MORE BRESSON THAN MOZART

The New York Review of Books - - News - Joshua Rifkin Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts

To the Ed­i­tors:

Michael Wood, al­lud­ing to Robert Bresson’s prac­tice of let­ting quo­ta­tions speak for him [“Won­der­ful Chances,” NYR, May 25], writes, “When Mozart says of cer­tain works of his that ‘they are bril­liant . . . , but they lack poverty,’ he is close to the heart of Bresson’s aes­thet­ics.”

Mozart, un­for­tu­nately, never quite said this. The words come from a de­scrip­tion of his most re­cent piano con­cer­tos in a let­ter of De­cem­ber 28, 1782. In Mozart’s Ger­man, they read, “sind sehr Bril­lant ... ohne in das leere zu fallen . . .”—lit­er­ally, “they are very bril­liant... with­out falling into empti­ness,” or in Emily Anderson’s stan­dard trans­la­tion, “with­out be­ing va­pid.” In Henri de Cur­zon’s French trans­la­tion of 1888 the last bit be­came “sans tomber dans la pau­vreté.” Bresson, no doubt quot­ing by mem­ory, trans­formed this to “mais ils man­quent de pau­vreté,” thus get­ting still fur­ther from Mozart.

So what­ever the quo­ta­tion tells us about Bresson’s aes­thet­ics, it does not tell us about Mozart’s.

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