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 …