The sweet sound of piddling on flannel

It’s not the sort of thing you’re supposed to mention in cultured company, but some people can’t sta

In June, at Sadler's Wells, Mozart's unfinished opera Zaide was given a run-out. The composer abandoned the work in his mid-twenties; the manuscript was found after his death by his widow, Constanze, and even though the opera is missing its overture, third act and spoken text, it has been making frequent appearances recently (with the missing parts speculatively added). The critic Edward Seckerson, writing of the London production, said it contains "one glorious aria . . . and an assortment of other numbers which might be considered mediocre by Mozart's standards but which would more than cut the mustard by anybody else's". Within this judgement, another, implicit one is contained: Mozart is so great, so towering a talent, that even the works he abandoned occupy the highest points of the culture.

“Mozart's music is so beautiful as to entice angels down to earth," wrote Kleist. "In Bach, Beethoven and Wagner, we admire principally the depth and energy of the human mind; in Mozart, the divine instinct," said Grieg. "The most tremendous genius raised Mozart above all masters, in all centuries and in all the arts," said Wagner. Composers, writers and musicologists compete to find the aptest, most gushing, most spiritual, most totalising formulation for what seems a self-evident truth: Mozart was great, and his work somehow justifies us all.

And, as if it were the relic of a saint, Mozart's music makes miracles. This is from an online vegan blog: "Listening to Mozart can reduce the number of seizures in person [sic] afflicted with a rare form of epilepsy called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. Mozart's K448 piano sonata improve [sic] learning and mathematical skills, and increases spatial IQ by eight to nine points." This is the so-called Mozart Effect or, rather, "The Mozart Effect®", which bases its grand entrepreneurial claims on some largely discredited research conducted 20 years ago.

Mozart should not be held to account for the peculiarities of his enthusiasts. The composer's position is secure, unquestionable. As Simon P Keefe writes in his introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Mozart, "Judgements of greatness . . . seem somehow superfluous where Mozart is concerned. Respected and admired in all quarters, his music defines greatness, rather than being circumscribed by it."Not in all quarters, actually: Noël Coward, after attending a Mozart production at Glyndebourne, observed that it was like "piddling on flannel". The pianist Glenn Gould who, it was said, recorded all the piano sonatas just to show how bad they were, declared: "Mozart was a bad composer who died too late rather than too early."

And, I confess, I don't like Mozart either. I'm not musically trained, but I listen to music a lot. And if anything by Mozart should come on the radio, I'll recognise its author instantly by the physical effects the music produces in me - a queasiness in the gut, a distasteful irritation of the mind. My Mozart effect is a mild physical revulsion, as if I were being insistently and maliciously prodded.

I seldom talk about it. If I do, I'm likely to be disparaged or pitied. Occasionally, I'll be patronised, like a child who has said something remarkably, almost charmingly, wrong-headed. "Oh. How interesting. I've never heard anyone say that before." People generally don't talk about Mozart, except to agree how wonderful he is. In the company of an older, wiser and more accomplished man, I once admitted to my dislike for the composer. We had been getting on fine until that point, but the temperature in the room suddenly dropped. "To appreciate Mozart," he said, "is to reach human maturity." And, with that pronouncement, our friendship was over.

In Salzburg, the composer's birthplace, confectioners make the Mozartkugel, a marzipan ball surrounded by layers of praline and dark chocolate. This was a late-19th-century sweet, but the Mozart industry started soon after he died in 1791 at the age of 35. One of the first biographies was commissioned by Mozart's publishers to increase interest in his life and therefore sell more copies of his scores. Another was written by the second husband of the composer's widow, who depended on her first husband's work for an income. These books presented him as a kind of eternal child, who composed his 600-plus works with the same miraculous facility he first demonstrated as a boy virtuoso of the keyboard.

Each era invents its own Mozart. Before Beethoven appeared, he was seen as a Romantic. Not until the late 1830s did he become the universal "classical" genius. The painter Dela­croix spoke for his times when he admired Mozart for his sublime unity; Beethoven's music, he said, was "a long cry of pain". A couple of generations later, Tchaikovsky wrote: "Maybe it is precisely because, as a man of my times, I am broken and morally sick that I like to seek peace and consolation in Mozart's music, most of which is an expression of life's joys as experienced by a healthy, wholesome nature, not corrupted by introspection."

Nietzsche, too, put forward Mozart as a force for health, weighing Wagner's heaviness against the Austrian composer's "southern" airiness and finding it wanting. After the First World War, Mozart became a messenger from a happier past, a symbol of greatness, used to shore up against ruins. Our Mozart is still a late-20th-century one, given body in Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus and its film adaptation by Milos Forman: the scatological, giggling fool, someone whose character wasn't up to his genius. But it isn't the myths to which I especially object, it's the music. And recently I have made a discovery: my closest friends have a reaction similar to mine. One of them is a former pianist and media composer, Robert Lockhart, to whom I turned for a musicological explanation.

Lockhart showed me a typically Mozartian figure on the keyboard. It consisted of an Alberti bass, which is a repetition of broken chords played by the left hand, followed by an appoggiatura, a sort of musical sigh, played with the right. "You get it? It's a trick. A technical device to simulate emotion." Another Mozart trick was using double octaves, when both hands play the same melody, two octaves apart, to (supposedly) emotional effect.

“Highly symmetrical, predictable structures," Lockhart said of Mozart's usually praised "architecture". "They appeal to people who like their lives to be highly ordered. The sheer squareness of the structure rarely allows the material to grow organically." I wondered if there was a problem with using images from the natural world to describe music, but there was no stopping Lockhart: "Mozart very rarely surprises. There's no fear, no organic flow, no heart. His melodies are harmonically rooted; there's no freedom or independent melodic life. Something in his music exudes self-satisfaction: symmetry, everything is in place."

Lockhart excepted the operas from criticism because he hasn't paid much attention to them. And he exempted the slow movement of the Piano Concerto in A major, K488. I listened to it and quite liked it. And then I listened to an earlier concerto and the queasiness returned.

When I was a student, I believed in a sort of post-structuralist materialism. The text was, as Roland Barthes said, a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of culture. Its author was not to be considered, hardly to be mentioned. Once, in a seminar discussion, a less sophisticated fellow student quoted the musicologist Deryck Cooke: "The listener . . . makes direct contact with the mind of a great artist . . . mind meets mind, as far as is possible." How we scorned this primitive approach to the reception of art. But now I seem to be coming around to it.

What don't I like about Mozart's music? It's not just its unthinkingly unquestioned place at the summit of "our" culture; it's not the Kugeln of the Mozart industry; and it can't be just the symmetries of his musical structures, or the sound of a skilful composer performing the tricks of his trade. What I don't like about Mozart's music is Mozart.

David Flusfeder's latest novel is "A Film by Spencer Ludwig" (Fourth Estate, £11.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis