Research, Education, Links and Opinion

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Classic Mozart Faux Pas

Charlie the Tuna® understood it well.  Having “good taste,” or rather, understanding the upper class and its mores, has nothing to do acceptance, even for those willing to be precooked in a steam oven as Charlie endlessly begged Starkist® to do.

"Sorry Charlie," came the reply — although he tried again and again.  Poor fellow.  Most of us would call it quits, even if acceptance had nothing to do with silliness and brought instead the reward of a Country Club membership, say, and all the resources and perks to make it enjoyable.

The Social Register, a semiannual publication listing elite Americans, first appeared in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1886, according to

"The New York edition followed in 1887," said, "and compiler Louis Keller became the de facto arbiter of aristocratic status in the land of equality during the fluid period of the Gilded Age.  Keller incorporated his project as the Social Register Association...."  (They even have a "frequently asked questions" page.)

But promoting elitism. or even commercial icons, is not a faux pas, per se (an embarrassing act, or tactless remark in a social setting).  But not sharing understanding and a compassion is.  Most of us will give up in the face of endless rejection; but cartoon silliness aside, there is real insight into Charlie's effort.

In "Amadeus," for example, a 1984 movie exploring a Viennese "urban legend' of Mozart's death, Mozart became Charlie-like as he struggled to find acceptance in Vienna society.  While historically grounded, the film (which mixes Mozart's music with the drama brilliantly) is mostly melodramatic.

But did Mozart ultimately live where he could mingle with the lower classes?  The movie implied this is where he truly belonged. It was his inability to mollify upper class superiors that contributed to his downfall.

According to, the different social classes often lived in the same buildings in 18th century Vienna.  The lower classes lived on the upper floors, while the aristocracy lived below.  This is counterintuitive, but Mozart, as a member of the "middle class," could have partied with his upstairs neighbors.  But did this contribute to his downfall?  Did no one tell him this was a no-no, or did he simply not care?

As early as December 1791, the rumor was circulating that Antonio Salieri poisoned Mozart.  Alexander Pushkin wrote a play about it….  But Constanze (Mozart’s wife) didn’t think so, even though she said the dying, delirious Mozart mentioned it.

The death is still being explored today. reported, for example, that kidney failure, due to a serious strep infection, was the more likely cause of death.  But stress could have contributed to a poor immune response.  Was it an evil aristocracy casting doubt about his character that played a role in his death?

In 1788, three years before his death, according to, he began to experience "black thoughts" and deep depression.  Historians believe he may have had some form of bipolar disorder, which might explain reported periods of hysteria coupled with spells of hectic creativity. said that by September, 1791, he was in Prague, and recovered briefly from his depression and illness to conduct the Prague premier of The Magic Flute, but fell deeper into illness in November and was confined to bed.  He died December 5, 1791.

It could be argued that had he stopped trying to convince others of his "good taste," and just been himself he would have lived longer.  He was not an egotist, according to  He probably would not care, but could he have been bullied?

This is opinion, not scholarship.  But Mozart is often misunderstood.  For 30 years, for example, a reporter who sought to learn more about classical music ignored Mozart because of snobbery.

Melanie Lowe, in her book, "Pleasure and Meaning in the Classical Symphony," wrote (on page 172) that many in America do not hear Mozart's music.... "Once Mozart is aligned with elitism in contemporary American culture, this music remains serious, inaccessible, even alienating, despite the comic elements of its musical code."

But there is more than just comedy in Mozart's music; there's sparkle and raucous delight.  

At the start of that 30 year drought, circa 1981, a single concerto in Zellerbach Auditorium in Berkeley, California, caused angst. There a performance of "Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20" had the house roaring to its feet, but not until the end of the performance. 

The mistake of a novice applauding between the first and second movement spoiled a wonderful concerto for the listener.  A common faux pas, but unpleasant nonetheless.

No mater, Mozart is breathtaking.  

Of course, not all his music is.  The one shared below, for example, is included only to illustrate what to avoid during a concerto, or symphony.  Not because the snobs say so, but because the pause between movements is a much needed rest stop.  Hopefully this classic faux pas will not lead to a thirty-year drought for listeners (although the concerto might).  

(A better concerto, "Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor," has subtitles that point out interesting facts.  Follow the link to watch this performance.)


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