What would Mozart think?

Rosa Parks rides the bus with me these days. Ever since she passed away, on October 25th last year, our local bus systems have immortalized her by dedicating seats (in the front) to her, even silkscreening her image on the window so it looks like she’s sitting there.

The bus systems are doing their best to respect her memory, keep it dignified. Still, it’s a quirky way to be remembered.

I read a book telling the story of Rosa’s heroic act, and it was no accident. She didn’t merely stay seated, a tired black seamstress. She was an activist, and the event that got her arrested and provoked the famous Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott was an opportunity, carefully planned for by the leaders of the civil rights movement.

One of those leaders, of course, was Martin Luther King, whose birthday was celebrated a few weeks ago. News organizations reported some difficulties with the 20-year-old holiday and the memory of Dr. King. One blog was entitled, “Did Anyone Notice Martin Luther King Day?” A New York Times article mentioned a lawsuit between the family and CBS News, saying “the family has long been criticized by scholars for its aggressive profit-making approach to Dr. King’s legacy.” One new book alleges that King had extramarital affairs.

Still, there are no sales on MLK day. Most people know that you’re not supposed to spend money on gifts or cards, and the t-shirts for sale are mostly inspirational images.

“It’s supposed to be a day of service,” said my friend Tina, who works for the University of Washington and had the day off. The UW, which has over 23,000 employees, had gotten the message out, organizing volunteer opportunities and work parties for charities.

Like Rosa Parks’ moment of protest, the “day of service” message about January 16th is also no accident. King’s estate works actively with chambers of commerce and business groups, convincing them not to put on MLK day sales. The Corporation for National Service has a website, www.mlkday.gov, listing service projects and urging Americans to participate.

I think King would be satisfied with the way his holiday is celebrated. His name has not been defamed or belittled, and if the holiday isn’t as big as it should be, that’s because his work is still not done.

At the other extreme, we have January 27th. Today is the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birthday, and Austria is going crazy. It’s a tourism event.

Unlike MLK, Mozart doesn’t have anyone to protect his name. According to one branding expert, “If (his name) was protected and did have an owner, there’s no way that you’d just let someone slap the name on a salami.”

Someone has slapped his name on a salami, and some chocolate, and a milkshake. In the absence of such protection, the commercial side of things has gone crazy. There are the usual Mozart t-shirts and mugs and bags and calendars. There are Mozart golf balls, despite the fact that he was Austrian and golf is a Scottish invention. And my favorite, a bra that plays “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” when you unfasten it.

Based on the confused but party-loving fellow portrayed in the movie “Amadeus,” back in the mid-1980s, I don’t think Mozart would mind terribly. In our day and age, classical music is serious stuff, not to be taken lightly. But there was as much humor in past ages as there is now, and I find a lot of it in Mozart’s music. Like Shakespeare, it’s not all tragedy.

Mozart died penniliess, but his music accounts for 25% of classical music sales. Austria’s national tourist board estimates that the Mozart brand is worth $8.8 billion. If he had a sense of humor, as I think he did, he’d probably find the irony funny.

I wonder if Rosa Parks would mind if I move up to her seat?