ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
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
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
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.