Classical Music Buzz > Classical music | The Guardian > The Proms' neglect of Mozart mea...

Once fundamental to musical education, Mozart's symphonies are now being pushed to the cultural margins

Most people would find the claim that the modern world is seriously losing touch with the music of Mozart a ludicrous one. After all, Mozart is Mozart. He's up there as one of the most famous, most familiar and most esteemed composers in the whole history of classical music.

Nevertheless, the start of the 2012 Proms provides ammunition for exactly this charge of neglect. And although the same charge can also be made in respect of Mozart's place in concert planning more widely, the importance and excellence of the Proms as the pre-eminent classical music event of the year mean the charge is one to which the Proms ought to respond.

Turn to the 2012 Proms prospectus and you will find that this year's season features four pieces of music by Mozart. It's not a lot. But it is not the fact that there are only four pieces that concerns me – even though four is a smaller total than the number of works at this year's Proms by Bach, Beethoven, Boulez, Cage, Debussy, Delius, Elgar, Fauré, Handel, Ravel, Richard Strauss, Vaughan Williams or Wagner. No complaints either about the works themselves – the whole of the Marriage of Figaro, the Clarinet Concerto, the Flute Concerto No 2 and the overture to Don Giovanni.

What leaps out from this and other concert schedules of the modern era is the total absence of Mozart's symphonies. The Proms are still, after all, pre-eminently an orchestral music festival. The symphony is still the principal form of orchestral music. Mozart wrote 41 of them. They are among the most brilliant symphonic works ever written. Yet none of Mozart's symphonies features in the 2012 Proms. Not one of them.

This is not, I hope, a purely trainspotting complaint. Mozart is not George Lloyd, Havergal Brian, Granville Bantock or any of the other marginal composers whose neglect is routinely complained about in parts of the music press. He's Mozart, for goodness sake, one of the greatest musical geniuses the world has ever known.

Nor, crucially, is this year's Mozart symphony famine a one-off omission. It is, on the contrary, entirely typical of recent years at the Proms. There was no Mozart symphony performed in the whole of the 2011 season either. Nor any in 2009. Nor in 2007. Two years ago, 2010, there were two Mozart symphonies (Nos 35 and 40). In 2008 there was one (No 34).

Over the past six seasons (2007-12), therefore, there has been a grand total of three performances of symphonies by Mozart in about 450 orchestral Proms. That's poor commons for a major composer. In the same period, by way of comparison, there have been 32 symphonies by Beethoven (who wrote nine), 12 by Brahms (who wrote four), and 17 of Mahler's (who wrote 10). Considering the importance of Mozart and his symphonic output, this is a record of neglect.

But the dearth goes back further. With the exception of 2006, which was the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth and thus unignorable even by the Proms, Mozart's mature symphonies have been losing ground for several decades. Symphony No 32 has not been performed at the Proms since 1985 and No 33 since 1986. Most extraordinary of all in view of its stature among musicians of earlier generations, No 36 in C (the Linz Symphony) has not received a Proms performance since 1990 – 22 years ago.

That 1990 performance, moreover, was the last time that the BBC Symphony Orchestra – still the principal orchestra and spinal cord of the Proms – played a Mozart symphony in any Proms season. And none of London's other symphony orchestras has played a Mozart symphony at the Proms since 1994.

What is almost a striking, however, is the decline of the Mozart symphonies that have somehow got under the wire and have been performed at the Proms in the past decade or so. No 41 in C major (the Jupiter), which is without much argument one of the supreme works of the entire symphonic tradition, was played in nine successive Proms seasons between 1973 and 1981. But it hasn't featured at all at the Proms in the six seasons since the Mozart 250th anniversary year of 2006.

Nor has the almost equally important No 39 in E flat, once an absolutely staple work of the orchestral repertoire, which has received a mere two performances in the past 17 seasons. Even No 40 in G minor, the single most familiar Mozart symphony of them all to most people, is becoming seriously scarce, going from nine Proms performances in the 1950s and seven in the 1960s to three in the 1990s and three in the 2000s.

There are, of course, important reasons for this unarguable decline in the place of Mozart's symphonies, which cannot be laid solely at the door of the Proms. Changes in performance practice are surely the most significant, with symphony orchestras everywhere largely withdrawing from the pre-Beethoven repertoire in much of the orchestral world, and not just at the Proms.

But the period orchestras, which, at one time in the 1980s and early 1990s, seemed to have staked out Mozart as their own territory, now seem to have abandoned it in their turn, with nothing replacing them. With very occasional exceptions, the only times you will hear a Mozart symphony at the Proms or anywhere else nowadays is from a conductor of the old school – such as Bernard Haitink or, oddly in this context, Simon Rattle – who still finds these works have something to offer when performed by symphony orchestras.

The Albert Hall itself is another factor. Its great size and resonant acoustic make Mozart symphonies difficult to bring off there. But the same difficulty applies to music from the pre-Mozartian era too, and to some post-Mozart repertoire; and a lot of this gets vigorous support in the Proms. Tonight's Prom, for example, features the period instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment playing Handel.

So the other inescapable issue is that this is not a casual omission but deliberate neglect. I cannot see how the scarcity of Mozart symphonies at the Proms can be the result of anything but a conscious decision. It must have occurred to the Proms planners to programme Mozart symphonies from time to time. But the well is running drier and drier with every year that passes. (It is bad luck for the Proms that their excellent website provides such a wealth of information on past seasons to provide evidence for this case for the prosecution.)

So here's the fact. Mozart's orchestral music, which was part of the fundamental musical education of the public for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, is being systematically pushed to the margins of musical culture in the 21st. I think this is negligent and irresponsible. However, as there won't be another major Mozart anniversary until 2041 (250 years after his death in 1791), something has got to be done if the new generation of musicians is to be able to pass any sort of Mozart performing tradition on to its descendants and to the musically educated public.

The BBC, in particular, has responsibilities to Mozart's music which it is no longer discharging. It is the principal force of musical education in Britain. The buck stops with the all-powerful Roger Wright, director of the Proms and head of Radio 3. Will the man who has presided over this increasing marginalisation of Mozart's orchestral music be willing to change his tune? I'd like to think so. But the evidence all points in the other direction.

Martin Kettle
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