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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
Neal Zaslaw

Neal Zaslaw

Scan the pages of Neal Zaslaw's curriculum vitae and you will be astonished by the breadth and depth of his experience, involvement, and productivity. What you will not glean from even this formidable resumé may be equally surprising: the down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach to his work and his world, his sometimes blinding insights and imagination, his elegance and wit, and his boundless enthusiasm for music in all its guises. Neal Zaslaw is among the world's most admired musicologists.

A professor at Cornell University since 1970, Zaslaw also manages to teach a course at The Juilliard School. But if that suggests a cloistered academic existence, consider the following: he is recognized as one the leading authorities on Mozart and on the performance practice of Mozart's time; he has served as musicological adviser and program annotator for the award-winning L'Oiseau-Lyre recordings of the complete Mozart symphonies with Jaap Schröder, Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music; he has similarly researched and written notes for the complete recording of the Mozart piano concertos with John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists and featuring his Cornell faculty colleague Malcolm Bilson as soloist; he has authored the 650-page Mozart's Symphonies: Context, Performance Practice, Reception just published by Oxford University Press; he has edited the New Mozart Editon volume of the Divertimentos and Serenades for winds; and he is serving as musicological consultant and adviser to the 1991-92 Mozart celebrations at Lincoln Center [see lead story]. Apart from that, his output has been so prodigious that his bibliography of publications and papers must be organized into sections: research, papers read, publications edited, reviews of books and periodicals, scores, phonorecords, concerts and conferences.

Zaslaw grew up in Great Neck, New York, beginning flute lessons in the third grade. In high school, when he was about 14, he won a competition that enabled him to study with one of its judges, Julius Baker, at Juilliard's Preparatory Division. Every Saturday morning, he would trek in from Long Island to take not only flute instruction but also theory and to play in chamber music ensembles and orchestras. His future seemed clear: he would be a professional instrumentalist. More or less as an accommodation to his father — a passionate music buff and record collector who nevertheless wanted Neal to "do something practical" — he majored in psychology and graduated from Harvard in 1961, promptly to return to playing the flute in New York. From 1962 through 1965 he was a member of the American Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. What he learned there was that he did not wish to spend his life as an orchestral player. "The life of the orchestra musician is ... strange. If the people doing it had liked what they were doing and each other better, I might have stayed in it. I found it very entertaining, but it seemed to me that the mental health of the orchestra musicians was very poor, that they were very unhappy as a group, and not too nice to themselves or each other. Partly it's because the orchestra is an institution that was born in a very authoritarian age, where following orders was considered fun. Nowadays, especially with Americans, being told what to do all your life is a bit of a problem. And there are all those violinists who are trained to be Heifetz. If they didn't have such aspirations, they might be happy doing what they're doing. It's more interesting than what 99% of mankind does for a living, but they're not happy."

While he was still making his living as a flutist, Zaslaw enrolled at Columbia University as a graduate student in musicology. When it came to choosing a dissertation topic, he immediately picked Mozart only to be told (by Paul Henry Lang, among others) that Mozart had already been "done." As an alternative, he plunged into research on the life and works of Jean-Marie Leclair l'aîné (1697-1764), producing not only a masters thesis and Ph.D. dissertation on the French master, but also presenting a concert devoted to his works. During his first year on the Cornell faculty, however, he was assigned to teach a Mozart seminar. When he discovered the paucity of available material, especially about orchestral performance practice of the time, he returned to the subject of his original fascination. His career was launched and his reputation began to grow.

What, we wanted to know, actually was musicology? "It's the intellectual side of music. You don't have to have a Ph.D. to be a musicologist. And having a Ph.D. doesn't guarantee you'll be one. The founding fathers [of musicology] took a very broad view of it, as do the best musicologists, even though they may be highly specialized. People are always surprised to meet a medievalist who's listening to electronic music or African drumming. But in fact most of my colleagues have very broad interests in music. The caricature is, of course, somebody who has studied all the manuscripts in the world written between 1430 and 1432 and knows all about that and nothing else. But those are not the people who write interesting books and articles or who make good teachers. One must specialize to make any headway, and in the modern world one can't do everything and know everything.

"As to prerequisites, you first have to be a good musician, to be able to sightsing and scoreread, play piano or other keyboard instruments. Second, language — beginning with English. Since musicology is using words to deal with music, both the words and the music have to be honed to a high degree. Then the foreign languages have to depend on what area you're going to be working in. Traditionally, it's western European languages plus Latin, but if you're going to be doing Chinese or Indonesian or Russian music, then that creates different needs. The languages that are required most often are French and German, Italian and Latin, assuming a western orientation. Of course, that's hard on American students. Even among very bright ones, it's rare to find someone with all those qualifications. If someone is very good at languages and a little weak on the musical side, they can get more training; if they're very good at music and need more language skill, they can get that. But if they're weak at all of those things, then they should go into a different field."

Good students, Zaslaw believes, will see the relevance of what they're doing, just as they do in non-academic fields. But is the academic really required to produce? "Well, that's the blessing and the curse. The blessing is that somebody can do something that's not commercial and not practical and maybe come up with something wonderful. And the curse is that it may be counting angels on the head of a pin. If it hadn't been for the terrific moral and practical support that Cornell gave me, I wouldn't be a Mozart expert." And, when reminded of the enormous strides that music history has made in relatively few years, owing in no small part to universities, he said: "The world has become more 'musicologized.' When I was a kid, 'musicologist' was sort of a dirty word, among performers especially, and the public considered it esoteric egghead stuff. Now all sorts of people are calling themselves musicologists because it's become fashionable. Think of the notes on record jackets. They used to be dreadful. Now quite often the very best thing you can read anywhere about a piece will be in the booklet that comes with the record. The assumption now is that the public doesn't just want adjectives, but actual content."

As to music that is in the public awareness today that might have been little known some years ago, Zaslaw says: "I think that 50 years ago, for most people, music began with Bach. People might have heard of Palestrina and a few others, but they were mainly textbook names. The few performances and recordings that existed were not terribly inviting. I remember, when I first began teaching in 1968, talking about medieval music and I was doing pretty well — the students looked eager — until I put on a recording. It sounded so awful that I lost them.

Now there are fantastic recordings of medieval and Renaissance music. It comes out of this mixture of scholarship and practical stuff."

We noted with some admiration those musicologists who had worked successfully both as scholars and as practitioners such as critics or performers, and suggested that he was following that tradition. Zaslaw was quick to respond: "I must say that I reacted very badly to Joe Kerman's book Contemplating Music. I think we need people of various talents and personalities in musicology, including bibliographers and highly specialized people and generalists and those who want to cross the boundaries into other disciplines. But Joe seems to be telling us what we ought to be doing, and I find that very irritating. I don't condescend to any of my colleagues who do good work. Some of it is just for inside the field and I depend on it. So I don't pretend that having one foot inside each camp makes me superior. In some ways it weakens me because, as soon as you take `pure research' and apply it, you're forced into a series of compromises. Yes, there's excitement to be gained and it's wonderful to be of use to other people, but there's also the possibility of getting a little mud on your face."

His commitment to pluralism, to insisting on the admissibility of different and often differing viewpoints, seems to be central to Zaslaw's credo. We asked about the upcoming Mozart festivities at Lincoln Center. In so vastly divergent an undertaking, would there be any effort made at standardizing performance practice? "I am against standardization. That's Fascism. I'm there for anybody who wants to talk to me. Some of the conductors and artists are more interested in talking to me than others. And I'm not there to tell them what to do. I'm there to give them information if I have it, or lead them to it if I don't; to give my opinions and let them think about it, and to be as persuasive as I can."

Zaslaw, who once wrote a paper entitled "Humor in Mozart's Music," chuckles as we inquire about Mozart's place in his own society. Did he feel himself to be very much a part of that society or did he live aloof and apart from it? "I think that must be a 20th-century question. It probably never occurred to Mozart that he could compose in isolation. I imagine he thought of himself like a cabinet maker or portrait painter or wig maker. He had a high-class product, higher-class than anybody else's — I think he knew that. We know he cared. He was probably keenly aware of who listened to his music. There's a letter to his father where he's railing against Salzburg and why he doesn't want to live there, in which he says, `When I play for people there, it's as if it were just so many tables and chairs."' According to Zaslaw, there must have been periods of Mozart's life during which he was more interested in his musical inner life than in the exterior perceptions of a public. "Earlier in his life, he thought the solution was to have a polite exterior and a complex interior. Then the amateurs would listen to the exterior and the connoisseurs would listen to both the interior and the exterior. But during the second half of the '80s, he gave up on that model and decided to please himself a little more and his audience a little less. As a result, he came in for some pretty heavy critical comments. And in the '90s his style triumphed and, had he not died, he probably would have become fairly well-to-do."

Although Zaslaw insists that there's no such thing as a right or wrong way to perform music and that there can be many legitimate approaches, his enthusiasm for the early music movement comes quickly to the fore. "Oh, I'm in love with the early music movement. They're trying something new and exciting. There is repertory which I could only imagine some years ago that I can now hear and enjoy." In 1983, Rameau's 300th birthday, he organized a one-day Rameau conference for the Boston Early Music Festival and a Rameau opera was presented. The Festival has since been expanded to a four or five-day conference and Zaslaw has retained his affiliation with that group. He also lectures for other early music organizations such as the imaginative Aston Magna Festival which focuses on a particular composer and examines not only his music but the society in which he lived. This year, he is one of the organizers of the Michigan MozartFest presenting a festival and symposium of the fortepiano concertos.

Certain personalities are so identified with a given subject that they invariably get asked the same question over and over. The sensitive interviewer may try to avoid it, fearing the stigma of cliché, but it is like the tip of the tongue that compulsively heads for the cavity. We could no longer resist: how does a Mozart scholar like Neal Zaslaw feel about Peter Schaffer's Amadeus? "I find the film very entertaining, a little bit vulgar, highly improbable as a historical recreation — although Schaffer did his homework. Most of the incidents in the play are based on some historical document or other which he has then elaborated with his fantastic imagination. I point out to my students how the elderly, half-senile Salieri chooses to recall Mozart decades before. The way Schaffer has given himself poetic license is by saying that this is not the historian's Mozart or Mozart's Mozart. This is how a bitter old man, who both revered and hated Mozart, chooses to remember things decades later. From that point of view, it makes all the sense in the world."

The same Zaslaw who finds entertainment in a work of fiction that is based on historical events takes equal pleasure in reminding us of true happenings that have been erased from public awareness. Don't we all think of the Mozart of prodigious musical memory, who could compose in any situation, put works down only to take them up again after long intervals? But Zaslaw quickly draws attention to a letter of April 5, 1778 from Wolfgang's mother in Paris to her husband and daughter in Salzburg concerning their Paris lodgings whose "eingang and die stiegen is so Sög das es ohnm&umul;glich wehre ein Clavier hin auf zu bringen, der wolfgang mues also ausser haus bey Monsieur le gro Componieren weill dorth ein Clavier ist [entrance and stairway are so narrow that it would be impossible to get a piano up, meaning that Wolfgang has to go out and compose at Monsieur le gro's since there's a piano there]." This illustration is followed by a second letter, written on August 1, 1781 by Mozart from Vienna to his father in Salzburg, which reads: "izt gehe ich ein Clavier entlehnen, denn, bevor das nicht in zimmer steht, kann ich nicht darinn wohnen, dermalen weil ich eben zu schreiben habe, and keine Minute zu versäumen ist [now I'm going to borrow a piano because I can't live in the room before it's there, especially since I've got to compose and can't waste a minute]." Noting the astonished reaction of the interviewer, Zaslaw hastens to put these letters in perspective by positing that, while Mozart was surely able to compose without a piano, there clearly was a point — now all but forgotten — when he relied on its availability.

Talking with Neal Zaslaw, one grows aware of the dynamics of history, that nothing stands still, that man and his tastes and his arts are always being battered by new and conflicting stimuli that bring about change. And, of course, with the advance of time, with new scholarship, new technological and other resources, with the bridging of gaps between the parochial and the universal, our world view grows broader and we are better equipped to assimilate the creativity of the past. In the case of Mozart, the scholars of yesteryear — Otto Jahn, Otto Erich Deutsch, Alfred Einstein — had shaped their generation's concept of the man and his music. But there was more to be learned for today, as there doubtless will for tomorrow. Just think of the performance materials that did not exist a mere 35 years ago when the world prepared to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mozart's birth, that today enable us to hear many more works; and the replication of old instruments and how they were played, our concepts of notation, ornamentation, tempos, and other aspects of performance practice; access to autograph sources, discovery of works hitherto thought lost, imaginative reconstructions like Robert Levin's Symphonia Concertante in the combination for which Mozart actually wrote it; more comprehensive and fairer appraisals, such as Stanley Sadie's Mozart entry in The New Grove's, not to mention the availability of the entirely reedited and rethought edition of the complete works, the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe. And yet we must be reconciled that even these developments are subject to constant question and change.

We wondered if there was any other composer so integral to the public consciousness as Mozart. "Well, Mozart has displaced Beethoven. In a more heroic age, an age in which people believed in heroes, Beethoven was a wonderful composer. Now that the world is such a mess, I think we like tidier heroes, less heroic and more organized. I think there is something about the orderly 18th-century musical style that gives us comfort in the modern age."

It is gratifying to have enlightened humanist scholars like Neal Zaslaw who are able to use their knowledge of the past to comfort us in the modern age.

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