The Disappointing Brilliance of Mozart


I both love and hate Mozart.  So much of his music is so very astounding, in its breadth, its difficulty, and the complexity of its construction.  From my perspective, though, there is a difference between his best and his run-of-the-mill great that says something about the man, and about us as lovers of the man.


Mozart bears a reputation for having been able to great work after great work without much effort.  In fact, Mozart worked incredibly hard to become a person that could compose “so easily.”  He was trained by his father, a great teacher, from the age of 4, and spent the first half of his life learning an unbelievable amount from the composers before and around him.  


Yet the man who composed “as the sow piddles” (his words) took several years to write his six Opus 10 “Haydn” String Quartets, and they are remarkably more substantial than many of his other works.  Don Giovanni, his Clarinet Quintet, the first two minutes of his Requiem, all show signs of a real struggle to be the best he could be.  What bothers me about him is that the rest of his works, the ones he worked less hard at, are also brilliant.


A friend of mine went to see Paul Simon’s farewell tour.  He really liked it, thought Paul and the musicians were top notch, and had no complaints.  He said, though, that he was disappointed that there was “no danger.”


I think he was talking about a real sense of uncertainty about the outcome, an element of risk that young performers manifest much more often than most older ones.  It’s that sense of risk that’s missing in so much of Mozart’s work.  But it’s hard to tell, because it’s so brilliant.


That’s a problem:  when you’re so good at something that you can hide behind it.  I’m sure Mozart wasn’t always hiding…sometimes he was just trying to make money and dashed off a piece which just happened to be great because he was.  But so often when I listen, I find myself missing that connection to the man, and I leave feeling like I’ve been hoodwinked or misdirected.


Certainly most of Mozart’s music is performed and loved everywhere, even the brilliant but risk-free compositions, and it makes lots of performers and listeners happy.  Isn’t that enough?  What’s the harm?


The harm for our world is that we mistake brilliance for substance.  By setting the standard at “sounds great, can’t find a flaw in it,” we make ourselves used to the idea that appearances are  more important than processes, that as long as the sausage tastes great why ask what’s in it?  We reward success over the attempt.


For ourselves the danger is even more pernicious.  If I am satisfied, even delighted, with being celebrated for my brilliance, I’ll keep shooting for that.  I may lose the capacity to surprise or surpass myself.


The world is full of birth and death.  Nothing is ever allowed to stay the way it is.  By attempting to find a stasis in brilliance, we hasten the death of whatever it is that brought us to this moment.


Right now a certain judge is being rewarded for his brilliance.  He is being given a pass by millions of people because they would rather praise his brilliance than ask about the process that got him there.  What’s the harm?  


Are you guilty of brilliance?  Am I?  What do you think we ought to do about it?


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Adam Cole is a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books.  Author, educator and performer, Adam chats weekly on the subject of listening, creativity and living your best life.  To take a quiz on what kind of music warrior you are, please visit


Darcy B Hamlin October 01, 2018 @08:33 am

OK I am going to make a shameful and blasphemous confession here and say that while I enjoy some Mozart, his brilliance doesn't compare in my mind to, say, Bach, or Stravinsky. Or even Rossini, whose comic operas are MUCH funnier (both libretto and music-wise) than Mozart's. Also, I don't think you can claim that that "certain judge" is all that brilliant when he doesn't appear to understand that what he didn't write in his college calendar does NOT constitute proof. Felons don't usually record their crimes in writing, do they? Just sayin'. ;)

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