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Love That Mozart

The Life and Death of Mozart

by Michael Levey
Stein & Day, 278 pp., $8.95

The Life and Death of Mozart is an absurd labor of love. The author, Michael Levey, is a Keeper of Paintings at the National Gallery in London, an art historian, and a co-author of Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without, but his publishers assure us on the dust jacket that his great-grandfather was an Irish musician.1 Levey was stimulated to write this book, he believes, by receiving a popular illustrated work on Mozart in French as a present a few years ago, but his inspiration must surely date further back than that. His love of Mozart, uncomprehending and undiscriminating but clearly genuine, can be felt on every page.

Like every lover, Levey has an image of his beloved unrecognizable by a third party. His Mozart is not, of course, as different from mine as Robert Benchley’s Mozart, who never wrote a bar of music until he was ninety (“The Mozart that I meant was Arthur Mozart, who lived at 138th Street until he died, in 1926, at the age of ninety-three”). But Levey’s Mozart seems not to have written the revolutionary piano concerto K 271 (which Alfred Einstein called Mozart’s Eroica Symphony) or the Fantasy in C Minor (the most dramatic piano piece of the eighteenth century), the Viola Quintet in C Major (the grandest, most imposing example of chamber music before Beethoven), or even the String Trio (Divertimento) in E flat Major (the greatest work in its medium of all time)—at least, if he did, Levey has no time to mention them. His treatment of the early operas is, however, extensive, and, I hope, exhaustive.

The author’s lively style, which makes his book consistently readable, displays the obtuse, good-humored elegance mastered by so many contemporary English art historians. Levey’s picture of the domestic side of Mozart’s life is provocative and imaginative, not to say inventive. We are told, for example, of “Mozart’s precociously wide knowledge of chambermaids,” and Levey enlarges this entertaining perspective by musing on its influence on the musical portrayal of chambermaids in Mozart’s operas. The basis for these artful conjectures is the eleven-year-old Mozart’s pleasure in receiving a verse letter from a lifelong friend of the Mozart family with a taste for poetry, a lady attached to the household of Count Felix Arco, Chief Chamberlain of Salzburg. There is no evidence for Levey’s additional surmise that little Mozart was petted by servants everywhere on his travels, but all these details enliven the book by building up a picture of childish erotic sensibility.

Levey gives constant life to his narrative by a play of imaginative sympathy, which never rests content with the obvious. If the young Mozart wiped his face after being kissed by a lady harpsichordist, it is not simply because the kiss was moist—Levey’s powers of visualization are already a step ahead: “she, we may guess, seemed either ugly or old, or both.” The events of Mozart’s life inflame Levey’s fancy in the same way that tiny pieces of grit irritate an oyster. In such fashion the difficult, complex reality of Mozart’s relations with his father is transformed into a colorful pattern of popular Freudianism. Unaccountably, Levey neglects the fruitful possibilities of the clearly manic-depressive element in Mozart’s correspondence: a wild, exhilarated overconfidence followed some weeks later by a bitter sense of hostile conspiracy and frustration.

In dealing with Mozart’s musical activity, Levey is hampered by his unfamiliarity with the musical background. He effectively narrates the reception of Mozart’s new symphony in Paris:

The last movement opens in exaggerated quietness, and builds up—quickly—to a crescendo. At the piano passage the audience—as Mozart had expected—shushed each other; at the forte, they broke into applause.

But he leaves out the point of the joke (there is also no crescendo, but no matter), which is that the Paris orchestra was famous for its opening coup d’archet, that is, for starting a piece with a brilliant forte display of ensemble. “They begin together here the way they do everywhere else,” wrote Mozart sarcastically, and the finale of his symphony opens with the second violins playing softly by themselves.

Levey is most interesting and most instructive where he is least original, in his attempt to deal with the problem of talking about music: How can we describe it, how can it be related to the composer’s life? Here is the way Levey grapples with description:

The first movement unfolds like a bale of shot silk, soothingly smooth and sensuously delightful, rippling as if drawn so rapidly through some ring that the very material turns liquid as it flows. Then it runs more slowly, and a different, darker hue is seen, still sensuous but sensuously rich….

Shot silk becomes, in the adagio, the deepest, heaviest of velvets, unfolded with almost painful slowness as the clarinet begins, and the orchestra joins in, a stately threnody. What was liquid grows thickly viscous, scarcely oozing, and appearing rather to accumulate sweetness as it is stored up, half-honey, half-amber, a precious substance mellowing in a late summer which it seems will never end.

It may be thought at first blush that this does not need criticism but defense.2 Above all, it calls for sympathy and comprehension: as recently as ten years ago, record jackets and symphony programs were decorated with similar passages, and before they become obsolete we should try to understand what inspired them.

What is most obvious about this method of description is, of course, its use of synesthesia, particularly the appeal to the sense of touch. The materials Levey sets before us are luxury products, velvet and shot silk, which give his poetry a genuine commercial resonance. (Corduroy, although it also produces an interesting play of light, would be unwelcome in such a context.) Here we can call upon a professional and expert witness on Levey’s behalf. Richard Strauss, writing about Salome, spoke of finding harmonies that “twinkled like taffeta.”

What Levey is doing (and Strauss too) is not describing the music, at least not in the usual sense of description: the metaphors are not there to make anything more easily recognizable or to point out features of the music that had previously gone unremarked. The writing does not describe but arouses and stimulates. Levey seeks by his prose to awaken in the reader the sensations he would have if he were listening to the music. The music is being sold.

The technique is an outgrowth of what the French call le style artiste, developed by the brothers Goncourt, a style designed not to make the reader see or understand, but to feel—quite literally to share the sensations of disgust, fear, and desire of the characters of the novel. To write about music in this way, we must first reduce it to the sensations it produces, its purely physical effect, and try to reproduce that effect by calling into play the interchange and correspondence between the senses.

There is already a word half-naturalized in English for reproducing the immediate physical effect of art while eliminating the rest: kitsch. It is only a pity that the word has an exclusively pejorative connotation as it represents something inevitably and permanently attractive: art without art, art without pain, which demands nothing of us but a wholeheartedly passive response. It is true, however, that to reduce Mozart’s music to that aspect which it has in common with kitsch is to diminish it.

To place the music in the setting of a composer’s life sets us before a more fundamental difficulty. Mozart’s music is clearly intelligible without the slightest knowledge of his life. It is even doubtful that we need to know much about the eighteenth century to understand a Mozart quartet. A work by Mozart (or anyone else) is in this sense outside history,3 and this is no accident, as it was designed to be understood beyond the narrow boundaries of the little culture in which it was created. When a composer hoped for immortality—as Mozart did—this escape from history was quite simply what he intended and worked for. What then does a knowledge of Mozart’s life and world add to our comprehension or our appreciation of his music? Of course, there are trivial aspects of the music, like Mozart’s little joke with the Paris orchestra, that require a specialized knowledge, but every biographer and historian hopes for something more significant and more essential.

Levey’s way of handling this problem is as forthright as it is routine. For him, as for many others, a Mozart symphony is a direct personal expression, a communication from the artist to the public. He therefore seeks for a correspondence between the emotions he finds expressed in, say, the last three symphonies and the circumstances of Mozart’s life. When he finds this correspondence—as with the tragic G minor symphony—then the work contains Mozart’s “personal sensations” (to use Levey’s unhappy phrase). When he does not find it—as with the E flat—then the work shows Mozart “outsoaring circumstances.” There is an unacknowledged assumption in all of this that the more striking the work, the more personal it must be. It is not clear why this should be so. The Jupiter Symphony is in some ways more traditional than the other symphonies, and Levey therefore finds it disappointing, which I would have thought made him unique among writers on Mozart, but he cites some anonymous critical support for this view.

Levey is aware that this approach no longer commands the assent it once had, and he has written a defense of it:

Such an equation has perturbed some critics who fear too pat a correlation between an artist’s life and his art, but the artist’s personality can hardly remain unaffected by experience. Of course, Mozart may have privately overcome—perhaps had necessarily to overcome—his actual sensations of misery and despair, before they could find any expression in the music of the G minor symphony. But it cannot be denied that he had undergone those sensations. It would be a strange obtuseness to refuse them any part whatsoever in the most starkly despairing of his symphonies; and to argue that they are not present there because they apparently play no part in either the E flat or the “Jupiter” symphonies is to show a poor acquaintance with the human mind. (Some judicious disagreement round this point is recorded by the editors of The Mozart Companion with their contributor E. Larsen, who is particularly anxious to believe that Mozart remained “classic” and that both G minor symphonies are just examples of Mozart “seeking to master all the varieties of expression.”)

It may be worth adding that even if the “Jupiter” expresses such a very different mood, this itself could be explicable by the fact that so much pain had been poured into the vessel of the previous symphony.

Here Levey has abandoned his usually straightforward approach for a more devious one. The mysterious E. Larsen may be unmasked as Jens Peter Larsen, the greatest of the Haydn scholars of this century, and it is a pity that his essay was disfigured by the footnotes that Levey admires. Larsen did not, of course, believe that Mozart remained classic in the sense that the composer’s experience played no role in his art, but that the style of Mozart’s symphonies, unlike that of the works of Schumann and Berlioz, does not admit an identification between the expression of the music and a particular sensation or experience of the composer.

A work by Schumann deliberately abolishes the boundary between art and life: it is full of personal allusions, scraps of themes by his wife, anagrams of the musical notes that spell out names and towns of private importance. The listener can sense, and is meant to sense, the private world behind the music. Mozart’s music makes no such references, and any equation between its expressive content and a specific trauma in Mozart’s life is a critical excrescence upon the work. There is nothing that allows us to associate the tragic emotion of the G minor symphony with Mozart’s “black thoughts” of June 27, 1788, as Levey does; we cannot even say that they prompted its composition. A triad of works each with a different affective character was commonplace at the time. As for “black thoughts,” Mozart needed no specific impulse. Even a very young child has experienced a despair as black and as deep as that expressed by the G minor symphony. What Mozart created was an artistic language to express any emotion.

If a work of art is to be considered as part of history, it must be protected by mediation, and traditionally this function is performed by the concept of style. To do away with this concept is to erase the history of art, as the concept of style simply expresses the conviction that the work of art may be intrinsically located in time and space. The qualities of a symphony of Mozart that enable us to date it and to ascribe it to him make it part of eighteenth-century style, of Viennese Classical style, and of Mozart’s own personal style. None of these styles can justifiably be construed as admitting the expression of a private emotion. A private reference within them necessarily takes the form of wit, for they are all public styles, perhaps the greatest public styles in music. Levey does not put the works back into Mozart’s life, he tries to force the life into the works, with none of the respect for their integrity and for their independent existence that they demand.

  1. 1

    The great-grandfather, Richard Michael Levey (real name O’Shaugnessy; 1811-1899) was, according to Grove’s Dictionary, a conductor and prolific composer of pantomimes. He also conducted the first performance of Puss in Boots by Charles Villiers Stanford, written when that future academic glory of English music was only eight years old.

  2. 2

    I note that this passage has already caught other reviewers’ attention. There are many like it in the book, but it does, indeed, represent Levey at the summit of his powers.

  3. 3

    As Walter Benjamin said, we can write the history of forms or the history of techniques, but not the history of works of art.

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