesn’t exist and we might wonder what it would look like. Cathedrals decked with the monstrosities fashioned into rainspouts are no less beautiful for that. They are not vulgar. Bad trad is out there, of course, but that’s different. For vulgarity in architecture we must turn, alas, to the modern architects – not all of them, I hasten to add – who have beshat the built environment of the modern world by banning all that is beautiful from their “art.”

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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