The life of composer, cellist, and conductor Franz Ignaz Danzi (1763–1826) overlaps those of Wofgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert. Mozart died in 1791 aged 35, Danzi in 1826 at 63, Beethoven in 1827 at 57 and Schubert in 1828 at 31. Danzi and Beethoven’s lives overlapped for all but seven years at the beginning of Danzi’s and one year at the end of Beethoven’s. Mozart was seven when Danzi was born and Danzi was twenty eight when Mozart died. Schubert was born when Danzi was 34 but outlived him by only two years, Beethoven by only one.
Mozart’s genius is undisputed today whether it’s his precocity, inventiveness, breadth of output, quantity, quality or any other metric we can think of. There’s nothing the music of Mozart can’t be used to illustrate. His current reputation may well be as huge as it was when he was alive but there was a low point immediately after his death.
I can’t imagine anything like that happening now. It’s impossible for anyone to be regarded as “too creative” or “overly imaginative”. How would we know? And who would say it?
Not everyone in the late 18th century was a fan but most would’ve agreed Beethoven was a music colossus. Beethoven’s reputation has only grown since his death. The popular image of Beethoven is of a temperamental genius artist producing grand masterworks and by all accounts he was that. It’s just odd that this is the only picture of him we have. It’s also misleading for it leads us to believe masterworks are produced only by temperamental geniuses. One logical fallacy breeds another and leads to the belief that temperamental geniuses can only produce masterworks. Ultimately, we’re left with temperamental genius as meme but let’s not talk about architecture just yet.
Fame in one’s own lifetime is the result of delivering what the era demands. The era creates and then rewards its new heroes. Posthumous fame relies on how well the artistic product reflects our projections back at us. There’s no live feedback for dead artists but, whether it be music, painting or something else, there’s still a dynamic process between the audience and the art. We forget about things we once liked as we find new things to see and reputations are updated and refreshed accordingly. It’s not the work that keeps giving but the people who keep extracting. Of course, this is only possible if the original content permits it – is sufficiently “reflective” – and if it happens it’s more by accident than design. Art is a slow and inefficient machine for generating meanings. It’s easier and quicker to apply new readings to things that already exist, the more widely studied, analyzed and written about the better.
All these new readings aren’t going to create themselves. The act of curating puts things in the same cage in the hope something will happen.
At the same time we have new things being said about old things, possibly responding to an insufficiency of new things about which anything can be said. [c.f. Architectural Assimilation]
Jonathan Miller’s mafioso staging of Verdi’s Rigoletto set the action in 1950s New York and premiered at English National Opera in 1982. “Nineteenth-century composers were comparatively haphazard in their choice of historical period, and putting the action in the distant past was one way of creating an exotic atmosphere. The future may be just as effective even if it happens to be one with which the composer was unacquainted”. Publicity for the early 1990s revival never failed to note the Armani wardrobe. Posters featured a mock newspaper with the screaming headline BODY FOUND IN BAG! Cute.
Restaging opera classics in a different time period was unheard of in 1982 but is standard practice now. Not only do we accept it, we’ve come to expect it.
If an artist’s recognition in their own lifetime depends on them delivering what the era demands, and if posthumous fame relies on the product being capable of letting people read into it whatever the era demands, then the conditions for aesthetic churn are established.
My only knowledge of Mozart’s Don Giovanni  was the 1984 movie Amadaus so I found and watched a recent-ish production on YouTube and can see what those contemporary critics meant. Who knows? Come 2050 we might see Don Giovanni revived as a tale of predatory sex and toxic employer-employee relations set in 1990s Hollywood.
But are we really the heirs of modernism and postmodernism? Perhaps. If on the one hand we have artists eager to capture the zeitgeist and on the other we have journalists shaping the zeitgeist for them to capture, then either nobody’s driving this bus or everyone is.
Shaped by the same zeitgeist, some of Schubert’s writing might make you think for a moment you were listening to something Beethoven wrote but there were important differences at the time and still are. Today, Beethoven is popularly remembered more for his symphonies and Schubert more for his songs and chamber works. It’s grossly unfair to both but has some justification.
Unlike Beethoven, there’s no popular image of Schubert. If there were, it’d be that of tortured artist but even that’d be inaccurate for though he was tortured it wasn’t by art. Schubert wrote powerful yet simple music that to many encapsulates the essence of human emotion. He was also the person who said “Every night when I go to bed, I hope that I may never wake again, and every morning renews my grief.” This is dark. I don’t know of his other demons but one of them was drink. In the evenings he drank and when he did he was the worst kind of drunk. His fiercely loyal, intensely admiring and long-suffering friends would carry him home and put him to bed and, in the morning, Schubert would wake and write some more of the most sublime music ever written. “I compose every morning, and when one piece is done I begin another.”
But what of Franz Danzi? Mozart was already nine and composing when Danzi was born. It’s mentioned that the 25-year old Mozart praised Danzi’s father’s cello playing at the 1781 premiere of his (12th!) opera Idomeneo at Munich’s Residenz Theatre.
I didn’t understand how a cello could be singled out for praise in such an ensemble affair as opera. YouTube offered up Idomeneo performed in 2006 at the Salzburg Festival. I don’t remember any standout cello moments. Idomeneo featured again at last year’s Salzburg Festival, this time directed by Peter Sellars.
It turns out Danzi was inspired by Mozart, and it just so happened that Beethoven, and later, Schubert were there too. It’s all too easy for us to feel sorry for Danzi being a composer at the same time as these three who weren’t just active in the same field but unusually gifted and prolific and to varying degrees fêted as well. Beethoven’s name was linked with grand notions of the human spirit and soul, while Schubert’s name was linked with delicate expressions at the other end of the spectrum of human experience. With both the extreme positions covered and Mozart posthumously occupying the entire middle ground, what was a composer to do? Why even bother? It wasn’t as horrible as we think but this says more about us and how we think than it does about Danzi.
If Danzi had lived his life cursing his bad luck to be alive and a composer at the same time as these others then he would’ve been incapable of doing anything. Instead, he had a full career as a composer and conductor, was an accomplished cellist, and produced some extremely decent music. It’s undeniably accomplished, very pleasant and, at least to me, all the better for not being by Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert. We can listen to it with an open mind and appreciate it for what it is, untroubled by comparisons.
I’m not going to suggest Franz Danzi is some kind of musical misfit. He didn’t push any boundaries but pushing boundaries wasn’t yet mandatory. Danzi was more than competent in all the established ways of his time. If his Piano Concerto in E-flat major sounds to us like some Beethoveny kind of Mozart that’s a problem with us not him. Moreover, we can’t project our imagined unhappinesses onto him. If he didn’t compare himself with Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert then nor should we. If the relationship between artistry and fame is constructed to begin with and continually reconstructed thereafter then it throws the whole proposition into doubt.