Do we like Mozart because he is great, or is he great because we like him?

You know how it is, one glass of mulled wine too many and one’s view of the world not only becomes much simpler, it’s clearly the only view worth listening to. That’s how it was the other night when I found myself defending the songs of Dolly Parton and Rolf Harris against the accusation that they were maybe not in the same league as Schubert or Wolf. But the strange thing was, come the following morning and even with the benefit of a good night’s sleep and copious quantities of caffeine, I still seemed convinced by the merits of my own arguments the previous evening. Things weren’t helped by the Observer Sunday paper spread across the kitchen table and open at its “Review of Reviews” – a compilation taken from the other broadsheet newspapers of their reviews of recent films, plays, concerts and books. I have often been struck by the fact that although sometimes there is a consensus, often there is not. Ian McEwan, Steven Spielberg, or Sir Simon Rattle might be marked three-out-of-ten by one reviewer and eight-out-of-ten by another. The book (or film, or concert) is the same, but the response is different. The kitchen smog was heavy with questions. Which review is right? Who do we trust? Does it tell us anything about the work itself, or only something about the reviewer? Did she miss breakfast, eat too much for breakfast, or have a blazing row with her partner over breakfast? What prejudices do different reviewers bring to their work? How are they affected by their own culture and up-bringing? It seemed to me, as the smog gently lifted, that they tell us nothing except that every individual’s response is unique, and that every work of art is uniquely filtered by the human interface that absorbs it. In other words, whether a person likes a particular work of art or not depends on the information they are able to take out of it, rather than information that is already “in there”.

First, let me pre-emptively fend off one possible attack on my Merlot-induced argument, and differentiate between “passive” art – that is, painting, sculpture and cinema, things that, notwithstanding their shifting contexts, remain essentially unchanged throughout their existence; and “active” art – that is, music and theatre, things that are different with every performance and in fact depend on the subjective intervention of a third party (a conductor or director). So when we say we are judging a piece by Mozart, what we are really judging is the performance of a piece by Mozart, and our view of it is, at least in part, an opinion of an opinion. This certainly adds a layer of complication to anyone’s feelings about the relative merits of a piece of music (or theatre). But it is only through the medium of performance that we know Mozart at all, and presumably if we listen to several different interpretations we begin to get a picture of the music itself (and will the next person to claim that the best performance they have ever heard was the one that they had imagined in their mind, kindly leave the room before I suggest that that is entirely due to the vast, resonant acoustic inside their head). But I digress from my defence of Dolly and Rolf.

Let us take, for the sake of argument, what I presume to be the commonly held view that a Mozart opera speaks to us in a more effective – and affective – way than one by Antonio Salieri. What do we mean by this? We might be inclined to say that Mozart is more “exciting”, “emotional”, “visceral”, or “moving”. This seems to be the consensus, the perceived wisdom, the democratic verdict. Yet there is (can we bear the thought?) a minority that doesn’t “get” Mozart. Who is to say that Salieri doesn’t speak to his audience in as deep, emotional and significant a way as Mozart does to his? The Mozart enthusiast will no doubt try to argue that their hero is more attuned, more instinctive, and more skilful at tapping into the human emotional landscape than Salieri; that he has a greater intuitive gift for finding and exploiting the emotional triggers. But this can’t be universally true; other composers do this just as well for the audience that prefers their music (otherwise they wouldn’t prefer it). The fact that more people prefer Mozart to Salieri is, it seems, the only factor that makes us think that Mozart is “better”; but this apparent “objective greatness” is merely an illusion created by a subjective consensus. However, consensus is no argument for greatness, no matter how much we might like to use it when it suits us. If you took a poll across the western world, the consensus would likely be that Madonna is “better” than Mozart. The majority view is not inherently right, it is merely the majority view. I much preferred, to use a cinematic example, “The Remains of the Day” to “Die Hard 3”. I suspect this puts me in a rather small minority. Does this invalidate my opinion and my emotional (or, for what it’s worth, intellectual) response? It can’t – I felt what I felt. But if I fight for my right to respond in the way I did to “The Remains of the Day” then I must fight equally hard for those that respond instead to “Die Hard 3” – they felt what they felt with equal validity, and are entitled to do so. If we dispute the idea that Madonna is better than Mozart, then we must be consistent and also dispute the assertion than Mozart is better than Madonna. No work of art is inherently better than any other, except in the closed world of one’s own heart and mind.

All composers – from Mozart to Madonna, from Dolly to Rolf – have at least one thing in common: they rely, utterly, on the audience and its emotional response to the music. Without us, they are impotent; their music, like the unwitnessed tree falling in the forest, is silent – or might as well be. A CD playing Mahler in an empty room has no effect. We don’t know what a cake tastes like until we eat it. It needs us. Mozart’s cake, no matter how well made it is or how special the ingredients, is tasteless until we taste it. Without us his music doesn’t exist. The audience member (or reviewer) is not a passive recipient of “art”, but an active agent, in a dynamic relationship with the subject of her attentions, trying to make sense of the experience; and therefore, via her emotional filtering system, an active participant in the work’s downfall or deliverance. That is, after all, the point. I’ll drink to that.

© Stephen Frost 2005