The Case Against Nyman Revisited: “Affirmative” and “Critical” Evidence in Michael Nyman’s Appropriation of Mozart

Carlo Cenciarelli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Michael Nyman’s notorious appropriations of pre-existing music have been traditionally dismissed as facile and parasitical and thus unworthy of a serious critical investigation. I analyse three instances of Nyman’s reuses of Mozart’s music arguing that the recognition of their ‘plagiaristic’ quality should not be the basis for a quick dismissal but the starting point for a discussion of their musical and cultural significance. My focus is on the ideological and expressive needs that Mozart served through the trajectory of Nyman’s practice from and beyond the aesthetic limitations of minimalism. In Re Don Giovanni (1977) (based on Il Catalogo e’ Questo from Don Giovanni), reveals Nyman’s intentional ‘confusion’ of Mozart’s stylistic codes and Apollonian aesthetic markers with minimalist notions of reduction, repetition and simplicity. I argue that this ‘confusion’ served Nyman to use Mozart as a ‘cultural pivot’ to efface distinctions between high and mass culture and situate his own music across the Great Divide. In Trysting Fields (1988) (based on K364), I suggest, Nyman uses Mozart as a Mask, to introduce expressivity while at the same time striving to preserve the ideals of impersonality and objectivity proper to the experimental tradition in which he consciously situated himself. Finally, the analysis of I am an Unusual Thing (1991), the last of Nyman’s appropriations of Mozart (specifically of quartets K428, i and K465, ii), points towards the construction of a different Mozart, a Dionysian Mozart that both mediates and reflects Nyman’s move towards a post-minimalist restoration of the expressive apparatus of tonality.
Original languageEnglish
JournalRadical Musicology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2006

Cite this