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. 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 …