Stephen Brown on ‘the problem that Mozart poses for our contemporary ears’: explosions of invention within a tightly structured geometry.
When J. S. Bach died in 1750, his widow asked their sons what she should do with his old manuscripts. Sell them for scrap, was their advice. It wasn’t out of disrespect for their father; it was just that his music seemed completely out of date. One of the sons, Johann Christian, became a particularly important figure in the development of the new Classical style, and influenced Mozart in rejecting the overwhelming polyphonic density of the Baroque in favor of clarity of line and simplicity of structure. In a not unrelated event from the same year, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote the essay that made him famous, his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and the Sciences, arguing that their influence was malign and corrupting. He too wanted to erase the past.
Erasing the past can be perilous, especially for those in danger of being erased. But for eighteenth-century culture, the results were generally good. The painter Jacques-Louis David was shaken from pretentious neo-Baroque swirlings to the clean geometry of the Oath of the Horatii…[ ]