Everyone knows who the Three B’s are: Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms (with apologies to Boccherini, Berlioz, Babbitt, and other snubbed B’s). But who are the Big Three, letters aside? Most would say Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, though there will always be debate.

Comes now a book about the first two of those three. It is titled Bach and Mozart: Essays on the Enigma of Genius. It is by Robert L. Marshall, an esteemed musicologist, a professor emeritus at Brandeis University. I have known him for many years, and have learned from him. Anyone would.

The new book gathers some fifteen essays, on Bach alone, Mozart alone—and the two of them together. Marshall writes about “Bach and Luther” and “Mozart and Amadeus.” (That would be the famous play by Peter Shaffer, made into a hit movie by Miloš Forman.) He also writes about, for example, “Bach and Mozart: Styles of Musical Genius.”

There are anecdotes, which I love, particularly this one: A choir treated Mozart to a motet. Shortly into it, he called out, with wondering joy, “What is this?” It was Bach, of course. After the motet was over, Mozart said, “Now, there is something one can learn from!”

Bach wanted you to learn from him. He wanted to glorify God and edify man. Mozart wanted mainly to please man. Marshall talks about these different motives. For Bach, music was revelation, Marshall says; for Mozart, it was self-expression.

I love what Goethe said, on first hearing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier: “as if the eternal harmony were conversing within itself as it may have done in the bosom of God just before the creation of the world.”

I also love what Mozart said: “Music must never offend the ear, but must please the listener, or in other words must never cease to be music.”

If, indeed, Bach was trying to please God, and Mozart was trying to please man, neither one ever failed to please, I think we can say. And in his God-pleasing, Bach did a lot of man-pleasing, didn’t he? And surely God smiled, and smiles, on Mozart . . .

Marshall says that Mozart always knew how to behave, with all types of people. He was “a role-player throughout his life,” a “perpetual actor.” And “this may also explain in part why he was a great dramatist.”

Mozart “was able to create such credible characters on stage, characters ranging from Monostatos and Papageno to Sarastro, from Zerlina to the Countess, because he possessed an almost limitless capacity to empathize.”

Who else does this sound like? I immediately thought of Shakespeare, and chances are you did too.

The last piece in Marshall’s book is called “Had Mozart Lived Longer: Some Cautious (and Incautious) Speculations.” Wonderful subject, which Marshall handles with characteristic mastery. Mozart would have finished his Requiem—that’s for sure. What else?

He would have composed more operas, including one on Goethe’s Faust, probably. (Gounod, in that case, probably would have left that drama alone.) He probably would have composed a Shakespeare opera, and it may well have been Hamlet. (In that case, would Ambroise Thomas have begged off?)

Get this: Mozart would almost certainly have taught Beethoven (who was taught for a while by Haydn instead, after Mozart died). What effect would that have had? On Beethoven and Mozart both?

Mozart loved to travel. He was, says Marshall, “one of the most widely traveled individuals of his time.” Mozart himself once said, “A fellow of mediocre talent will remain a mediocrity whether he travels or not; but one of superior talent (which without impiety I cannot deny that I possess) will go to seed if he always remains in the same place.”

Marshall speculates, not implausibly, that Mozart at some point would have come to the New World—to America. I think he would have loved it, and it him.

This is fun stuff. And Professor Marshall throughout his book is learned, meticulous, and deep.

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