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Professor Robert Levin Defines Mozart’s Methods


When BMInt began this website in the fall of  2008, we interviewed our editor, Harvard Professor Robert Levin. During the session he spoke eloquently on Mozart — his passion and expertise. In this continuation of that interview we deliberately maintain Professor Levin’s distinctive conversational style.

Mozart uses a lot of task-oriented material — like no other classical music composer. But he does it in a completely functional sort of way. I don’t understand how this happens, but when he was seven or eight years old, when he’s setting a text for an aria, he already uses the procedure of taking one pair of lines and uses it for this musical purpose and takes another for another musical purpose, so the architecture—the hierarchy of the composition—corroborates the narrative of the text. Now you’d think, well, there ought to be a lot of people who do that. No, most people just go through the text, and then they repeat the text. They do all the four lines or the six lines or the eight lines.

What Mozart is doing is to tell us, “We’ll use this to tell you where we are. This is the key of D major. Now I’m going to use this second strophe to get to A major. Now I’m going to use this third one to get back to the principal key.” And all of a sudden, what the music is doing, and what the text is doing, are reinforcing one another. So in a typical piece of music, why is he using ten themes? Because one theme is, say, “Hi, my name is Bob Levin, and I come from New Brunswick, New Jersey. And the next theme is, “How ’bout we go out and have a beer?” And then the next theme is, “Well, while we’re having a beer, why don’t we order something?” And the next theme is, “Are you happy to be here?” And the next theme is, “Y’know, let’s go out dancing.”

Each one of those tunes then becomes associated with a certain level of energy. They’re either definitional, or they’re driving somewhere, or they’re consolidating, or they’re winding down. The audience doesn’t need to be aware of these things, but subliminally they are, because the character of every one of the themes is different. One of them is more lyrical, one of them is a bit more hyped up. Another one may have a march or some other replication of some sociological gesture that people recognize and that they can associate with, such as, sighing upon appoggiaturas, and so forth. And so in the piece, Mozart then deploys this series of dizzyingly varied gestures; and one that occurs at a certain point will then reoccur at analogous places in the piece, but not in certain other ones.

Mozart controls this hierarchy in a way that no other composer of classical music that I’ve ever encountered does. He’s using more material, but it is more task- and specifically affect- and character-oriented, and as a result, it seems so obvious and so simple that nobody even notices how rich it is. But, of course, the Emperor Joseph II did notice; he said there were too many notes. In that sense, the Emperor was right. It was a kind of overdose, it was almost too much. He said, “Very good my dear Mozart, but too many notes.” And Mozart said, “Not one more than was absolutely necessary,” — which was not a very good way to win friends and influence people. The point that I’m making is that Mozart succeeds in making the assimilation of complex material and the comprehension of its coherence remarkably natural and easy.  This is the crux of the so-called Mozart effect.

Music that is so purpose-oriented creates the local and large scale architecture.  It defines how you introduce yourself as a character within the musical drama; it defines how you then proceed to go someplace; it defines how you feel when you’re arriving; it defines your sense of expectation; it defines how you’re going to relax a little bit; it defines how you’re going to head, in musical terms, to a final conclusion because you’ve got a soloist who’s going to do some fancy stuff after you have prepared her/his entry, and then there’s a fanfare that says “Let’s bring on the main show.” You can hear these things happen in the first movement of a Mozart concerto, and because they all sound different, even if they use a kernel of the same idea, they’re costumed in such a way that each one of them has a very specific character. They’re specifically dramatic and narrative in their tone, and therefore, people who don’t pay attention to them still figure out what they’re doing, because they figure it out from their intrinsic character. Being able to juggle easily a dizzying plethora of ideas obviously makes listeners smarter — much smarter than listening to a piece that doesn’t do much of anything except just go on and on, doing one thing after another, which might have a variety of tunes, but a variety of tunes that has no particular character orientation or purpose.

There are plenty of French composers contemporary to Mozart, like Bréval, who wrote lots and lots of tunes within a single movement, but they’re all relatively interchangeable in terms of their character; they’re very, very inventive in a certain sense, but they don’t elucidate the structure, and therefore they’re not delineators. And if they’re not delineators, after twenty minutes, you lose your orientation:  “Mommy, are we there yet?!” A piece of music needs to tell people that.

That’s the reason that contemporary music became tough when composers tossed tonality out the window… I tell students, “You know, you hear a succession of major sevenths, these dissonant sort of sounds, Bing Bang Bong, and within several seconds it’s like you just entered the 11-mile-long St. Gotthard tunnel. The last daylight fades in back of you and you think, “Now, how long is this piece going to last?”

If a person is in the middle of the tunnel and has no idea how long it’s going to be until the light at the end, he/she will go stir crazy! They either turn off or they become desperate. As I say to people, if you think the analogy of being in the middle of the Gotthard tunnel is a little bit too crazy, think about being claustrophobic, suddenly realizing that you’re miles under the top of the Alps, there, and think of what happens when all of a sudden there’s a traffic jam and you stop. You’re at least five miles from either portal of the tunnel and you’re sitting there. And now you’ve been there for an hour and a half. Some otherwise sane people might just lose it. People don’t necessarily go that crazy when listening to a piece of post-Webern serial music, but some people do.

People tend to want to know how many more minutes a piece will last. But without an intuitive grasp of atonal musical syntax, how can the lay listener tell? Frequently, when we hear a new piece, the performer will apologize and say, “This is only an eight-minute piece!” At least you know that the journey has an end. I am not criticizing music of the last century; I’m a passionate advocate of new music and commission and perform new works regularly.  But if I wish to succeed at communicating their content, I have to understand the mindset of my listeners.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: On listening to demanding music


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Fascinating stuff. It would be wonderful to be able to hear Prof. Levin present these insights with illustrations in sound of the things he’s talking about. But it’s at least good to know that in some way, I’m “getting it” even when I’m not explicitly conscious of it. And I suppose this nature of Mozart’s music is one reason it has held the stage better than Bréval’s or other contemporaries’.

    I’m definitely looking forward to the discussion “On listening to demanding music.”

    Comment by Joe Whipple — December 17, 2010 at 6:16 pm

  2. *** Mozart controls this hierarchy in a way that no other composer of classical music that I’ve ever encountered does.

    Actually I feel Mussorgsky did, if to hear the Mussorgsky ordinal writing but not the “cultivated” versions of many followers. For sure Mussorgsky’s phonetic is much less brushed up and more reminds that “primary scream” of a wild aborigine who lives in Serengeti. Still in my view Mussorgsky Sound is the most honest music and the most natural Sound mammals can conceive or understand. Mozart subconsciously pays too much tribute in his Sound to “hierarchy”, would it be musical or cultural. Mozart’s limitation was that he was a highly skilful and brilliant musician. Mussorgsky awareness was not subordinated by “rules of engagement “and he was able to composed as truly or organic and natural way.

    Comment by Romy The Cat — December 18, 2010 at 6:37 pm

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