The genius of ersatz

Like a good sophist, I’ll begin this piece of publicity in the roundabout way I often do: with a bit of word trickery. The thematic word is ersatz, a German borrowing that breached English around the time of the First World War. Ersatz goods were those barely edible imitations of bread, coffee, and tea—made from potato starch, beans, and even catnip—that were sometimes served, in Axis and Allied countries alike, as a solution to wartime shortages. Literally meaning ‘substitute’ or ‘replacement’ in German, ersatz in its original sense lacks the unique connotations it has in English: cheap, phoney, synthetic and yet somehow much more unsavoury than the sum of these parts.

The specific associations of wartime that inflect ersatz are almost gone, and when a journalist uses this term of abuse she often singles out a sin against good taste. But there is the sense of a sin having been committed nonetheless. The Guardian seethes about the Academy Awards’ preference for ‘middlebrow ersatz’ rather than bold art films and while The New Yorker sneers at the ersatz ‘pseudo-tribalism’ of TV’s Survivor. In a bad mood, one may excoriate reality TV as an evil on par with the deprivations of wartime. But isn’t it a bit funny that ‘imitation’ and ‘replacement’ could become curse-words to identify these evils?

One can imagine an alternative history in which ersatz enjoyed a much more positive connotation. After all, the history of German art, like that of art in general, is the history of ersatz in its literal meaning. We talk of Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven as singular geniuses, Promethean figures that had the courage to challenge and capsize contemporary convention, as though their work isn’t itself a fruit of its time and place. But it was precisely because they imitated their predecessors so well, perfecting techniques they largely inherited, that they came ultimately to replace them. We don’t talk much anymore about Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, JS’s son. But after learning so much from his father, CPE repaid the compliment by dethroning him as Europe’s most famous Bach; a position CPE enjoyed for nearly two centuries. After all, it was CPE and not JS to whom Mozart was referring when he called Bach “the father of us all.” One wonders how Leopold, Mozart’s actual father, felt about this remark, since the formative impact of father on son is undeniable. Not only did Leopold closely and obsessively mentor Wolfgang from the time his son could walk, he worked collaboratively with Wolfgang to create the earliest compositions bearing WA Mozart as the author. Later, when Wolfgang was a more mature composer, he wrote to his father, “As you know, I can more or less adopt or imitate any kind and any style of composition.” A rare gift to be sure, but one at odds with the still fashionable Romantic image of the musical genius as a kind of social outsider whose art is the worldly embodiment of their unique soul.

If you’ve perused the brochure handed to you on the way in to the concert you’ll likely notice the prominent place given to both Bach and Mozart in the 2019/20 season. Among other instances of B&M, there’s Simone Dinnerstein’s November performance of Bach’s unsurpassable harpsichord concertos (performed on piano); Karina Gauvin and the Winnipeg Singers’ December performance of Bach cantatas, which are rarely performed in Winnipeg; and Aisslinn Nosky and Guy Fishman’s May performance of Mozart’s stunning Violin Concerto No. 2. But parts of our 2019/20 season are also touched by a spirit of ersatz, in the term’s positive sense I’ve been arguing for. At the last concert just mentioned, audiences will also be treated to CPE’s underplayed Cello Concerto in A major, exemplars of “the
most original composer during the 18th century” (Gramophone). In April, in addition to Wolfgang’s first symphony, we’ll hear a wonderful counterfeit Mozart symphony, written by CF Abel but passed off as Mozart’s, Leopold Mozart’s popular Toy Symphony, which imitates the sounds of a fair—great ersatz that won’t taste like catnip, but may have similarly intoxicating effects.

— Conrad Sweatman