When I First Heard The Magic Flute, I Hated It. Now I Think It’s Brilliant. What Happened?

Pop, jazz, and classical.
April 10 2012 7:17 AM

Learning To Love Mozart

When I first heard The Magic Flute, I hated it. Now I think it’s among the greatest artworks ever created. What happened?

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In other words, as over the years we experience changes in artworks that fascinate us, we are really observing the changes in ourselves. What do I see now when I look at Rodin's Balzac? Hard to put into words a feeling that has evolved for so long, but I suppose the essence is that for me now the statue is all the above. In it I see the artist, specifically the Romantic artist—far-seeing, longsuffering, alone. And I see myself over the decades, creating and struggling and suffering and evolving—which is to say, doing my gig like Rodin and like everybody else.

Then there's the other side of the coin. Our experience of art goes in both directions. Of many examples in my life, it bemuses me to remember that I used to be a devotee of Philip Glass.

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What happened to divide me and Glass was simply this: Around 1973 I attended a concert of the Philip Glass Ensemble. At that point I was a country schoolteacher in Vermont preparing to go to grad school. With great excitement I shelled out some money I didn't really have and drove 100 miles to hear a Glass concert at Dartmouth. I walked into the hall a fan and walked out with a headache, my ears ringing, seriously pissed off. The once-so-cool hypnotic effect of the music now sounded to me unearned, all too easily achieved by the dumb device of repeating things over and over, like "A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall." Bach and Brahms and Bartók are multidimensional; they throw ideas and developments at you constantly. Glass boils all the possible dimensions of music down to one idea and beats you senseless with it.

So I dropped Philip Glass from my listening list. Whether history will do the same remains to be seen. What happens with works in the course of our lives is a microcosm of what happens to them over the decades and the centuries. That Mozart's contemporaries didn't understand or appreciate him is a myth. By his last years he was the most celebrated and best-paid composer alive—but he had a problem hanging on to money. What Mozart's time could not possess—as we can't possess on first hearing—is the perspective and resonance that time and history give a work and a creator. In the Romantic 19th century, Mozart was considered sort of a china-doll composer, elegant and perfect but not really serious. Only in the last decades have we rediscovered his demonic side, his passion and his strangeness. And, as in Die Zauberflöte, the reality that his music was intimately connected to the world. Only on the surface are Mozart's finest operas fluffy sex comedies or loopy fairy tales. But his operas also have wonderful tunes and unforgettable characters, without which the rest of it wouldn't matter. The prime example is the creaky, silly, and incomparable Zauberflöte.

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I’d like to invite readers to share your own stories of artworks, in any medium, that you only came to appreciate over time. Did your path of discovery track with mine of Die Zauberflöte? If not, how did it differ? Email your stories to slateculture@gmail.com. Keep it short, please—300 words or fewer. I'll present a selection of your stories in a follow-up piece.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.

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