06 Jul 2005

HURWITZ: Getting the Most Out of Mozart: The Vocal Works

The investment of money, not to mention time, to listen carefully to a complete opera can be intimidating for some uninitiated listeners. After all, operas can be quite long and — with all that strange singing in a foreign language — could be incomprehensible, and therefore less than enjoyable. Opera still carries the cachet in our culture of being the pastime of the wealthy, the educated, and the elite. References to opera in popular culture, such as ads or music videos, signify a different world of privilege and exclusion.

David Hurwitz, a prolific music critic and the executive editor of ClassicsToday www.classicstoday.com, attempts to bridge the gap between the opera novice and Mozart’s most popular vocal works with his volume, Getting the Most out of Mozart: The Vocal Works. Hurwitz’s goal with this volume, as well as his books on Mozart’s instrumental works, Mahler’s symphonies, and Dvořák’s music, is to offer the listener a “useful” and “practical” guide to particular pieces (see for example, the March 2005 interview with Hurwitz in Go Brooklyn: http://www.go-brooklyn.com/html/issues/_vol28/28_13/mahler.html). Furthermore, Hurwitz insists in several articles that the death knell that has been sounding for classical music is premature and miss-placed (see his articles at Classicstoday.com: “Finding Greatness in Strange Places” [http://www.classicstoday.com/features/f1_1103.asp], or “Fine Whine from Stormin’ Norman” [ http://www.classicstoday.com/features/f1_0104.asp]).
While some parts of this volume on Mozart’s opera are very appealing, several aspects of the book undermine Hurwitz’s own stated goal of making music accessible. Hurwitz’s book contains mostly descriptive information about each of the operas. He succinctly recounts information about the plot and each of the main characters for seven of Mozart’s mature operas. For better or for worse, Hurwitz wastes few words on their historical contexts and almost none on cultural circumstances surrounding 18th-century opera. There are six pages of color photographs from various Metropolitan Opera productions that display costumes and sets of several of the operas discussed.

The CD that accompanies the volume is a convenient feature containing several of the pieces Hurwitz describes with clear directions in the text about when to listen to each track. The pieces are drawn largely from Sir Charles Mackerras’ recordings on the Telarc label. Mackerras is a scholar of 17th- and 18th-century repertoire, and so has directed performances of very high quality. Unfortunately, the tracks are drawn directly from the original digital recordings, so there are some awkward starts and stops to some of the tracks, where in the originals there are smooth transitions between the numbers. The movements of the Requiem are taken from two recordings — Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Martin Pearlman directing Boston Baroque. These, too, are taken directly from previous Telarc releases.

Hurwitz’s prose is very casual and occasionally flippant about the potential symbolic layers of meaning in the works, which may serve to put some readers at ease with the subject matter. Unfortunately, his irreverence is combined with the references to operas that may seem obscure, if not entirely inscrutable, to the opera novice. Hurwitz’s frequent references to the plots, lengths, and characters of Wagner’s operas reinforces his status as an insider and could have the effect of making the reader acutely aware of her lack of knowledge. Furthermore, for a reader who may not know who Wagner was, when he lived, or anything about his operas or musical philosophy, comparisons between Mozart and Wagner are not very useful.

Moreover, the name of the series — Unlocking the Masters — also reinscribes 19th-century attitudes about canonicity and genius that are intricately connected with and inseparable from notions of gender, class, and race. Since the 1970s the use of the word “master” has been thoroughly problematized in light of feminist and post-colonialist scholarship. Hurwitz’s insistence on “mastery” and “greatness” is consistent with his dismissals of music scholarship in Getting the Most Out of Mozart.

As with his book on Mahler (see the article in Go Brooklyn cited above), Hurwitz’s goal is description, not analysis or biography. Unfortunately, I think that there is a lot more to Mozart than whether or not the clarinets are playing in a given aria. Hurwitz “dumbs down” Mozart far more than is necessary, reducing the operas to statistics about the length of “continuous music,” and orchestration. At the same time, more could be said about historical context and the role of opera in the 18th century. Surely, some historical context would not be beyond the reader’s grasp, and it might help to pique her interest.

Hurwitz’s attempt to make Mozart accessible to the uninitiated listener is admirable and will certainly reach some readers. However, his attempt to make Mozart less obscure without acknowledging the forces at work in our culture and in Mozart’s culture seems misguided. Hurwitz’s “insider” attitude — whether real or perceived — is counter to his goals.

Megan B. Jenkins
CUNY — The Graduate Center