Mozart's Talent Resounds In The Halls Of St. John's Musicologist Studies Composer Who Died Two Centuries Ago

September 14, 1990|By Phil Greenfield

The music world, which seems to thrive on noteworthy anniversaries, is poised to commemorate a blockbuster of a milestone: 1991, the bicentennial year of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's death, is just around the corner.

Tributes to music's most meteoric genius will abound in concert halls across the world. Plans are being made at New York City's Lincoln Center, for example, that will result in public performances of each of Mozart's 626 cataloged works at some time during the bicentennial concert season.

Record companies are pulling out all the stops, with an enormous number of Mozart releases and re-releases ready to flood the shelves.

Music lovers around the world will heed in unison the famous words of Franz Josef Hayden, who wrote to Leopold Mozart in 1785, "I tell you before God, as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer I know, either personally or by repute."

Engaged and excited by all of this Mozartian adulation is Wye (Wendy) Allanbrook, a music historian and tutor at St. John's College who happens to be one of America's most widely respected commentators on Mozart's compositional style.

"I'm just very glad to be part of all the conversation that's going on," she says. "This is a great time to concentrate on Mozart.

"But," she adds with a laugh, "any occasion will do."

Allanbrook has spent much of her professional life writing about Mozart's expressive style, and her insights into his craft have impressed many readers, including Roger Norrington, one of the world's best-known conductors, and the late Virgil Thomson, a composer and long-time dean of American music criticism.

Currently on sabbatical from St. John's and at work on Mozart articles for which she has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies, Allanbrook recently took time out to discuss her work and the music she loves so deeply.

Most musicologists, she explains, analyze music exclusively in terms of key relationships, tonality and the formal structure of compositions. "But they seem to leave out the most interesting part," she complains, "and that's the expressive side of things. Mozart isn't just about keys, chords and form. He is always modulating his expressive style, always articulating new gestures in his pieces that tell the listener about his character and his world. Sensing these changes of stance is the key to understanding and interpreting his music."

Her book, "Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni," is a discussion of these ever-shifting expressive methods as they occur in his two greatest operas. "Opera really lends itself to this kind of analysis," she reports, "because there's always a text to illuminate what Mozart is up to."

But even in the instrumental realm, a host of different postures can be identified that impart much expressive wealth to Mozart's music. Courtly marches and dances, hunting calls, exotic Turkish marches, fanfares and wind serenades -- real sounds from Mozart's own world -- might all be alluded to in, say, a single movement of a piano sonata.

"They're all in there," she concludes, "and to recognize these gestures is to recognize the greatness of the music."

Allanbrook shares these insights with her St. John's students, who spend a year discussing music and the liberal arts as part of the college's Great Books curriculum. "This is an exciting place for musicians," she says. "Many of our students are very musical, and we have stimulating conversations in our seminars."

Most young musicologists out of Stanford who flunked high school algebra don't wind up teaching college calculus -- she did, and she recently has -- but St. John's is a different sort of place. "I was a classics major in college and I loved the idea of being able to teach both Greek and music," Allanbrook says with a smile. "St. John's might sideline you from a traditional musical career for a while, but I wouldn't have done it any other way."

The best of Mozart "I pay no attention whatever to anybody's praise or blame ... I simply follow on my own feelings."

Wolfgang A. Mozart, 1778

*Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K.550 and Symphony No. 41 in C, "Jupiter," K.551

In the recently released "L.B." budget series on the Deutsche Grammophon label, Leonard Bernstein conducts excellent performances of Mozart's valedictory symphonies. What extraordinary pieces they are -- the probing, emotional turbulence of the G minor matched with the exultant power of the great "Jupiter." Bernstein, at his best, is always a formidable Mozartian, and these performances really take flight.

*"Le Nozze di Figaro" (The Marriage of Figaro), K.492

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