Mozart: Portrait of a Genius
Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese School, 1740–1780
Mozart was famous in his day, first as an infant prodigy, later as a pianist and composer, especially of opera, and although his reputation later had its ups and downs it cannot be said that he has ever been neglected. There is consequently a huge bibliography, and the quantity of biographical material available is surprising until one reflects that he flourished at a time when the modern respect for recorded detail, and the Romantic cult of genius, were just getting going. Composers were gradually disengaging themselves from aristocratic patrons and establishing the right to explore the market and be respected on their own account. We think of Mozart as the friend of Haydn and Beethoven, though he was also the absconding servant of the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg and a favored employee of the Emperor Joseph II.
Like other great men of his day Mozart left a sizable body of correspondence, and it is from that and from other contemporary sources that we know so much about him. Modern scholarship, following up the work of nineteenth-century researchers, has added so much information concerning his life and his music that biographers can’t help sounding disappointed that there remain some gaps in their knowledge, brief periods when they don’t know quite what he was up to, whether a hiatus in a reassuring correspondence with his wife means that he was having an affair, exactly what he died of, and so on. There is another and greater cause for despondency: in the end it seems difficult or even impossible to explain the prodigiousness of Mozart’s achievement, which is after all the main reason for their laborious inquiries. A great quantity of music, much of it of an originality we still don’t fully value, was written in a short life—a life interrupted by arduous travel, by the requirements of patrons, by the demands placed on him by recitals and opera rehearsals and teaching chores. He had to maintain his own growing family and a father who made righteous but unreasonable claims on him. And he had an irrepressible wish to enjoy himself, to spend money.
He was capable, and needed to be capable, of almost incredible exertions. To take as an example his last year, 1791: Mozart, according to his own tally, produced the B flat Piano Concerto (K. 595), the last String Quartet, The Magic Flute, La Clemenza di Tito, the Clarinet Concerto, the unfinished Requiem, and many other pieces, including church music, Masonic cantatas, and numerous dances for balls at court, no doubt written with some reluctance but with assiduous respect for the fine orchestra that would play them. Yet this was also the time when he is conjectured to have had an unknown number of love affairs and particularly onerous family responsibilities. He was, for reasons that are not fully understood, very short of cash and making urgent appeals for loans. Not surprisingly, he also found time to suffer from bouts of melancholy. By November he was terminally ill. There is…
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