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Amadevious

Mozart

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.

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