20 March 2019

The Mozart Defect

 It used to be said that of no historical figure, other than Jesus Christ, had more words been written than Richard Wagner.  If that was ever true (which I somehow doubt), I’m sure it can’t be true today.  In the field of music alone, words devoted to Mozart seem long since to have outweighed words devoted to any other figure.  My own bookshelves are buckling under the weight of tomes devoted to Mozart.  And not necessarily books about music. I have one detailing all his female conquests, one giving in graphic detail suggestions as to the causes of his death, one devoted to the reasons behind his frequent use of foul language and his obsession with bodily functions, one illustrating his progress through the levels of Freemasonry, I even have a novel, picked up in the bookshop in Dallas Airport (where I remember being stranded for several hours) which has nothing whatsoever to do with Mozart other than the fact that the fictional protagonist is a former SAS operative hired to investigate the death of an opera singer’s brother (“A breathless pursuit which will enthral fans of Dan Browne, Sam Bourne and Ludlum’s Bourne series” – of which I am most certainly not).  There are books which tell you how to apply Mozart to your new-born (and yet-to-be-born) child, how to increase your brain-power through Mozart, and while I have yet to encounter a book telling you how a little carefully applied Mozart can heal the sick and raise the dead, or a recollection that he walked on water, there must be one out there somewhere.

Perhaps the most notorious writing on Mozart dates from 1993 when F H Rauscher and others published The Mozart Effect which claimed that, after listening to Mozart's Sonata for two pianos (K448) for 10 minutes, normal subjects showed significantly increased spatial reasoning skills.  This instantly led to a new industry of those ascribing amazing powers to Mozart and his music. Writing in the Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine, J S Jenkins suggested that an even “more impressive indication of a Mozart effect is to be seen in epilepsy. In 23 of 29 patients with focal discharges or bursts of generalized spike and wave complexes who listened to the Mozart piano sonata K448 there was a significant decrease in epileptiform activity as shown by the electroencephalogram (EEG)19. Some individual patients showed especially striking improvement. In one male, unconscious with status epilepticus, ictal patterns were present 62% of the time, whereas during exposure to Mozart's music this value fell to 21%. In two other patients with status epilepticus continuous bilateral spike and wave complexes were recorded 90-100% of the time before the music, suddenly falling to about 50% 5 minutes after the music began. The fact that improvement took place even in a comatose patient demonstrates again that appreciation of the music is not a necessary feature of the Mozart effect”.  In other words, you don’t even have to listen to Mozart’s music for it to do you good.  

Of course, in the case of Rauscher’s experiments, the effect lasted barely 15 minutes, while Jenkins ends his report by observing that, “the results are not specific to Mozart's compositions but the exact musical criteria required have not been completely defined”, but the impression given is that Mozart has powers other composers have not. 

In my case, the jury’s out.  No attempt was made in my daughter’s pre-natal existence to force-feed her, trapped in the womb, with Mozart, but living in a household where frequent, loud parties involving orchestral musicians took place, she must clearly have been unwittingly exposed to everything from Bach to Reich with plenty of Mozart thrown into the mix.  If it had a lasting effect on her, it has been to head her off into the direction of, first, One Direction and latterly BTS.  Mozart has no effect on her whatsoever.  Yet, astonishingly, she does well at school, shows above average intelligence, is pretty and popular (my wife has started fending off the boys with a maternal determination I remember only too well from my youth, when it was directed against me) and appears to be mentally well-adjusted.  She is living proof that you can succeed as a child without the influence of Mozart. Yet I do not totally repudiate all the claims about the Mozart effect, and if nothing else, I am conscious that in certain graffiti-strewn, beggar-encrusted, urine-scented underpasses in Northern England, the playing of Mozart’s music through loud-speakers has driven away the vandals, drug-addicts and knife-wielding youths.  So it does have some effect on those unwittingly exposed to it.

All pretty harmless, you may think, and if there is a chance that Mozart might have a beneficial effect on individuals as well as on society as a whole, then why not give it a go. But as with all these things which are supposed to do you good (think Atkins’ Diet, which killed off an acquaintance of mine and caused me one of my few visits to hospital) it has serious side effects which are easily overlooked in the mad chase after the supposed beneficial effects. 

Mozart, so the common wisdom has it, was a Child Prodigy.  It’s not quite as simple as that.  Yes, his musical father pushed him mercilessly to pursue the only activity Mozart’s father really knew about, and through intense early lessons, the young Wolfie did show an above average musical ability at an early age.  He certainly did not have the natural infantile prodigious musical talent of, say, Prokofiev, Saint-Saëns or Samuel Wesley, all of whom showed far more early musical talent with far less force-feeding from a pushy parent than Mozart, but he was doing musical things before his 10th birthday which to most of us seem extraordinary. 

We forget, of course, that Mozart was destined by virtue of his birth to be a musician, his education was focused totally on music, and the concept of general schooling and preparedness for life which is the norm in 21st century society, was unheard of in the 18th century.  So, in the context of the day, Mozart was bound to develop musically long before his modern-day counterparts; on top of which, the attention span of today's 5-6 year-olds stretches to 15 minutes; in Mozart's day, with less distractions to contend with, the 5-6 year-old seemed equipped with a somewhat longer attention span (although that is an assumption not supported by any facts I can find).  Yet some modern-day parents, especially from Chinese backgrounds, are so keen that their off-spring should excel in one particular area of human endeavour as soon as possible in order to secure their (the parents’, that is) financial security in old age, that they see in Mozart a useful role model.  Here was a kid who, with much encouragement from his parent, was able to support said parent in later life.  Sadly, for so many Chinese parents, the story of Mozart begins and ends with the Child Prodigy bit, and the debts, poverty and deprivation bit gets missed out of the popular narrative; that’s the bit the Westerners focus on, as they love to hear of those who fall from grace.

So, knowing only that Mozart’s musical talent flourished at an early age as a result of strong parental encouragement, and that Mozart went on to become world famous (world-famous equals highly-paid in this narrative), parents look for the slightest chink of musical aptitude in their new-born offspring and, once glimpsed, exploit it for all its worth.  Private music schools pop up like dandelions along the verges of English country-lanes, buying into the Mozart myth by calling themselves “Little Mozarts”, “Amadeus Academy”, and the like, or hawking themselves on the idea that prodigious talent needs nurturing (the Singapore Government, no less, talks about “nurturing young talents”, as if it is a responsibility of government to force its children to go down the Mozart path).  The end result is a culture where it is felt music must be force-fed to any under-five who can stick a sticky finger on a keyboard and gurgle at the noise it makes.  Crowds of kids with about as much music in their brains as meat in a burger gather on a regular basis in these schools and are pushed beyond all reason to reveal their prodigious talents by passing, at incredibly young ages, those artificial steps to greatness which Mozart, sadly, was never able to experience; the graded music exams and the recital diplomas.  “My daughter did her grade 8 when she was 14”, “MY daughter did hers at 13”, “MY DAUGTHER did hers at 12, and has just done her ATCL”, “Well MY DAUGHTERS both passed their grade 8 at 8, their ATCLS at 9 and are doing their FTCLs at 10”.  I just know that, had the ABRSM been around in Leopold Mozart’s time, he would have boasted that “My Wolfie done his grade 8 when he was 6, and as an encore played the first book of Bach’s 48 Preludes with his feet, standing on his head”.

So the legend grows, and what was an inevitable consequence of being a talented son of a musician in the 18th century, has become an ideal to which so many parents aspire on the behalf of their children.  But they need to know the rest of the story.  Yes, debt, poverty and deprivation are one of the consequences of following the Mozart path, but so too is social and personal failings.  Mozart may have been a musical genius, but he was also a thoroughly awful person; unable to manage his affairs, dishonest, unhygienic and with a number of personal traits which, by today’s standards, would put him on the periphery of legality.

When I was young, my Saturday evenings were much brightened by a couple of talented entertainers whose television shows were unmissable.  There was Rolf Harris, whose infectious high spirits and brilliant method of painting – in which, over huge canvasses, he would paint live on TV something which, only with the very last stroke of the brush, revealed itself – made his shows unmissable, while Jimmy Savile, sitting in his luxurious leather chair and smoking his vast cigars, made the dreams of children come true before our very eyes.  There was the child who wanted to spend a day with the Prime Minister – Jim fixed it for her – and the one who wanted to drive a formula 1 car – Jim fixed it for him too. Every Saturday the tears would flow as yet another child’s life was unforgettably and very publicly enhanced by Jimmy’s intervention.  But we can’t talk of these things now.  Rolf Harris was accused of child sex, sent to prison, and is today regarded as a near-monster the very mention of whose name strikes terror into the hearts of all right-thinking people.  And as for Jimmy Savile, recognised today as probably the greatest sex predator of the modern age, were I to post this on Facebook, it would instantly be taken down as celebrating a man whose bad deeds shook civilized society to its core.  (This is the same morally-degenerate Facebook which, even today, still happily gives the oxygen of publicity to that deranged maniac who ran amok with his guns in Christchurch in a woefully misguided desire to achieve the kind of international publicity his mediocre existence up to that time had denied him.)

Nobody suggests that Mozart ran amok with any kind of weapon (although you could find Islamophobia in Così fan tutte if you looked closely enough), but there are suggestions that he indulged in sexual activities which in today’s society would make him a pariah, and which, had he lived in an age where his talent was exposed weekly to millions through the medium of television, he too, like Harris and Saville, would now be a name banned from public utterance.  But because he lived a long time ago and we choose to ignore his faults by focusing on his good points, he is still seen as a role model.

Mozart’s legacy has provided millions with real comfort and joy in the centuries since his death, but in his day that talent was recognised by only a very few.  Most people recognised him as a selfish, weak and disreputable individual.  We must not make the mistake of judging Mozart as we judge those talented people of our day who balance their talent for spreading happiness with one for spreading misery, but neither should we elevate him to godlike status when he was in life so deeply flawed.  If parents want their children to emulate Mozart, they are in effect, sentencing them to a life of social dishonour, misery and shame.  Let your children enjoy music for what it is, not for what it might bring in the way of fame and fortune, as fame and fortune all too often also bring shame and disgrace.

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