Is it fair to say Mozart had more natural talent than Bach?

Before answering this question, we have to unpack what ‘natural talent’ means. While there is no question that some people have more aptitude for particular tasks than others, I don’t think there is any evidence for true natural gift.

Certainly if you read the work of the Swedish psychologist Anders-Ericsson, you would be hard pressed to believe that in anything other than the most extreme cases and in specific kinds of activity there is such a thing as natural ability. Have a look here for an introduction to his ideas The Making of an Expert.

I am particularly convinced that this is the case in music. There is almost nothing in Western art music – including everything from Machaut to Katy Perry – that has a direct connection to naturally occurring phenomena except in the most general sense. The evidence relating to accumulation of skill overwhelmingly points to correctly directed practice as the clearest predictor of musical capability.

There is a lot more to be said on this subject but the general assumption that skill, both in general and specifically in music, is naturally gifted rather than acquired is a serious misconception. In an educational setting especially, this assumption is not just serious but enormously damaging.

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Be that as it may, let’s say that by your question you mean something like ‘Is it fair to say that Mozart had greater compositional fluency and imagination than Bach?’

On both counts I would say absolutely. I don’t think anyone can hold a candle to Mozart’s apparent compositional ease. It seems as if his greatest music was always there, it was just waiting for someone to unveil it. There is an apparent freedom and brilliance in his manipulation of harmony and melody in particular that is jaw droppingly extraordinary.

Bach, while also having a scarcely credible control over harmony in particular, is slightly more earthbound in general than Mozart. Although I think that Bach’s capacity to find emotional meaning in music is significantly more potent that Mozart’s (there is nothing in Mozart to match the St Matthew Passion, for example), there is always the possibility that you could figure out how Bach did it. You could run the process backwards and see how he pieced it all together.

With Mozart, there are large chunks of his music that I simply cannot imagine how he got there. The last movement of Symphony no.41, for example, or the finale of Act 2 of Figaro. There is music there that is so beautifully put together, so apparently effortless at the same time as being stunningly complex, that I am utterly lost by it.

Mozart had many advantages over Bach from a historical perspective – he was writing in a fully developed musical language and had an enormous range of the highest quality music to learn from in developing his own skill.

Certainly, there are many pieces by Mozart that do not display anything like this late brilliance. Much of his early music is, frankly, dull. Listen to Il re pastore and you would not believe that Figaro was even a possibility.

This is not to suggest that Bach was not a phenomenally skillful and imaginative composer. Look at the ridiculous pieces of counterpoint he created – fugues that play the same forwards as backwards, the same upside down as the right way round… The man had access to parts of the brain most of us cannot get anywhere near. Not only that but he had an extraordinarily vivid connection to the human experience: his sense of empathy is quite overwhelming at times.

For me, though, Mozart at his best has a stunning level of control over his musical language. His mastery is so complete that it seems to bypass all the mechanisms of music and simply exist in crystalline perfection.

 

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Published by

Robin Newton

Musician and teacher.

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