Perfect Sound Forever

We, the Classical Music Villains

Wolfgang Amadeus: pop culture bad guy

Stories of Irony (at Best) and Injustice (at Worst) in Today's American Popular Cultures
(With No Mention Whatsoever of Mozart's 250th Birthday)
By Gregg Wager
(October 2006)

There's nothing like the American cinema to incarnate nightmarish villains. These purveyors of evil and doom know how to put a chill on the bone and shiver up the spine. There's Virgil "the Turk" Sollozzo from the Godfather ("I don't like violence, Tom. I'm a businessman. Blood is a big expense"); Darth Vader ("You don't know the power of the dark side"); the Wicked Witch of the West ("I'll get you my pretty, and your little dog too"); Jason from the Friday the 13th franchise (he gets away without saying much); and, well, Mozart.

That's right, Mozart. Although he has yet to be portrayed sporting an eye patch and scar, let alone Freddy Krueger's glove-of-knives (which would make playing scales quite a chore), make no mistake: Wolfy is one dastardly dude.

Case in point: Lean On Me, a 1989 motion picture directed by John Avildsen and starring Morgan Freeman, follows the true story of "tough-love" principal Joe Clark and how he reformed a failing, dysfunctional high school in Patterson, New Jersey. Music plays an important part in the story, as the title (named after the famous Bill Withers song) suggests. As Clark wields megaphone in one hand and baseball bat in the other, expelling hundreds of students in a flamboyant fell swoop, he happens upon an otherwise well-behaved school choir rehearsing Mozart. A contretemps ensues between Clark and the choral conductor. In the heat of the argument, Clark fires the woman.

We who know American movies too well, know when the director wants the audience to applaud at a sweet moment of justice, and when to boo and hiss the villain. Without a doubt, the villain here is supposed to be the Mozart-loving choir conductor. Principal Clark represents justice with a mighty sword, who might as well get an extra round of applause by taking his mighty sword (i.e., the baseball bat) and swinging it at the music teacher's head (although I would applaud vice versa).

It isn't the first American movie in which controversy is portrayed outside of reality's confusing shades of gray. Nonetheless, I sat in the theater with my mouth agape at Clark's dirty deed. Even harder to believe is his justification, stated later in the film: "What good is Mozart to these kids when they can't get a job." Not believing that anyone would ever so blatantly imply that Mozart might be part of the problem when cleaning up a dysfunctional high school, I certainly don't think he means Mozart is to blame for kids bringing switchblades to school, or that every time a kid throws a spit wad, he or she must be humming the Jupiter Symphony; it's that Mozart is irrelevant, says principal Clark. Mozart is worth chucking out of school along with all those class-cutters and drug dealers. Mozart is for slackers.

Clark says that the kids need anthems they can identify with that will make them proud of their school—sort of like the Horst-Wessel-Lied was during another time—and this is what he is trying to get across to the choral conductor he fired. The film even begins with a simple rendition of the school anthem, and later the students work up a hipper version, with the help of the choir's accompanist, who takes over when the stodgy Mozart conductor gets the ax. Clark oversees the "progress" (i.e., from Mozart to rhythm and blues) and gives it the thumbs up. The kids love their new anthem, not only because they don't have to shake the cobwebs off of it, but also because they can actually "shake their booty" to it.

Then again, we all know the opening of another movie from the 1980's, Amadeus: bitter Salieri begins his story by confessing to a priest, playing a few bars of his own music at the keyboard, and hoping the priest might recognize it. He doesn't. Salieri then plays a few bars of Wolfy's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and the priest enthusiastically sings along, recognizing the piece. The moral of the scene is not part of the fictional story of how Salieri murders Wolfy, but how, in real life, Salieri was a hack and Mozart a genius. The proof of the pudding is we can sing Wolfy's catchy tunes while walking out of the theater ("bum, ba-bum, ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bum…"), while Salieri's music is boring, obtuse, and forgettable. Once the message of this flashy film gets home to the audience, they might even believe that Wolfy is as good as Rodgers and Hammerstein. As for Salieri, he's ultimately the villain here and should be sentenced to a few swings of Clark's baseball bat (hip hip hooray!).

In fact, so much of Clark's style reminds me of my own Junior High School. That was more than a decade before tall tales told in the 1980s of baseball bats, megaphones, and Wolfy. Despite the similarities, there was a big difference when it came to music and its role in school. In my case, crew-cutted vice principals likewise snarled into megaphones and delivered the occasional swat to this author's behind with a large wooden paddle (almost as long as a baseball bat). Like Oskar Mazerath in Günther Grass's Tin Drum, I admittedly lived by my own ability to stay out of step, which drove these vice-principals crazy. To this day, I still find myself rebelling against what they tried to instill upon me, and, with my long hair and obnoxious laugh, somehow do it all in the spirit of Wolfy.

Nonetheless, I don't remember that Mozart was ever the topic of study in Junior High School, but do remember his evil, snickering sidekick Tchaikovsky. In those days, I had landed the lead part in a flute quartet version of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" and proudly toted the mimeographed (yes, that chalky blue print from those days), subversive sheet music folded in my back pocket.

One fine day during lunchtime, I deftly hurled a grape and hit one of my most notorious adversaries squarely in the back. It was a joyful bulls-eye. The ugliest of all vice-principals caught me in the act and took me to his office for a ceremonial swat. It was a scary routine, including taking everything out of my back pockets (including the folded-up Tchaikovsky), but was over quickly. His lecture was short, and in the long run, he was right: there were starving people in the world and I shouldn't throw food. But I still remember the look on his face afterwards as he looked at the folded-up Tchaikovsky music on his desk, forgetting that it was mine, and trying to figure out what it was (as if the principal had handed him some cryptic task to decipher). Somehow, the ghost of Tchaikovsky made me smile out of revenge.

Unlike principal Clark, my megaphone-toting, paddle-wielding authority figure had no inkling whatsoever of Tchaikovsky or Mozart, let alone theories of why they are polluting the minds of America's youth. Classical musicians were little else than nonentities.

This at least demonstrates how in time common attitudes about classical music have changed. At most, there was an effort in the 1980's to radically alter the way we listened to Mozart, even if there were several different ideas about how the PR job on Wolfy should proceed. Classical music used to be the paragon of discipline and decorum to those Americans who were familiar with it. To others, it might have been a formal affair and conservative, even if the details of it were widely unknown. If you simply found it boring, you also probably found it harmless, as long as you had the option to stay away from it.

If you grew up during the 1960's, your parents were no doubt reminding you that the world will always remember Mozart, but the Beatles are a passing fad and when you grow older, you'll lose interest in them. They had to say that, not because they liked Mozart's music, but because their own popular music (e.g., "Three Little Fishies and a Momma Fishie Too" or "How Much is that Doggie in the Window") was difficult to dignify to impressionable children. Schemes to get children off of rock music during the 1960's included a chart in The World Book Encyclopedia, written by (we are assured) a renowned music professor, who alarmingly traced rock music back to the jungles of Africa (i.e., away from our common civilization in Europe, as the paranoia of racism subliminally struck).

In the 1980's, 10 short years after the Beatles breakup, one often finds this totem pole flipped upside down, such as in Lean On Me and even Amadeus. Normalcy is measured by "good, wholesome" rock-based popular music, including the Beatles, with tunes catchy enough to sing while walking out of the theater. Those classical musicians that we used to memorialize are, well, just a little bit weird.

There was a time when rock music, like marijuana, represented the "death of learning," as Shakespeare put it, "late decease'd in beggary." Few authority figures from the 1960s weren't devising strategies to get kids interested in something else. Richard Nixon thought Merle Haggard's tongue-in-cheek "Okie from Muskogee" would be a useful propaganda instrument, if the humor could be extracted from it and people would take the sentiments seriously ("we don't burn our draft cards in Muskogee...").

Today, the authority figures still rail against promiscuity, drug abuse, and raising hell as evidence of "the death of learning, late decease'd in beggary," but there are only certain types of rock music they don't like. Meanwhile, classical music, which used to be part of the great mainstream of America, has become some sort of bizarre, anti-social behavior.

For example, during the first season of Dick Wolf's television hit, Law & Order SVU, an episode called "Nocturne" involved a piano teacher who was a child molester. More than principal Clark's elitist choral conductor, we find in "Nocturne" a story that milked creepiness out of a morbid crime by using classical music itself as something creepy and unusual. The piano teacher would let his hands demonstrate the difficult passages and touch the unsuspecting young prodigy one too many times. He would video tape the lessons and, well, use them later for his own devious purposes. The crime scene is so despicable that Olivia, a female detective, vomits.

In all fairness, our parents probably should never have told us that the Beatles would be forgotten, and music professors probably should have never tried to alarm us with theories of the jungle origins of rock music. In that sense, not being afraid of rock music or "shaking your booty" to your school anthem is an improvement to those otherwise sterile, paranoid days.

On the flipside of that, how many rock music disciples who weathered those rough years when rock was routinely attacked by the mainstream actually believe that Mozart was on their team, sporting David-Bowie-like glamour-rock wigs as depicted in the movie Amadeus? Making Wolfy into a rock star and giving him music videos for MTV might make him go down easier for some, but will probably be more confusing in the long run to those kids who grew up actually believing that Salieri murdered Mozart.

Musicologist Eric Salzman has eloquently made the point that, "in fact, rock rather quickly passed through its own classical period, the end of which was symbolized by the breakup of the Beatles [in 1970]." (Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction, 189). In other words, both traditions, classical and rock, evolved in a similar way: through an era of simplicity, to complexity, and even (some might say) to senility. The career of Beethoven, the pivotal figure in classical music, definitely resembles how the Beatles were the pivotal act in rock music. Although these traditions grow, blossom and die, like most living things, there is a tendency to look at history as one big monolithic relay race, in which somehow the baton gets passed off to the next generation, and then to the next, and so on. Therefore, they say, we really shouldn't detect much difference between Mozart's artistry and Elvis'.

This misconception is nevertheless a far cry from looking upon Mozart as an outright villain, or that rock musicians are now the sacred cows or even the pillars of an immutable, conservative American culture. In an era where we are trying to change the name of "French fries" to "freedom fries," do we associate classical music too much with Europe and therefore hate it?

In an essay called "Too Much Mozart Makes You Sick", English critic Norman Lebrecht has found ways to poke holes in the popular myths about Wolfy, perhaps some of the very myths that now make him appear to be a bogeyman to the more patriotic Americans:

"The key test of any composer's importance is the extent to which he reshaped the art. Mozart, it is safe to say, failed to take music one step forward. Unlike Bach and Handel who inherited a dying legacy and vitalised [sic] it beyond recognition, unlike Haydn who invented the sonata form without which music would never have acquired its classical dimension, Mozart merely filled the space between staves with chords that he knew would gratify a pampered audience. He was a provider of easy listening, a progenitor of Muzak."

Perhaps Lebrecht is bending over backwards to be provocative here, riled by the often insipid way that Mozart has been popularized over the years (including a new Mozart action figure). Even cartoonist Charles Schulz once used his otherwise benign comic strip character Schroeder to viciously attack the ongoing phenomenon of "Mostly Mozart" concerts. Like making Mozart a creepy villain, trying to make him an icon of show biz or an ornament on a key ring is equally despicable.

Remember, there are usually two extremes, not just one.

We have all heard the convictions of certain modern jazz musicians, especially Dr. Billy Taylor and Wynton Marsalis, referring to their musical tradition as the "classical music of America." There is a similar movement among some rock musicians (Robert Fripp and Vangelis come to mind), although they are so confident about the relevancy of their music, they often simply don't bother to compare it with anything else.

I'll never forget meeting the guitarist of a fairly well-known New Wave rock band of the 1980s that typically played four-chord songs; he claims his career ended because he practiced his instrument too much and got tendonitis. There is something a little too "classical" about this tragic figure who ruined his hand and career while repeating the chords A-B-E-C#m. They say they are being spontaneous and just playing their music, but perhaps a superficial myth of dastardly Wolfy is making them do things they shouldn't ought to do.

What is the relationship between jazz and rock searching for a sort of "legitimacy" and classical music icons like Mozart being attacked from every which way? Somehow, there is a sort of bone marrow transplant analogy here: you have to destroy the old, defective bone marrow before you can replace it with the new.

There is also a king-of-the-hill mentality that is in play. Those of us who grew up identifying rock music as the ultimate underground/underdog music find it interesting that anyone would now want to use it to push another musical tradition (classical music) off the top of the hill. Where is this hill supposed to be, anyway?

In the 1980's, when I was a music critic with the Los Angeles Times, we who wrote about classical music worked in the "music department," while the famous Robert Hilburn and his group of rock music writers were the "pop music department." Although this might appear to be a trivial distinction, it was loaded with the implication that classical music was somehow more legitimate and normal than the trendy, non-intellectual rock music. It was easier in those days to argue that a highbrow/lowbrow distinction in culture exists and that those who write about classical music require a special training to understand what's going on in the concert hall. Rock journalists carried the lesser reputation that the only thing that distinguished them from ordinary fans with an opinion was wit and the ability to spell.

In practice, of course, these misconceptions didn't work out quite the way they were supposed to. I can give plenty of examples of trained classical music critics who have said some pretty stupid things (remember the "Aeolian cadences" of one intimidating critic who wrote about the Beatles?), but let's not forget that pop music breeds its intimidating snobs, as well.

I found this out the hard way when one day the film department asked me to write a review of the film music for Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry V. Simon Rattle conducted the soundtrack, and a young composer named Patrick Doyle, who got the gig because he was a friend of Branagh's, wrote a routine score centered around a pop-like song with a Latin text, "non nobis, Domine" (a traditional text mentioned in the play), that the soldiers break into during the victory celebration at Agincourt as if they were suddenly inside a Broadway musical. At the time I didn't realize that the situation was screaming highbrow/lowbrow conflict. Shakespeare is traditionally highbrow, but in Branagh's press materials, this was boldly challenged and Branagh told us his Henry V could be enjoyed by anyone going to see a Crocodile Dundee movie. I admit I generally felt skeptical, thinking that if anyone wanted to update the story of Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt, why use Shakespeare's text, which is filled with old slang and usages that require a bit of translation? Moreover, there are plenty of us (yes, that includes me) who have read the Shakespeare play and don't find anything wrong with laughing out loud and Paul Hogan's movies. Is the Shakespeare/Hogan connection so profound that we need to drive the point home with a full-length movie that we are told is innovative?

Like Amadeus and Mozart, Hollywood would like to make Shakespeare into one cool guy. Nevertheless, I couldn't resist comparing Doyle's soundtrack with William Walton's soundtrack of Laurence Olivier's 1944 film version of Henry V, especially in light of the fact that a suite of Walton's version was in the standard orchestral repertory. When comparing the two soundtracks, Walton's orchestration alone was so much more sophisticated there was no comparison (I wonder if Doyle himself wouldn't agree with me).

When my story hit the presses, the editorial arts section at the Los Angeles Times was in an uproar. A film critic, a "pop music" critic, and a drama critic teamed up to confront me with a three-way, multi-disciplined barrage. All three of them were angry that, first of all, anyone would write a review of a film soundtrack (although they didn't really tell me why; not to mention I was asked to do the review in the first place), but most of all that it appeared as if I was looking negatively upon a film and crossover concept that was destined for greatness. I wasn't excited enough about it. To the critics confronting me, there was no such thing as a highbrow/lowbrow distinction; there's no difference between Shakespeare and any good film script; and Walton was no better or worse than any competent Hollywood film composer.

A little more than a decade later, in the year 2000, I found myself involved in the organization of a centennial celebration for one of the most successful highbrow/lowbrow crossover musicians ever, Kurt Weill. In a panel discussion at NYU between Hal Prince (not to be confused with Branagh's Prince Hal), Eric Bentley, Carmen Capalbo, and Hal Willner, the question asked of all four participants was whether a highbrow/lowbrow distinction even exists at all. I'll never forget Hal Prince railing against those who believe in such a distinction, referring to them as "adjudicators" (an insult for those who don't have the talent to be real artists; since I was serving as an adjudicator at this event, his remarks especially stung). On the other end of the table, Hal Willner was comparing the poetry of Bertolt Brecht to the lyrics of Johnny Lydon of the Sex Pistols. As someone who is roughly the same age as Willner and who used to listen to the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bullocks religiously during college, not to mention who has since then written a few articles about the Brecht/Weill collaboration, I wonder if Willner wasn't trying a bit too hard to be chic. Brecht, after all, is one of the most important writers of the 20th-century ("und der Haifisch der hat Zähne..."); the Sex Pistols were an influential, important rock group, but most of what they did had little to do with the literary world or recognition from it. Even their most ardent fans rarely understood the lyrics anyway, let alone memorized them ("I don't want a holiday in the sun, I want to go to the new Belsen..."). Should we also be conducting full harmonic analyses of the Sex Pistol's songs?

The final irony of this event is that the two Hals (Prince and Willner) didn't like each other, based on Prince's dislike of anything to do with a lowbrow medium called television (Willner used to work for Saturday Night Live). If there is no highbrow/lowbrow distinction, as Prince claims on the one hand, how can you categorically hate the medium of television on the other hand?

We now have plenty of films, many adapted from plays such as Amadeus, critiquing the highbrow/lowbrow distinction and how it can be pretentious and even destructive (the Unsinkable Molly Brown is another good example). Can't we also see that there is an equally destructive opposite to that attitude that is equally pretentious and destructive?

Again, there's usually two extremes, not just one.

As much as the culture of our time continues to chase its tail inside the confusing highbrow/lowbrow conundrum, with rock-based pop music now bequeathed the essence of the same legitimacy that classical music once enjoyed, one final analogy from recent events might not answer some of the questions raised, but certainly might frame them in an interesting light. I have always avoided like the plague the television reality show American Idol, but this year couldn't help, for whatever reasons, getting involved with the show and watching it to the end. Somehow its boast of being the biggest year ever made me curious.

America has had television talent shows in the past, from Ted Mack's Amateur Hour to Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, and all the way up to Star Search. These shows have given us lasting recording artists such as Patsy Cline and Pat Boone, but never have any of these shows made a claim that the "winner" will be America's newest star.

As preposterous as this might sound (stars are born, after all, by some mystical, natural process, not by someone else dubbing them as such), it isn't completely farfetched or even unprecedented. In the classical music world, competitions have been the norm for a longer time, and in some cases, especially the first Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958, which made a star out of Van Cliburn, the competition itself almost becomes more important than the music. At the time, Cliburn was dubbed the new Rachmaninoff, and the dynamic of the Cold War fueled this stardom more than ever. Then again, Cliburn never really did anything else in his career that would ever match the fame he received for winning this competition.

Anyone who has seen American Idol has to admit that the real star of the show is Simon Cowell, the dour English judge whose brutal honesty seems at times to be downright sadistic. Those of us who know classical music contests, know that Cowell's persona on American Idol is no less nasty than the equally brutal judges of classical music. It also somehow goes hand in hand with the "tough love" trend epitomized in the movie Lean On Me. In a world where the recording industry vulgarly defines a hierarchy of music through its annual Grammy Awards (with classical music and jazz only two minor categories that would never compete for the all important "record of the year"), Cowell has only one standard that music ideally must sound like and any deviation from that is dealt with without mercy. As horrible as this might sound at first, it is exactly the same attitude that put tuxedos on classical musicians and made all grand pianos black. Simon Cowell probably doesn't even realize the comparison: he is the same sort of soldier for the recording industry behemoth that judges of classical music judges were when classical music was still a behemoth.

Today, the recording industry has taken over any bourgeois sensibility that classical music used to have. As much as Van Cliburn's rendition of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff was better than his competitors, and as much as Taylor Hicks's raspy interpretations of the Doobie Brothers and KC and the Sunshine Band outdid his opponents, one can't escape the power of the bourgeois, which tends to crush anything unusual and succumbs to a banal process of ceremony over substance when placing new marble busts of musicians on the mantel. We the skeptics know that no one who wins American Idol will ever be as legendary as those who built the recording industry up in the first place.

In both cases, Cliburn and Hicks, let's call this a natural progression. Symphony orchestras require upkeep and lots of money and management to make them run right. So do recording artists working on their albums. When artistic trends grow into such behemoths, some dare to pretend that no other trend exists or will ever exist.

The musicians of the past who blossomed while the behemoths were still in an embryonic stage are now embalmed and somehow non-human observers. We keep looking for living people to fill their shoes--even though this is probably impossible (unless you're inside the weird logic of a George Romero movie). In this way, Mozart and Elvis indeed have something in common as walking zombies.

But American Idol (like the Tchaikovsky Competition) aspires to find replacements to the embalmed stars of the past. Why? Is it a natural course of action to do this? Are we subliminally reenacting the past without stopping to realize that times indeed change along with attitudes? Is there some mystical realignment that steers us into this behavior? Is there a natural call to be a "serious musician" (remember, this term now refers to those in the recording industry, not just classical musicians)?

Instead of looking to any underground for new ideas and practices, the behemoths remain in the mainstream and use "tough love" to keep the ranks in line. This sort of fastidious, "tough love" coda that tends to get tacked on to the end of any productive historical era of music might be a natural development (and that purposely implies that Simon Cowell's pop music ideal might be on its last leg), but depends on behavior among "adjudicators" and judges that might be downright pernicious, such as arbitrary bigotry and latent sadism.

What happens at the end of eras is that people no longer look for music to enlighten, or even to be fun, but for it to be done "correctly," or "properly," completely forgetting that the artistry in question isn't something that was picked off of a tree, but developed over decades, if not centuries, of musicians going against the norms of their times. Music becomes acrobatic, not artistic.

As natural as this development might be, it involves toppling the reign of Mozart by turning him into a villain, a down-to-earth rock star, or a cheap tourist trinket. It also involves taking a newly dubbed genius, such as Van Cliburn or Taylor Hicks, and placing him or her on top of the heap before he or she has even begun a career.

As an octogenarian once said about the new method of making babies in test tubes, "I like the old way better."

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