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Thread: What makes Mozart's music so great?

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    Senior Member Dim7's Avatar
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    Default What makes Mozart's music so great?

    I know there have been lots of similar threads, but I wanted to post one in the Music theory for a more technical perspective. Let's keep this strictly nerdy and cut out the sentimental "voice of God" nonsense. It may be impossible (and some might argue detrimental to dissect music like that, but those shouldn't probably hang around Music Theory form), but we can try. Ironically though I am very much a fan, I find it almost easier to "argue" that it's not that great.

    I think Septimal posted somewhere a fairly technical explanation about Mozart's greatness but I don't remember where.
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    Senior Member KenOC's Avatar
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    Wolfgang, being an egalitarian sort of fellow, wanted to write music where no tone gained precedence over any other. He proposed doing this by a system where no tone could be repeated until the other eleven had been heard.

    Leopold, who was distinctly old-fashioned, put his foot down. The rest is history.

    However, when Leopold's back was turned, he did invent a method of writing aleatoric or "chance" music. (this part is true...)


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    Senior Member Abraham Lincoln's Avatar
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    Propaganda. People are made to believe Mozart is great.

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    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Abraham Lincoln View Post
    Propaganda. People are made to believe Mozart is great.
    Oh dear! I'm victim of propaganda then!
    Last edited by DavidA; Jul-31-2016 at 08:33.

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    Senior Member KenOC's Avatar
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    Propaganda, and conditioning. I well remember laying in my cradle, my father with his stick hovering over me like an avenging angel. “Mozart is great. Say it! Say it!” (whack!)

    To this day, I say: Mozart is great.


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    Senior Member Merl's Avatar
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    As a sidenote, LenOC, Ive just been offered the Mozart 170 disc Brilliant Classics box for £20. Should I grab it?

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    Quote Originally Posted by KenOC View Post
    Propaganda, and conditioning. I well remember laying in my cradle, my father with his stick hovering over me like an avenging angel. “Mozart is great. Say it! Say it!” (whack!)

    To this day, I say: Mozart is great.
    It's almost the same here and... it worked .

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    Charles Rosen is poetic about how he feels what makes Mozart great:

    Perhaps no composer used the seductive physical power of music with the intensity and range of Mozart. The flesh is corrupt and corrupting. Behind Kierkegaard's essay on Don Giovanni stands the idea that music is a sin: it seems fundamentally sound that he should have chosen Mozart as the most sinful composer of all. What is most extraordinary about Mozart's style is the combination of physical delight - a sensuous play of sonority, an indulgence in the most luscious harmonic sequences - with a purity and economy of line and form that render the seduction all the more efficient.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Abraham Lincoln View Post
    Propaganda. People are made to believe Mozart is great.
    Didn't someone once say,

    If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.
    But really, isn't part of the popularity of Mozart that his music is so easy to listen to, kind of like pop radio background music in the grocery store?
    Last edited by SixFootScowl; Jul-31-2016 at 14:57.
    “Then he will also say to those on the left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels!'" Matthew 25:41 (Christian Standard Bible)

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    Senior Member Dim7's Avatar
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    Mozart music isn't really poppy kind of tuneful though. His movements typically don't have the kind of big tune analogous to a "chorus" in a pop song (even though sometimes classical music does have those, like the opening tune of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto for example).
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    Quote Originally Posted by Florestan View Post
    But really, isn't part of the popularity of Mozart that his music is so easy to listen to, kind of like pop radio background music in the grocery store?
    I couldn't disagree more. Mozart's music, like that of any other great composer, requires full attention and concentration for understanding.

    A few basic points:

    - Mozart's music is very harmonically rich, often reaching into quite distant key areas in a short period of time
    - Mozart's music is rhythmically diverse, with frequent alterations to basic shapes and motifs introduced constantly and a penchant for irregular phrase groupings
    - The smooth surface generally perceived in Mozart's music is created often through juxtaposition of separate and highly contrasting material
    - Mozart was a master at counterpoint, and once again the smooth surface may conceal the depth of inner movement for many

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    Of course I was jesting about the pop background music part. Maybe got the wrong smiley when I meant to have the tongue-in-cheek one:
    “Then he will also say to those on the left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels!'" Matthew 25:41 (Christian Standard Bible)

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    Senior Member Dim7's Avatar
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    I suspected that expressed irony here. However many do compare Mozart and pop music sort of half-seriously at least.
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    Mozart is a strange composer, I think. I came to him late. I had been exposed to his music as a child (my dad certainly had a recording of Eine kleine Nachtmusik and the Jupiter symphony) but found it too 'nice' and not interesting enough. He just didn't grab my attention.

    It was the Requiem that first interested me, though I don't think that's a typical work. The piano concertos now...there's something 'perfect' about them; they seem to meet a sort of musical 'golden ratio'. Every note is somehow inevitable and just so; harmonies are lush and the melodic inventiveness is such that that there are always fresh ideas arriving: things never get stale.

    I know the piano sonatas, string quartets and quintets and some of the violin sonatas best these days - all the mature works seem to have this 'effortless', 'just right' quality. It's very skilled work, but not musically adventurous or challenging from today's perspective, and given the choice of one pre-20th century composer only to listen to for ever more on a desert island, I would probably choose Beethoven, Bach père or even Schumann. But I'd always come back to listen to more Mozart, given the choice.

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    Senior Member SeptimalTritone's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dim7 View Post
    I know there have been lots of similar threads, but I wanted to post one in the Music theory for a more technical perspective. Let's keep this strictly nerdy and cut out the sentimental "voice of God" nonsense. It may be impossible (and some might argue detrimental to dissect music like that, but those shouldn't probably hang around Music Theory form), but we can try. Ironically though I am very much a fan, I find it almost easier to "argue" that it's not that great.

    I think Septimal posted somewhere a fairly technical explanation about Mozart's greatness but I don't remember where.
    Did you mean this post? It talks a lot about interaction between opposite categories, motion vs. non-motion, texture 1 vs. texture 2, all both running alongside each other and interacting with each other.

    Some people find Mozart cliche, probably because of the balanced phrasing, the half cadences or imperfect cadences, and the long cadential "padding" at the end of sections. But for me, those elements are (part of) what makes him so good! They give the medium/large scale harmonic motion of a movement a distinct identity and grace.

    As far as Mozart's counterpoint goes, remember that it's usually a different kind of counterpoint from the imitative/canonic/fugal counterpoint. Of course, Mozart could write that kind of Bachian counterpoint, see the finales to the G major quartet, the D major quintet, the 19th piano concerto, or of course the Jupiter.

    But more important than that (not to mention an extremely effective bassline rhythm and melodic inner voices, even if slow) is a slow counterpoint between textures. Take the opening of the 27th piano concerto. The strings have a melodic texture. Then, the winds play a dotted rhythm descending arpeggio B flat -> F -> D. This happens again.

    Then, the strings play a melody one more time, and full cadencing. But note: that wind arpeggio, especially from ending on the "weak" note D rather than the tonic note B flat, still has to be resolved! It's an independent entity, that progressed with the strings in parallel, that requires resolution too. In other words, two textures are progressing at the same time, resolving the needs each other.

    And how is this wind arpeggio that I mentioned resolved? By the whole orchestra. The strings, where the first violins play a higher D with that very dotted rhythm, into a descending scale and full cadence, and the viola/cello play a dotted F, into a common perfect cadential pattern. The flutes then play that dotted F and go up to B flat, descending into cadence as the violins.

    Only with such outwardly simple materials could Mozart achieve such a grammar of interaction of textural opposites, tonic and dominant opposites, rhythmic opposites, and others. But because music CD pamphlets tend to ignore these strengths and focus on how Mozart was proto-Beethoven or proto-romantic (really?), or how he was very chromatic for his time (This is true, but it's not completely right because there are chromaticisms that Haydn would do in his expositions that Mozart wouldn't dare do, and it begs the question: why wasn't Mozart even more chromatic? And why do we still like the music of his that's quite diatonic? It turns out that these basic grammatical elements would be marred if Mozart did more chromaticism than he did.), or how "perfect" his music is (which doesn't help).

    And, finally, as Mahlerian said, the irregular groupings of bar counts: these are largely possible (as are the textural shifts) because of such grounding in tonic and dominant. if Mozart was too "out there" harmonically, his music would be much worse.

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