The Viennese Muses

The Letters of Mozart and His Family

edited by Emily Anderson, Second edition prepared by A. Hyatt King and Monica Carolan
St. Martin's (2 volumes), 1032 pp., $40.00

Musicians are inclined to argue that the quantity of paper described above is a mere superfluity, that if you are interested in Mozart there is plenty to listen to; but this seems at best prim and at worst a sacrifice of pleasure to a puritanical aesthetic—it simply complies with the pretense, very common in theoreticians of all the arts, that our minds and imaginations suddenly become preternaturally pure when we are listening to music or looking at pictures or reading. It was not only knowledge but the experience of a particular world that made Mozart a better composer at the end than earlier on, and it seems very perverse to suggest that we are not better listeners for improving ourselves similarly. And some relevant knowledge can be had from books of this kind.

I had never read right through the letters, and now that this re-issue of Emily Anderson’s famous edition has given me the chance to do so I feel free to advise others who may have been similarly negligent to do likewise. All the composer’s letters, including the dirty ones, are included; there are a great many of Leopold’s as well, and one or two by Mozart’s mother, who shared the family interest in ordure. I won’t say there are no trivial and boring pages, or that Wolfgang is especially endearing or interesting as a person. Also one might, unfairly, complain that he regularly failed to discuss what one would like him to have discussed. The fact is that the only musician he ever wrote to was Leopold; he naturally didn’t do so when they were together, and in the last and greatest years of his life there was a coolness inhibiting correspondence. So many of the supreme works are hardly mentioned at all. Otto Erich Deutsch’s documents* partly fill the gap by recording some contemporary discussion. And there are crumbs of consolation in the letters—tough professional notes on virtuosi and singers and librettists, a long commentary on Osmin’s angry aria in Die Entführung; we might prefer another aria, but this is an aspect of the randomness of letter-writing, which produces compensating benefits.

The place of Mozart in the society of his day seems to me of legitimate musical interest. He was famous throughout his life, or anyway from the age of six. The Pope made him a Knight of the Golden Spur at fourteen, and his last illness, though he died poor, seems to have been a cause of general anxiety and concern. Unlike Gluck, who had the same papal decoration, he rarely called himself Chevalier, though Leopold had him painted wearing the Order. It would, however, be wrong to assume that he was indifferent to it. He was a gentleman, even a nobleman. His fury at the Archbishop Colleredo’s treatment of him has of course something to do with the slighting of his talent, but more with his sense of outraged honor.

THE WORRY ABOUT STATUS was one among many inheritances from Leopold. The…

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