Mozart: Genius, lucky, popular or overrated?

On Saturday 1 January 2011 BBC Radio 3 launches a twelve day season of music by Mozart.

Entitled ‘The Genius of Mozart’, it’s a chance to hear all the works penned by the composer (assuming you’ve not received a box set of all his compositions for Christmas) through a series of no doubt carefully selected performances, including a live gig from the gorgeous Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment minutes after the live relay of the New Years Day concert in Vienna.

Never has there been a better time to get into Radio 3. You can even listen in HD sound too.

Oh hang on. This is rapidly turning into a promo for BBC Radio 3. That wasn’t my intention for this post. PR and comms is so easy to spot and – if it’s done badly (as I often do) – it can stink.

No, the reason for mentioning the Mozart season is because its title – ‘The Genius of Mozart‘ – is causing me problems.

What do we mean by genius? What is a genius? How is genius reflected in artistic endeavour?

Is there a darker implication with the use of the word genius? Isn’t it a label attached to individuals by others? (Put another way, how many genii are you aware of who proclaimed themselves geniuses?) And if that is the case do we have to analyse the integrity of those who assign the descriptor?

Fundamentally, does listening to all of Mozart’s output as part of a marathon listening challenge force us to reconsider how we describe someone or someone’s creations as ‘genius’?

As ridiculous a question as it might at first seem, is it right to call Mozart a genius? In present day parlance, is the word ‘genius’ being used both as a superlative to illustrate widespread popularity and at the same time as the perfect self-aggrandising tool? Is using the term genius also a catch-all for those of us bereft of other words to describe great love, affection or fondness for the composer, his work and those situations in which his music has acted as a soundtrack to both experiences and memories?

Is being prolific necessarily a measure of a genius? (The authorititative catalogue of Mozart’s composition documents 626 works.) Is the path to genius status shorter if you die early? (Mozart died at 35) Or is it acquired and reinforced the more subsequent composers study Mozart’s work?

Or is it – as I fear – that the label of ‘genius’ applied by the masses because the meaning of the word is being confused with the characteristics of Mozart’s music which make it popular, something in itself which is as much an artistic product of the time in which Mozart lived as it is down to Mozart himself.
Mozart on Flickr by Maggie Sharp
Would Mozart’s ‘genius’ be considerably more difficult to ascribe had there been other composers of his ilk in existence at the same time, each taking music in a slightly different direction from the next, all of them concurrently contributing to a seismic shift in western musical styles? Do we only call Mozart a genius because there wasn’t very much to compare him with at the time?

In describing Mozart as a genius are some bestowing on him almost saint-like status in part fuelled by the tragedy he experienced at the end of his life, an image fuelled by the fictional account presented by the film Amadeus?

The word ‘genius’ is difficult. It’s justification seems almost impossible. It’s as though the word is sacrosanct, specially reserved for those who reach an unquantifiable level of ecstasy in their work. We can never understand the genius or experience what it is to be the genius. The genius will never name him or herself as one. Only others – lesser mortals will award him or her the grand prize for something they’ll never know themselves first hand. And yet they seem able to judge the existence of genius in others.

And so it goes on. One of those near circular conversations like the debate about whether journalism has a future. No-one wants to let themselves wander down that particular path.

It’s because of that I’m hoping to arrive at a slightly different conclusion about Mozart at the end of this 12 day intense period of hearing his music. Because it is just that. Intense. It’s a marathon. A challenge. Will I stick it through to the end?

Will hearing nothing but Mozart for 12 days kill my enjoyment for his work? After all, a little of what you fancy from time to time is fine. Sometimes however, it’s all too easy to have too much of a good thing.

Mozart, stick to the music by Sarah Ross photography, on Flickr

Will this be the time when the boredom I experience when I hear the ubiquotous clarinet concerto finally pushes me over the edge? How long after the ‘Genius of Mozart’ has begun will I long for some Shostakovich or send in email requests to Sara Mohr Pietsch on Breakfast to hear just a snippet of Benjamin Britten’s music just to give me some respite?

In fact, how long after this has all got underway will I hear the first piece of duff material Mozart wrote (he might be deemed a genius but even the genius is liable to an off day) ? There’s got to be something of his music which sounds a bit dull and uninspiring.

Maybe that’s the secret to the first twelve days of January 2011. Let’s listen out for the stuff Mozart wrote which wasn’t that good. Because there’s sure to be some.

:: The Genius of Mozart kicks off on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 1 January 2011 with the lovely Suzy Klein and equally lovely Tom Service.

:: The pictures in this blog post – one of chocolates and the other montage – were taken by Georgie Sharp and Sarah Ross respectively. The pictures are published here in accordance with the Creative Commons License.

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