Sunday, April 01, 2012

From the Files

I wrote this about a dozen years ago for The Chronicle. It never ran.

Music by Mozart — or Goethe?

By Joshua Kosman
Chronicle Music Critic

Even for his many idolaters, the career of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can sometimes seem to stretch the limits of credibility, from his years as a child prodigy to the prolific mature period in which he turned out one perfect masterpiece after another.

If the story sounds too good to be true, that might be because it is.

In a discovery that promises to shake the world of classical music to its very foundations, a German musicologist has unearthed a trove of historical documents that cast doubt on long-held assumptions about the authorship of such works as "Don Giovanni," the "Jupiter" Symphony and "Eine kleine Nachtmusik."

That music may not be the work of Mozart at all, it turns out, but of his era's most versatile creative force: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the writer, painter, philosopher and scholar best known as the poet of "Faust."

This argument will be laid out in detail by Professor Hans-Joachim Schulfuchs in the next issue of Acta Musicologica, the journal of the International Musicological Society. And assuming his evidence withstands the intensive critical scrutiny that is sure to come, the revelation could prompt the biggest shakeup the musical realm has seen in a century or more.

"There is an entire worldwide apparatus — what I call the 'Amadeus Industry' — dedicated to furthering the preposterous notion that Mozart could have been the composer of these sublime scores," Schulfuchs said by phone recently from his office at the Institut für Musikwissenschaft at the University of Tübingen near Stuttgart.

"But in fact the evidence of Goethe's authorship is overwhelming. When this comes out, we will be looking at these familiar works in an entirely new light, I promise you.

"The 'Mostly Mozart' Festival," he added with a dry chuckle, "will have to be renamed 'Greatly Goethe.' "

If this sounds like one of those fringe notions that have Sir Francis Bacon penning the complete works of Shakespeare, think again. In place of the shadowy and fiercely disputed internal evidence so beloved of Baconians — anagrams, acrostics, tricky double meanings and so on — Schulfuchs' theory rests on a solid documentary foundation.

He says he always harbored doubts about the claims made for Mozart's prodigious musical abilities. "When you think about these stories with an open mind, they are absurd. An eight-year-old child writing symphonies? Who could believe such a thing?"

But the confirmation he needed surfaced only last year, when he stumbled across a long-lost cache of Goethe's papers — including letters, diaries and a sheaf of musical manuscripts — in the library of a small monastery near Linz, Austria.

"This was the site of another of those implausible Mozart legends — the one that has him writing the 'Linz' Symphony in four days. Ridiculous! The manuscripts show that Goethe labored over that symphony for several weeks. It was all Mozart could do to copy it in four days."

Goethe's tremendous abilities as a polymath were legendary even during his own lifetime. In addition to his literary works — including "Faust," "Wilhelm Meister" and "The Sorrows of Young Werther" — he also wrote voluminously on philosophy, history, aesthetics, literary theory and science (including botany and optics). He did stints as a theater manager, statesman, journalist and painter.

But although his interest in music was profound, scholars have always believed his technical abilities were minimal. Not so. The Schulfuchs papers reveal Goethe to have been a musician of enormous skill and extensive training — as he would have to be to write such masterpieces as "The Marriage of Figaro" or the G-Minor String Quintet.

Among the documents Schulfuchs unearthed are final copies in Goethe's hand of the "Prague" and "Haffner" Symphonies, the Clarinet Quintet and the D-Minor Piano Concerto, as well as working drafts — full of corrections, revisions and false starts — of several string quartets, the C-Minor Mass and Act 2 of "Idomeneo."

"The idea that Mozart composed these pieces in his head and then wrote them down in a single flawless draft is another myth that is impossible to take seriously," says Schulfuchs. "In fact, the reason his manuscripts are so clean is that he was merely copying over what Goethe had given him."

Are none of the canonical works actually by Mozart, then? Just one, says Schulfuchs: the serenade for strings and horns known as "A Musical Joke."

With its dull themes, grinding dissonances and maladroit counterpoint, this has always been regarded as Mozart's parody of incompetent musicians. But Schulfuchs' research shows that the piece is no parody at all.

"The title was added after his death, by those concerned for his reputation. But Mozart simply called it 'Serenade.' No one wants to admit that this was merely the best that the poor man could do."

Schulfuchs' research raises a number of questions about how and why the lifelong charade was attempted, and he admits that many of these have yet to be answered. On the other hand, other matters that have long bedeviled musicologists can now be put aside.

"People worry a lot about biographical questions, such as whether Mozart was poisoned by Salieri and so forth. Perhaps he was — but what of it? It is the composer who interests us, not the man, and the fact remains that the composer of that music lived on until 1832.

"I'm sure he was perfectly happy to put aside the 'Requiem,' even unfinished as it was, and get back to work on 'Faust.' "

This does, however, prompt the question of motivation: Why would an artist acclaimed in other fields go to such lengths to conceal his musical achievements? Schulfuchs isn't sure, but thinks it probably grew out of the pleasure of fooling other people.

"Goethe showed an enormous fondness for jests and pranks throughout his life. Among his intellectual and artistic circles, he was known for staging elaborate, straight-faced hoaxes — especially on or around the first of April every year."

It's a tradition that continues to this very day. Right here.