Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mozart's Grace

by Scott Burnham

Perfection, revelation, incarnation, grace, redemption. Such metaphors resonate throughout the history of Mozart reception. We probably should not be surprised at their ubiquity, the ease of their fit over the past two centuries. Mozart’s seemingly infallible musical judgment, accounts of his miraculous ease, coupled with the Romantic notion of music as a mystically potent, invisible force makes perceptions like these seem second nature. If Mozart’s music has not maintained an explicitly Christ-like presence, it has at the very least been perceived as a locus of goodness. And yet one does not experience anything like the perfected motion of Christian temporality. Mozart’s music offers no master narrative of Paradise Lost and Regained, of overcoming and salvation. Rather Mozart stops just this side of damnation, and just this side of redemption. A kind of innocence is always in play, but not as origin and telos. Instead I have spoken of an “ever renewable loss of innocence.” To accept this notion is also to lay claim to an ever renewable embrace of innocence. Mozart teaches us that innocence can be a continually available rejuvenation of spirit rather than an all-or-nothing quality, once lost, lost forever.

In broad cultural terms, it is tempting to interpret the end of the age of Enlightenment as a loss of innocence, a loss of innocent faith in the transparency of the world. Romanticism then emerges as the opening up of a new space, both within and beyond, a space fashioned by loss but enchanted by longing. Mozart meets us at the threshold of this space, which is more or less the burden of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s assessment of Mozart in relation to Haydn and Beethoven. Transcendence and interiority are both intimated, rather than achieved. This is how I have chosen to hear those emergent passages that seem to lift off from the prevailing musical discourse, like a visitation of altered consciousness. But even more generally, Mozart’s music can be heard to hover: between innocence and experience, ideality and sensuousness, comedy and tragedy, sympathy and mockery, intimacy and transcendence. It offers no blind faith yet no paralyzing doubt; it is not just a longingly imperfect reach for the infinite (Schiller’s sentimental art) nor just a comfortably perfect grasp of the finite (Schiller’s naïve art); it is childlike yet knowing.
—from “Knowing Innocence,” the final chapter of Mozart's Grace (Princeton UP, 2013), 165–66.

Scott Burnham is Scheide Professor of Music History at Princeton University. His scholarly interests include the history of tonal theory, problems of analysis and criticism, and 18-and 19th-century music and culture. Burnham's previous book, Beethoven Hero (Princeton UP, 1995), won the 1996 Wallace Berry Award from the Society of Music Theory.


Mozart's Grace won the American Musicological Society's 2014 Otto Kinkeldey Award, given annually “to a musicological book of exceptional merit published during the previous year.” It is the longest running of the society's awards, having been presented since 1967.

The citation notes how Burnham's work “explores a beloved composer, whose music we adore. It does not provide the usual enumeration of the composer’s stylistic fingerprints, nor a typology of formal procedures. Instead, the author focuses on individual moments that, he feels, reveal what is most important about this music. Most of the book consists of close readings of many of his favorite passages. The analyses are sensitive, perceptive, and steeped in evocative language: the author succeeds in finding words to convey the ineffable, the things we sense when we experience this music. A rich study whose style verges on the poetic at times, the book addresses the elusive trope of beauty through the categories of grace, thresholds, renewal, and knowing innocence.”

Otto Kinkeldey
The Kinkeldey Award is funded by the estate of Otto Kinkeldey (1878–1966), founding member of the Society, President from 1935–36 and from 1941–42, and Honorary President until his death in 1966. Kinkeldey occupied the first chair in musicology in the United States, at Cornell University,  between 1923 and 1946, where he was also Cornell University Librarian. He held the BA from City College of New York (1898), MA from New York University (1900) and Ph.D. from the Royal Academic Institute for Church Music in Berlin (1909). In 1910 he was appointed Royal Prussian Professor at the University of Breslau, then served in the United States Army at the beginning of World War I and was named head of the Music Division at the New York Public Library (1915–23).

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