In Search of Authentic Mozart

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Richard Will (Fellow 2009-10) is chair of the McIntire Department of Music at the University of Virginia where he has taught since 2001. A scholar of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century classical music, he has published widely on the composers Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart. He also has a strong interest in American folk and roots music and often performs as a bluegrass fiddler.

While at the National Humanities Center in 2009-10, he worked on “Mozart Live,” a study of the performance history of Mozart’s work, specifically his operas which have remained a popular part of the classical repertory since they were first staged in the late eighteenth century.

Q: You have noted a common tendency to assess productions of Mozart’s work, for instance Don Giovanni, on how well they recreate the piece as it was originally conceived and performed.

Will: Yes, there is a very strong tendency, and it’s perfectly understandable, to think that out there somewhere, ontologically, is the “real” Don Giovanni. It was created in 1787 by Mozart and Da Ponte, enshrined mostly in Mozart’s score and in the printed libretto, and that’s the work that performers and critics and historians have a responsibility to represent. It’s the original and has a privileged status, in relation to which all performances and all other kinds of interpretations are secondary or subsidiary.

The problem is, the reality of how most people encounter a piece like Don Giovanni, or Mozart’s G minor symphony, is through some performance, through an instantiation—for instance, Furtwängler’s Don Giovanni from 1954 or the Christopher Hogwood symphony recordings. Those become, in your ears, what that piece “really” is. And of course with an opera it’s more than just the sound.

Q: You’ve described modes of interpretation that privilege certain aspects over others. For instance, some aim for historical authenticity in the material aspects of the production while others are ostensibly ahistorical in those aspects, but attempt to produce an emotional impact that approximates what Mozart’s contemporaries might have felt. What underlies these two approaches?

Will: You’ve laid out what one can think of as the two poles of a continuum. Which is to say, on the one hand, at least as far as ideology and intent, some performers, stage directors, etc., will start from the assumption that recreating what Mozart did is the ideal. You use original instruments, you try to find out as much as you can about the speed of Mozart’s music, the way that they performed ornaments, the tunings, staging, acting, costuming, etc. That’s one pole. , The other would be a director like Peter Sellars or Calixto Bieito, who will argue that if you’re going to put a piece on stage, you really don’t have any responsibility to what happened in 1787—the point is to make it speak to a modern audience. You set Don Giovanni in Harlem, or you put it in the drug-infested slums of Barcelona, and you make the sex very much like it might appear in a contemporary police drama on TV, and you update all of the cultural references.

My challenge is writing a history of some of these performances that tries to figure out what performers perceived as the modern sensibilities that they wanted to appeal to. In the very recent past, some of these connections are fairly easy to make. When you go back to, say, Furtwängler in 1954, a very famous production at the Salzburg Festival, it was part of a symbolic rehabilitation of the Germanic musical tradition following the Nazi period. It starred Cesare Siepi, the great Italian bass, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and other people who were associated with Furtwängler and his self-consciously intellectualized and romanticized glorification of the German tradition. Don Giovanni in that context was made to appeal to a mainly German and Austrian sensibility that was interested in reconnecting Mozart with cultural traditions that were understood to belong to a grand humanist tradition that the Nazis had in many ways destroyed.

A lot of the productions in this period look very much like Laurence Olivier’s Henry V films. They’re evoking Shakespeare, they’re evoking Goethe—making it something that’s actually quite grandiose, that emphasizes the kind of epic qualities of the piece and de-emphasizes other things, like its wit, or its dark side.

Q: It seems like there is more at stake here than simply keeping faith with Mozart’s original work.

Will: Everyone pretty much will argue that they’re being faithful to Mozart in one or another way, but the attitude toward the text—the score and the libretto—changes radically. When you listen to, for example, 78 rpm recordings from the first half of the century, there are parts that sound like Verdi. The singers have these huge voices—not what we now think of as a “Mozart voice”—and they’re adding roulades and speeding up and slowing down every couple of measures, and so on and so forth. But over the course of the twentieth century you see more and more attention to the text. There’s an interest in the work or the story or the drama more than the performance; the balance changes. Which is to say, when you listen to 78 rpm recordings of Francesco d’Andrade, who was a very famous Don Giovanni, you really get the feeling that you’re listening to him and not so much to Don Giovanni. It’s all about d’Andrade, the singer. By the time you get to some of the more recent productions, some of whose Don Giovannis are not famous at all, it’s really more about the story—what Mozart presented us as the text—and less about this fabulous figure who is singing for us.

Q: But didn’t Mozart compose with particular performers in mind?

Will: Well, yes. Mozart’s attitude was completely practical. He changed things all the time to suit particular singers, and like other composers of that era—when they revived operas, or even when they took up instrumental pieces, again, which they didn’t very often do—he would have adapted the original work to new conditions. Don Giovanni itself has two early performance versions, and what we hear today is an amalgam of both. So right away in 1787 it was not a stable thing.

Q: Even from the very moment of the conception of the work, the performance was conditional?

Will: Right. This is true in other Mozart works as well. There’s a general fluidity that gets lost during the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Q: Is Mozart particularly susceptible to this kind of widely varying interpretation, or is this also true, to a greater or lesser extent, would you say, for all composers from the classical and romantic periods?

Will: I think the latter. There’s a famous example of Stravinsky’s own sound recordings of The Rite of Spring. Now, Stravinsky is actually one of the main originators of the idea that performers should just execute what’s on the page. But he recorded [The Rite of Spring] three times, I think, and they’re all quite different because they’re ten or twenty years apart. His own conception of the piece changed.

Certainly some composers—for example, Bach—have, on the whole, undergone more radical transformations than Mozart, through adaptation to different instruments. With Bach, of course, there’s a good deal more than in Mozart that’s not on the page, so there’s more space that people have to imagine or research to find out what was really going on. So no, I wouldn’t say that Mozart is particularly susceptible. I chose Mozart because there are only a few composers, and even just a few pieces, where you get such a rich breadth of source material in the history of twentieth- and twenty-first century performance.

Q: What has the role of musicologists been in this?

Will: Well, until very recently, musicology really helped to provide the infrastructure for discovering composers’ texts. Particularly after World War II, one of the things that happened in musicology was the publication—and we’re just about done with most of them—of new, complete, critical editions of the major composers of the canon.

For the most part there’s been relatively little writing about performance among musicologists, and most of it has been along the lines of invoking a performance when it supports a particular view of a piece.

Q: How do electronic media and changes in the ways that audiences encounter these works complicate what you are doing?

Will: The great thing about the last hundred years is that sound and video recording have allowed us to know a great deal more about the history of performance than we can ever know about the eighteenth or nineteenth century. That’s the good part. But you have to back off for a moment and realize that you are also confronting the history of media, and the one is not transparent to the other.

When I was a kid and watching Live from the Met on a little TV screen with an FM simulcast, it was a little hard to get. But particularly with the newer technologies, I think what one encounters in something like an opera video is just a very, very different experience. You’re not in the hall, it’s not live, there’s no orchestra, there’s no audience. On the other hand, you see things like facial expressions and other levels of drama that you never saw before. Plus you have the added element of television direction— and some television directors are very clever—there are cuts, there are closeups, there are zooms, there are shifts, sometimes there are superimposed images. They add a whole extra level of meaning and rhetoric to how the singers are singing, how they’re acting, what the stage looks like.

Yes—if two poles in this are the Mozart original and all of the performances of it, a third consideration is recording media and how they affect our subsequent understanding of what the performance was.


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