by Wolfgang Hildesheimer, translated by Marion Faber
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 408 pp., $22.50

Mozart is devoted to the elucidation of an enigma and is itself somewhat enigmatic in its initial presentation. For it is not formally announced as a biography of Mozart, and no subtitle serves to define or clarify its scope. Nor is it divided into chapters that might indicate the path to be traversed. Even the dust jacket strikes a mysterious note. It depicts a serene Mozart at the keyboard, apparently playing a piece in E flat by “M. Sendak” (who drew the picture), and watched by a Papageno figure. Mozart’s face, though relaxed, is as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa’s.

Yet Wolfgang Hildesheimer should be credited with having found a form suitable to his purpose. He has chosen to write an extended, discursive essay, vastly expanded from a lecture first given in 1956, and rewritten three times since then. Its scale would allow it to be described as a “biographical study.” Although a narrative is avoided, the sequence is more or less chronological—from cradle to Requiem—though with constant digressions. Major or significant figures in Mozart’s life—his father Leopold, his sister Nannerl, his cousin whom he called “Bäsle,” Lorenzo Da Ponte, Aloysia Weber, with whom he was in love but who rejected him, and her sister Constanze Weber, whom he married—all are treated with long episodes. Inevitably there is some repetition; from time to time one seems to be reading paraphrases of earlier paragraphs—a possible legacy of the three times rewritten essay? And it is sometimes difficult to locate the principal statements of various key issues. But the total effect of the book is powerful; the lack of chapter divisions tempts one to read on and on, and by the end one cannot think of Mozart in the same way as before. The experience leaves one possibly sadder, but probably wiser.

First published in Germany in 1977, Mozart became a best seller there. The present translation reveals that in a very few passages the author has had second thoughts; otherwise the book is unchanged.

An understanding of Hildesheimer’s originality requires some acquaintance with received opinions of Mozart’s personality, and with the evidence on which they claim to be based.

The question that in a variety of guises Hildesheimer repeatedly asks is “What do we really know of Mozart?” (or, in its more despondent form, “What can we really know of him?”). To the innocent this must seem a puzzling query. The preeminent position assigned to Mozart by modern sensibility is after all a commonplace. It is even entertaining to speculate when (on the widest possible franchise) he began to replace Beethoven as the paradigm of “the greatest composer,” a process that has not been completed everywhere, but in many parts of Europe probably dates from before World War II. Yet this great interest both in the man and his music has not, it seems, been matched by any comparable depth of understanding; rarely has the pattern of his life been seen in focus. For a long time now the range of Beethoven’s personality has been far more accessible to us; many aspects of it had already been sharply delineated by Thayer a hundred years ago, and a work such as Maynard Solomon’s recent biography helps us to define the inner forces with ever greater subtlety.

Not that the literature on Mozart can be regarded in any way as meager. More than the reference work that it is often taken for, the classic biography of Otto Jahn from the last century was updated and extensively rewritten by Hermann Abert in the 1920s; and there are many shorter but seemingly well-documented reinterpretations and resumés that usually review life and works together or in parallel, ranging from Alfred Einstein’s 1945 study of the composer’s “Character and Work” to Stanley Sadie’s concise but accurate “Mozart” in the New Grove (1980). It is easy therefore to suppose that their biographical interpretations rest on an abundance of evidence from eighteenth-century sources—not least among them the Mozart family’s collected correspondence, which runs to four dense volumes in the German edition.

But Hildesheimer has no difficulty in showing that again and again such sources have either been ignored or at any rate misunderstood:

The representation of “Mozart the man” fluctuates between eulogy and apologia. When Bruno Walter says that Mozart was an “open, trusting soul,” a “happy, simple-hearted young man,” he is expressing not only a generally cherished wish (which, in addition, unwittingly shows the limits of his own psychological insight) but also an unthinking concession to the public of which he is part, a public that would like to have this particular kind of Mozart. Indeed, this is the kind they have always gotten.

But they will not get it here! Hildesheimer turns his back firmly on such myth-making. Instead, the search for clues to what Mozart was like leads him, for instance, to scrutinize the autograph manuscripts. Alas! Whereas Beethoven’s scores, as well as his sketchbooks, have often been imagined to be eloquent in regard to some aspects of the creative act, Mozart’s neat penmanship appears to betray nothing; his scores are masterpieces of calligraphy. Nor is much to be gleaned from peering at his portraits. Most are unconvincing either because they are idealized or because they are misdrawn. Perhaps the most “acceptable,” if we exclude the unfinished canvas by Joseph Lange, is the half-length portrait by Barbara Krafft—but that was not painted till 1819. (It would appear to be based on the figure of Mozart in the della Croce family portrait of 1780–1781, with the features prettified and the misshapen right hand excluded.)

We are surely on firmer ground with the letters. And it is Hildesheimer’s perceptive treatment of these documents—his ability to read between the lines—that gives us confidence in his judgment on other matters. Take, for instance, a begging letter that Mozart wrote to his fellow Mason Michael Puchberg on July 12, 1789, by no means the first and far from the last that he sent. It begins: “Dearest, most beloved Friend and most honorable Brother. Great God! I would not wish my worst enemy to be in my present position. And if you, most beloved friend and brother, forsake me, we are altogether lost, both my unfortunate and blameless self and my poor sick wife and child,” and goes on to describe how “A fortnight ago I sent round a list for subscribers [to a concert series] and so far the only name on it is that of Baron van Swieten,” etc., etc., with a postscript beginning, “O God!—I can hardly bring myself to dispatch this letter!—and yet I must! If this illness had not befallen me, I should not have been obliged to beg so shamelessly from my only friend…. Adieu. For God’s sake forgive me, only forgive me!—and—Adieu!”

Is this a real cri de coeur? Or is it a type of posturing that came to be second nature with him? Hildesheimer’s comment is worth quoting in full:

This letter is perhaps the most uninhibited and yet the most stylized of the twenty-one extant letters to Puchberg. Its tragic aspects (it is probable that Mozart is dramatizing his wife’s suffering, though she may have exaggerated it to him) have the quality of a recitativo accompagnato. Only after the prelude, with its double address both to the friend and to the lodge brother, does the curtain rise on the troubled scene. It begins with the exclamation “Gott!,” much like the “Deh!” of opera seria. According to the musical grammar of the Neapolitan school, this would be a G minor chord. It is the heroine innocently plunged into distress. The pain is genuine, but the effect upon the recipient is a calculated one. A few lines later, with confused interjections, the declamatory tone dissolves and gives way to unrhetorical lament, a theme with abundant variations.

Probably Hildesheimer is not the first to have felt that the emotion here (or its expression) was overstylized. Puchberg, at any rate, sent no money in response—though on getting a reminder five days later he dispatched 150 gulden.

The crucial relationship, as has often been recognized, is the one between Mozart and his father. To begin with, as we might expect, the admiration was mutual: Leopold gave thanks for “the miracle that God allowed to be born in Salzburg,” and his young son was wont to declare: “Next to God comes Papa.” Although Leopold’s zealous exploitation of his prodigious children and his later somewhat conformist ambitions for his son have found many modern critics, there is no evidence that as a child or an adolescent Mozart felt resentment at the exhausting journeys, the arduous discipline of composition, and the constant demands to display his skills. We might, indeed, ask: what form might that evidence have taken? But it was, after all, the only life that he knew; his early letters bear witness not to ennui but to high spirits, a fluent pen, and a talent for entertaining his readers.

The clash of wills came rather late, when Mozart was nearing twenty-two, and even then it was veiled. We can first detect it during the long journey of 1777–1779, which took him to Munich, Mannheim, and Paris. This time his traveling companion was his mother; his father remained with his sister in Salzburg, from where nevertheless there emerged by every mail a stream of instructions, exhortations, and reproaches. For the aim of the journey was to secure rewarding commissions and possibly a permanent appointment at some court. And by this time Leopold was only too aware of a certain indolence in his son, a naïveté in dealing with people, and an inclination to be distracted from the matter in hand. (This was not merely the jaundiced eye of a disaffected father, for others who came to know Mozart, such as the Baron Grimm in Paris, commented on the very same traits.)

Although Mozart knew what his father’s reactions were likely to be, he often supposed he could deceive him, or disguise his own intentions or short-comings. But again and again Leopold saw through his son’s dissembling. There is some comedy to be extracted from this: it is as if Leopold could always crack his son’s code, while his son remained innocently unaware of this. In Mannheim Mozart fell in love with the sixteen-year-old singer Aloysia Weber, and tested out on his father a plan of embarking on a concert tour of Italy with her (and of taking the rest of her family with them). The earlier project of going to Paris with the flutist Johann Wendling and the oboist Friedrich Ramm was to be abandoned because the former had “no religion,” and the latter was “a libertine.” No doubt these insincerities alerted his father. Leopold was appalled by the ill-conceived Italian plan (“I have read your letter…with amazement and horror. I am beginning to answer it today…. For the whole night long I was unable to sleep, and am so exhausted that I can only write quite slowly…”), and forbade it; his son was to go to Paris with his mother, as arranged.

The Paris sojourn was destined to be a disappointment and to include a tragedy: Mozart’s mother fell ill of a fever and died there on July 3, 1778. Mozart handled the whole situation with great aplomb; he constantly fed his father reassuring or consoling letters, but ones which in retrospect we have to regard as extremely devious. He did not make suitable contacts, or impress the right people; probably he did not even write more than one symphony there (a second symphony, which was claimed as an innovation, is likely to have been one from the earlier Salzburg years). By the time he left Paris, little had been achieved or accomplished; yet his letters, designed to appease an exigent parent, are self-congratulatory or self-exculpatory, so that we might not guess at his comparative failure. And this duplicity in his dealings with his father, the mask that he chose to wear, seems to have become second nature to him, extending to his other relations as well. No doubt it interfered with his capacity to be close to others.

In this he differed from his father, who had an interest in, and understanding of, other people’s psychology. Hildesheimer is sure that Mozart was no Menschenkenner:

…Mozart was an imperfect connoisseur of people—on the surface. Of course, he never tried to know them; his need for personal contact did not extend so far. It was his father’s habit, not his, to assess people for their potential usefulness (it probably would have helped Mozart had he done more of that). Pragmatic thinking was alien to him.

The case against Mozart as a judge of other people’s psychology is developed here very powerfully. But an obvious difficulty presents itself: are we not talking of the man whose understanding of the motivation of his operatic characters is unrivaled? Surely it was Mozart who saw the full pathos of the Countess’s role in Figaro, at the same time as he portrayed with a wicked accuracy the basically good-hearted but irredeemably flirtatious Susanna, the decent but mildly obtuse Figaro, as well as the foibles of Bartolo, Cherubino, the Count, and others. Although they flit their hour upon the stage, we fell we have always known them; can their musical creator have been a hopelessly poor Menschenkenner?

It is very much to Hildesheimer’s credit that he tackles this apparent contradiction head on. He notes that there are places in the letters that contain “unbelievably precise observations” which would seem to refute his claim.

On closer examination, however, we notice that they are less evidence of an understanding of human nature than of a superior stage instinct, with exact descriptions of scenes and their possible effect on an audience.

Mozart, one might say, was a much better judge of what was taking place on the stage than of happenings in the foyer, and perhaps at the box office.

At the same time as his passion for Aloysia, there was—like a comic subplot?—Mozart’s intimate relationship with his cousin Maria Thekla, known as “Bäsle.” What “happened” has to be guessed from a quantity of fatuous and somewhat scatological letters that he wrote to her.1 This was Mozart’s “growing up” time, and Hildesheimer thinks it unreasonable to expect the relationship to have remained asexual. He also assumes that Mozart was at one time in love with Nancy Storace, the first Susanna in Figaro. Again this is not unlikely, though the evidence is less than overwhelming. Susanna’s aria “Deh vieni,” in the opera’s last act, is to Hildesheimer something that “reveals Mozart’s personal involvement, part real, part fantasy, with this singer.” We can also make what we will of the famous recitative and aria for soprano “Ch’io mi scordi di te” and “Non temer, amato bene,” K. 505, which has a striking piano obbligato as well as an orchestral accompaniment, and which is described in Mozart’s own catalogue of his works as written “For Mlle Storace and me.” A more amusing clue is afforded by a slip of the pen in the autograph score of Figaro: at the end of the recitative that precedes the duet, “Crudel! perchè finora” for Susanna and the Count, Mozart originally wrote “attacca il Duetto di Susanna e Figaro.” If Mozart identified with one character in the opera more than the others, it was surely with Figaro (who gets Susanna in the end!), and the duet is concerned with an amorous assignation.

What will no doubt surprise some readers is the gloomy picture of Mozart’s later years. The idea that things went badly wrong for him has been around for a long time, but there is little agreement on its cause. Did the plot of Figaro antagonize the aristocracy, or did that of Die Zauberflöte betray Masonic secrets? What was the cause of his financial straits, constantly rehearsed in his letters to Puchberg? Was he gambling, or was he being blackmailed? Or did he simply live above his means, extravagant in his personal tastes and with a wife who needed intermittent medical care and some expensive cures? When Leopold paid his last visit to his son in Vienna at the beginning of 1785, he was impressed by the quarters and the furniture, by the Emperor who cried “Bravo, Mozart!” at the end of a piano concerto, and by Haydn, who declared to him after three string quartets had been performed: “Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.” That was surely something for a father to hear; he could return to Salzburg a little less disappointed (for a while at least). What then removed Mozart so quickly from this position both of prosperity and of esteem, and plunged him into penury and gloom?

Those who look for outside causes are obliged to fall back on speculation: we need to be reminded that from a documentary point of view the last years are nearly silent ones. Apart from the music itself, we have little evidence of how he spent his time; most of the evidence for what he was feeling comes from his letters to Puchberg and to Constanze (there are very few others), and by now we have learned to treat these possibly insincere or manipulative communications with some caution.

But Hildesheimer doesn’t look mainly for external causes of Mozart’s decline; he sees him as suffering from a form of alienation, more and more cut off from his friends and natural allies, and perhaps from Constanze as well. Some of his friends had in any case already died.

Indeed, he seems to have had a growing preoccupation with death. His first “meditation” on this theme comes in a letter that he wrote to Leopold in April 1787 on receiving news of what was to be his father’s terminal illness. His reaction to the death some weeks later is as usual hard to analyze. Hildesheimer notes that the first work that he completed after the news had reached him was “A Musical Joke,” K. 522, and is uncertain whether or not to acquit him of irreverence and impiety. It has been suggested by others that Don Giovanni drew something from Leopold’s death; Brigid Brophy reminded us in 1964 that the opera begins with the slaying of a “vecchio” by a libertine, and speculated on the guilt that Mozart might be feeling on at last being freed from his father’s moral censure. But if I had to pick a “memorial” to Leopold, it would probably be the peerless “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” completed two months later, the perfect serenade to recall all those serenades and divertimenti of the Salzburg years. (Mozart seems to have marked the deaths of J.C. Bach and C.F. Abel, whom he had known in his very early years, by including themes by them in the pieces he was writing at the time.)

You cannot imagine how I have been aching for you all this long while. I can’t describe what I have been feeling—a kind of emptiness, which hurts me dreadfully—a kind of longing, which is never satisfied, which never ceases, and which persists, nay rather increases daily…. Even my work gives me no pleasure, because I am accustomed to stop working now and then and exchange a few words with you.

What appears at first merely as touching uxoriousness—this from a letter written on July 7, 1791, to Constanze, who was taking a cure at Baden, with Mozart’s pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr as her constant companion—becomes more sinister if an existential significance is read into it. “Without doubt,” comments Hildesheimer, “he was at this point aware of the futility of his life (from his own point of view) and, psychologically at least, in an unstable condition. Every attempt at success had foundered; we may say that he had given up.” A further twist of the knife is provided by emphasizing certain chronological facts. Nineteen days after the above letter was written, Constanze gave birth to a son, who was baptized Franz Xaver Wolfgang. However, nine months before the birth Mozart was not with Constanze in Vienna, but on his way back from Frankfurt, after having attended the coronation of Emperor Leopold II. Was Süssmayr, then, the father of Mozart’s second surviving son? Certainly gynecology permits Mozart—who was back in Vienna by about November 10, 1790—to have been the father of the child. Yet it is still possible that Constanze was at one time rather closely involved with Süssmayr.

None of this has much to do with the music, which is surely the only reason for our interest in this eighteenth-century Viennese family. And if Hildesheimer’s perennial question, “What do we really know of Mozart?” is still only partly answered, can we call the music itself in evidence as to his nature? We would all like to think that. Much of the distress caused by Peter Shaffer’s portrayal of Mozart in his entertaining soufflé Amadeus came from the fact that even for those who knew nothing of Mozart’s life, the character on the stage could not, they felt, be the composer of the music they knew and loved. But is that an example of fallacious thinking (however excusable)? It reminds one of the puzzle that tormented a philosopher of the past: Is the roundness that we see the same as the roundness that we feel? How do we know that it is?

We are not disappointed when we find that Wagner’s own life is somewhat “Wagnerian,” and we are reassured when we find that Beethoven’s swings of mood are “Beethovenian.” But we may have to get used to the notion that Mozart’s personality does not necessarily exhibit the traits that we believe we find in his music. Certainly Hildesheimer’s striking portrait of a man near the end of his tether, rejected by Viennese society, virtually friendless, impoverished, and deeply uneasy—or possibly indifferent to his plight—does not summon up the music of the last months, which includes works as lively, serene, and varied as the operas La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte, the motet “Ave verum corpus,” and the clarinet concerto. No doubt the picture is to some extent overdrawn; a few sources have been handled indiscreetly, and there are in any case a number of inaccuracies.2 But even if some of its aspects come in time to be rejected by scholars, it seems undeniable that Hildesheimer has fashioned a powerful impression of this enigmatic personality, one that richly deserves to be debated.

  1. 1

    In 1931 Stefan Zweig, who owned the originals of four of them, sent the texts of all nine letters to Freud, claiming that they “throw a psychologically very remarkable light on [Mozart’s] erotic nature.” That is a bit of an overstatement, although jokes about defecation and “arse-licking” were a familiar topic in the Mozart family. They are to be found in his parents’ letters as well as his own, and supplied the words for several of his canons (e.g., K. 231, 233, 519, 521). Cf. Joseph Heinz Eibl and Walter Senn, Mozarts Bäsle-Briefe (Kassel, 1978).

  2. 2

    Several of these concern the dates at which works were written. (The last edition of Köchel cannot be regarded as up to date on this matter.) The references to Beethoven throughout the book seem unduly faulty. I find that idea that he belongs in an “exemplary line of great men who seem never to have laughed” a particularly risible notion.