Damn You to Hell, Eric Alterman!

Eric AltermanIt must be that Eric Alterman doesn’t get much mail.

Certainly, he is kind of an old-fashioned guy. He doesn’t allow comments on this “blog.” And he doesn’t post all the time. I hate Fridays because it is the beginning of the weekend, and there are lots of reasons to hate the weekend. But there are three reasons to be excited about Fridays: Paul Krugman‘s second column of the week, FAIR’s CounterSpin, and Eric Alterman. On Fridays, on his The Nation blog, he provides links to what he’s written during the week in addition to an article by the always interesting Reed Richardson.

On 27 January of this year, he posted an article called The Winter of Our Discontent. Ah, anyone quoting Richard III is a friend of mine. In the article, he mentions going to see a number of plays and concerts and generally makes me feel bad that my life sucks so badly. But he opens the article with two things that brought a smile to my face:

If you’ve been reading “Altercation” for a long time, then you may have heard my argument that I prefer Shaw to Shakespeare (and not that it’s relevant, Mozart to Beethoven).

Okay. Yes, Shaw is generally a lot better than Shakespeare and it is nice to see others admit to this. But I was especially happy to hear him say that he prefers Mozart to Beethoven. In general, in the classical world, Beethoven is thought to be better. And there is no doubt he is great, but I tend to think he appeals more to the young. Certainly I loved him when I was a teenager. But now, that whole century of Romantic music more annoys than anything else. Again, however: I still enjoy Beethoven, especially compared to the likes of Schumann and Wagner.

More than this, however, much of people’s appreciation for Mozart comes down to this argument that I’ve heard ad nauseum, “It’s too bad Mozart died so young, otherwise he might have developed into… [wait for it] Beethoven!” This is ridiculous. Yes, it is tragic that Mozart died so young (but it would have been a good deal more tragic had he died at 30, given the amazing things he created during that last five years). But had he lived longer, he would have developed into… older Mozart. His artistic trajectory was not to Beethoven. Mozart didn’t have Beethoven’s peevish musical temperament.

Then, on 2 February, Alterman printed a letter:

Ben Willis


Dear Alterman,

Over the years I have had my issues with some of your opinions (most notably Ralph Nader, and your unwavering support for the Democratic party), but now I understand why you write the things you do. Mozart over Beethoven?!?!?!? Are you serious? Mozart was a lyrical genius. Every musical idea he wrote was melody and no doubt his appeal is universal, yet his compositions never reached the transcendence of those by Ludwig van Beethoven. I challenge you to compare any of Mozart’s works for string quartets or chamber ensembles with Beethoven’s late quartets. Ops. 127, 130, 131, 132, 135 and the glorious Grosse Fuge revolutionized music and can be heard not only as romantic works but as precursors to the modern age where the sound of the notes/chords themselves are as important as to how those musical ideas fit within the hierarchy of the key or the rigidity of phrase forms that mark Mozart’s oeuvre. There is also the slight issue of the position of Beethoven’s symphonies within the pantheon of great repertoire of the “classical” music. Not even Mozart’s “Jupiter” can compare with any one of LVB’s more well known symphonies such as; the “Eroica” (3rd), the iconic 5th, the Pastoral (6th), the Tanze (7th), and the glorious Ninth. (Not to mention the underrated 8th and the almost unknown Missa Solemnis which is considered Beethoven’s Tenth). Ok, Mozart has his operas and Beethoven only has one. Mozart has his twenty-something piano concerts. But Beethoven’s five are outstanding and the sonatas for Hammerklavier are light years ahead of anything Mozart wrote for the soloist.
 I thank you for the review of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. Some of my friends, including Claudia, were there playing that night. I also know Scott Ligon of NRBQ from way back in his Peoria days. I’m glad you’re covering these events. But please save the missive about Mozart over Beethoven for some other forum.

Eric replies:

Dear Ben,

I’m sorry. I should have pointed out that I’m a complete philistine when it comes to such things. I’m sure you’re right (and I’m not being sarcastic) but to be fair to me, I mentioned only as way of mentioning the Shaw/Shakespeare thing.

What? To begin with, I love how Ben just throws Mozart’s most important work (his operas) aside, “Yeah. He wrote a few operas.”[1] And there’s the whole thing of claiming that Alterman said that Mozart was better than Beethoven when he only said he preferred him. But that’s not the main thing. I couldn’t believe that Alterman would betray our cause for so little cause. So I popped off an email to the scoundrel. Either Eric Alterman doesn’t get much mail, or he has a soft spot for petulant little music snobs (Ben and me): he printed my letter:

Frank Moraes
Santa Rosa


I can’t believe you are backtracking on Mozart just because Ben Willis of Queens blinded you with an obscure intellectual-sounding argument that said nothing. Music isn’t about argument, it is about pleasure. And in the end, arguments are just intellectual exercises to justify what one feels. My regard for Mozart grows every year. Although I admire Beethoven, I cannot say the same for him. When I read your parenthetical aside, I was gleeful. You are *not* a philistine. Ben is a prat!

Eric replies:

Thanks Frank. I’m not sure I “backtracked.” I just admitted that my preference need not carry much weight in the world of classical music. I still prefer Mozart, but I never argued he was in any way “better.” Someone could prefer, say, Peter Frampton to Bruce Springsteen, and I would think that’s ok. Taste is taste. But if they argued that he was “better”—as I heard so frequently in the years 1976 and 1977, well, them’s were fightin’ words.

This is coming off last week’s column about a 20 minute conversation he had with The Boss. He is so deft at sticking the knife in and twisting it simultaneously. I am, as it turns out, well aware that his life is infinitely better than mine.

Damn you to hell, Eric Alterman!

[1] Fun fact: “opera” is the plural of “opus.” But the plural of “opera” (the ones we are talking about) is “operas.” This could be confusing. A composer’s first ten compositions are opera one through ten. Would ten such composers’ opera be the operas one through ten? I suppose not, but isn’t it pretty to think so?

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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