Hard, in the eyes of posterity, to survive what the 21-year-old Mozart, who met him during his stay in Mannheim in 1777, wrote about Georg Joseph Vogler, better known as “Abbé Vogler”, calling him (in letter to Leopold) “barren and frivolous—a man who imagines he can do a great deal, and does very little”, “a fool, who fancies that no one can be better or more perfect than himself”, “more fit to teach arithmetic than composition”. And this: ““The organ that was tried to-day in the Lutheran church is very good, not only in certain registers, but in its whole compass. Vogler played on it. He is only a juggler, so to speak; as soon as he wishes to play in a majestic style, he becomes dull. Happily this seems equally tedious to himself, so it does not last long; but then, what follows? only an incomprehensible scramble.”
And, wait, it gets even more damning.
“I went to hear the mass, which was a spick-and-span new composition of Vogler’s. Two days ago I was present at the rehearsal in the afternoon, but came away immediately after the Kyrie. I never in my life heard anything like it; there is often false harmony, and he rambles into the different keys as if he wished to drag you into them by the hair of your head; but it neither repays the trouble, nor does it possess any originality, but is only quite abrupt. I shall say nothing of the way in which he carries out his ideas. I only say that no mass of Vogler’s can possibly please any composer (who deserves the name). For example, I suddenly hear an idea which is NOT BAD. Well, instead of remaining NOT BAD, no doubt it soon becomes good? Not at all! it becomes not only BAD, but VERY BAD, and this in two or three different ways: namely, scarcely has the thought arisen when something else interferes to destroy it; or he does not finish it naturally, so that it may remain good; or it is not introduced in the right place; or it is finally ruined by bad instrumentation. Such is Vogler’s music”.
All these letters can be found online, in the English edition of Lady Wallace, courtesy of (and gratitude to) Project Gutenberg.
Yet I found the symphony composed by Vogler in 1799, gathered on Gustavian composers: Francesco Antonio Uttini, Johann Gottlieb Naumann, Joseph Martin Kraus, Georg Joseph “Abbé” Vogler , a program conducted by Claude Génetay on Musica Sveciae MSCD 407 and devoted to composers who worked at the Court of King Gustav III in the last decades of the 18th Century, excellent, powerful, original, and evocative in may aspects of the early symphonies of Beethoven.
So what got Wolfgang? Why such disparaging comments? A number of explations can be attempted. One: I’m not a composer and do not deserve the name, and Mozart, if he had had a chance of hearing Vogler’s symphony, would scorn my appreciation. Two: In the more than 20 years separating his Mannheim years, Vogler honed his compositional skills, and Mozart would have changed his mind. Three, and this one is more unstabling: and what if what Mozart felt as being “false harmonies”, “ramblings in different keys as if whishing to drag you into them by the hair of your head” but without “repaying the trouble” or “possessing any originally” was precisely what, in Vogler’s music, pointed to the future? And the nagging suspicion creeps in: what if Mozart, arguably the greatest composer of his time and age, the receptacle of all hitherto accumulated knowledge of music, had been so attached to the classical models and forms, that it had made him inured to anything that strayed from them and broke their rules? What if Mozart’s accumulated knowledge had made him, certainly the thrusting edge of the music of his time, but also an arch-conservative when it came to forays into what might have been the music of the future? Something like Goethe in literature (and Goethe, often associated with romanticism, saw himself as a classicist, and admired Mozart above any other composer)…
And how would Mozart have reacted to Beethoven, had he lived long enough to hear his works? (and why not? he would have been 71 by the time of Beethoven’s death). Could he have equally scorned the composer of the Eroica as he did the compositions he heard of Vogler? Even Berlioz expressed some incomprehension with some of the harmonies of the 9th Symphony, so Mozart?
Just conjectures, questionings, fodder for thought…. But I intend to explore more Vogler as soon as I can, to see if my impression of the 1799 Symphony is confirmed. Not that there is much on disc. Hard to survive, in the eyes of posterity, Mozart’s damning comments.