• Email
  • Print

The Residue of Genius

Mozart: Studies of the Autograph Scores

by Alan Tyson
Harvard University Press, 381 pp., $35.00

That Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus left in its wake widespread curiosity, even anxiety, about its eponymous antihero is probably true; musicologists at parties are still being asked what Mozart was “really” like, what “really” did him in. What went wrong in his last years? At the more bookish of such parties, people remember the disturbing Mozart by Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Shaffer’s inspiration, which appeared in translation in 1982.1 So I am not at all surprised to learn from the music historian H.C. Robbins Landon that he was pressed to write a book on Mozart’s “decline and fall”—his own term, and his own quotes: a book that, on the basis of “authentic and contemporary documents,” would set the record straight.

Landon both was and wasn’t the obvious choice for such a job. Probably no other scholar has looked at so many documents pertaining to eighteenth-century music and musical life. Well known as an indefatigable Haydn researcher, editor, biographer, and booster, he is the author of a five-volume Haydn: Chronicle and Works which consists of upward of three thousand pages of documentary material, along with unbuttoned commentary on his music. But Landon has not shown himself to be a particularly subtle or, it must said, always a careful reader of those documents. What he enjoys is recycling great sheaves of eighteenth-century data in an enthusiastic, alfresco style that certainly resembles no other current musicological discourse. And so he has produced an amiable little mine of miscellaneous information about Mozart’s last year, 1791, some of which is old, some quite new, and some entirely original. All of it will be of interest to Mozart buffs. A series of short chapters go into considerable detail about Viennese concert life, Mozart’s “second career” as a composer of dance music and his prospects as a church composer, his concert trips, major projects such as The Magic Flute, his final illness and death, the later history of the man who commissioned the Requiem, “Constanze [Mozart]: A Vindication,” and so on.

Landon also has his say about the picture drawn by Hildesheimer and Shaffer of Mozart’s personality. The trouble here is that Landon is not much of a psychologist; his perceptions about the motives, attitudes, and feelings of historical subjects tend to be one-dimensional. And while he knows very well, of course, how to read documents skeptically, he reads them for their facts, not for their nuances. Reading for implicit references and meanings is just where Hildesheimer excels—though also where he is most irresponsible. The trick to picking apart Hildesheimer’s devious web of argument, speculation, presupposition, and innuendo is to discover which threads are genuine. Or, in Shaffer’s case, which will play.

To all this Landon seems impervious. He casually mentions the well-known memoir by Karoline Pichler:

Mozart hummed the melody with me [she was playing “Non più andrai” from Figaro], and beat time on my shoulders; suddenly, however, he pulled up a chair and began to improvise variations so beautifully that everyone present held his breath…. But all at once he had had enough; he jumped up and, as he often did in his foolish moods, began to leap over tables and chairs, miaowing like a cat, and turning somersaults like an unruly boy.

(When she was young, Pichler’s father, a well-to-do amateur, held quartet parties which provided Mozart with some support; later she became something of a literary light in Vienna, and was the author of several Schubert song texts.) In fact, Landon does not fail to mention all of the things we would like explained—Mozart’s erratic, disoriented behavior, the mystery of his disappearing assets, the rumors of his gambling and profligacy, the evidence of his declining status. But Landon dismisses such matters with a common-sensical shrug; maddeningly, he often tucks away more substantial bits of counter-evidence in short end-notes, where they are not pursued.2 For him, Mozart was a good man, a solid professional, and a loving husband, a model of normalcy and probity. This strikes Landon as so obvious that he doesn’t even bother to engage with Hildesheimer (or even Shaffer) on their own psychological ground.

Landon may be right about Mozart’s psyche; but those who have stayed curious or anxious about it for all these years are not likely to be convinced by his soft arguments. Ultimately the polemic that was supposed to give the book its rationale remains detached from all the discursive historical material. The historical data he presents also remain detached from any sense of the actual music, the pieces Mozart wrote in 1791—the Requiem, the two late operas, the last string quintets and concertos (or at least parts of them), and a number of smaller works. For in a departure from his usual practice, Landon forgoes any attempt to engage with the music by means of critical discussion or commentary. That was his choice, of course; but I think the book will seem thin to many readers as a result.

Much that is of value in Landon’s book consists of summaries of recent research—by a medical historian, Peter J. Davies, on Mozart’s illnesses; by Else Radant on his apartment and wardrobe (with many illustrations); and by Landon himself on his Masonic brothers. (Mozart’s personality is no mystery to Davies; he categorizes it as obsessional, infantile, and prone to paranoia “associated with a possessive jealousy and emotional lability”—a description that leaves Landon unruffled.) The information Landon presents about the most hectic episode of Mozart’s last year—the composition of La clemenza di Tito for the coronation of Emperor Leopold II, at Prague—is summarized from an essay by Alan Tyson reprinted in Mozart: Studies of the Autograph Scores.

This is a collection of studies begun in 1975 that have appreciably changed the accepted chronology of Mozart’s music. The title of a synoptic essay in the book, “Redating Mozart: Some Stylistic and Biographical Implications,” indicates the scope of this important body of research precisely. Its method, the details of which Tyson sets forth again and again with the greatest of elegance and expertise, rests on the physical analysis of the paper of Mozart’s autographs.

The autograph score of La clemenza di Tito, to take that as our example, proves upon close examination to include five different types of paper, seemingly shuffled at random. The papers can be sorted according to their quality, watermark, and the way the music staffs are ruled. They can also be chronologically ordered, if not always dated exactly. When information obtained in this way is put together with other historical evidence, we see that when Landon calls the composition of this opera “a rather hair-raising operation” he is indulging, if anything, in understatement. As has long been known, the planning of Tito was botched. Only on July 8, 1791, was an impresario sent off to Vienna to commission an opera that had to be produced on September 6. No subject, composer, or librettist was specified, though Salieri seems to have had first refusal. Even after signing up Mozart and the librettist, Mazzolà, the impresario still had to dash off to Italy and engage the singers.

There must have been some kind of marathon all-night story session. We can imagine Mazzolà throwing up his hands; all he could do on this schedule was adapt a classic text by Metastasio. Mozart on his part found a way to save a little time by incorporating a big concert aria he had already composed, on what Tyson labels Paper Type IV (though in the event, the piece required rewriting at a later stage—see Types III and V). Then he reached for some ternions of Type I and began composing not the opera’s solo and ensemble numbers in the sequence of the actual libretto, but, rather, selected ensembles—because in those, evidently, it would be less damaging not to take into account the vocal idiosyncracies of singers who were still unspecified.

According to tradition, the opera was composed in eighteen days, which by Landon’s calculation is about right for the time Mozart would have had available to compose the main arias (on Type III) after learning about the singers. Then, after coming to Prague on August 28, he used local paper (Type V) for the overture and some loose ends, and also for some extra numbers for Titus. Apparently this role was ballooned at the last moment. The various batches of paper were of course shuffled and interleaved so as to produce a sequential score. Unshuffle them, and we learn something about how the opera was composed.

Tyson tells this story at some length and Landon retells it. It is certainly an interesting one. Its “biographical implications,” as Tyson would say, are clear. Mozart wrote very fast but not as fast as legend demands; he paced his work shrewdly to meet practical conditions; and even so, he had to stop and rewrite in ways that can be specified quite closely. The biographical implications of Tyson’s discoveries are wide, in fact. On Mozart’s Paris trip of 1778, he produced a good deal less music than one would gather from letters to his father Leopold. Inspite of his reputation for great facility, he had chronic difficulty with one genre, at least: the string quartet. His Musical Joke was not written right after Leopold’s death, much less in jeering response to it, as was claimed by Hildesheimer; most of the piece was written earlier.

Less clear are the “stylistic implications” of a study such as that of La clemenza di Tito. One would like to know more, for example, about the ensembles that Mozart composed in a less “characteristic” vocal style than the arias. Once alerted to this disparity, will we notice it when listening to the opera? How will we respond to an opera in which characters speak in a more nuanced, personal musical language in moments of meditation than they do in episodes of interaction? Tyson never pursues such questions. Mozart, as he gracefully remarks, is “the man whose genius is the only excuse for inquiries such as the present one”; but Tyson has chosen as his subject Mozart’s manuscripts, Landon Mozart’s last year, and neither scholar takes it upon himself to trace the impact of such studies on our understanding of Mozart’s genius, on an interpretation of the music which is the residue of that genius.

Given the enormous popularity of this composer’s concertos today—Schwann lists twenty CDs of the D-minor Piano Concerto, including the Bilson and Lubin fortepiano performances which are eliciting so much comment and reaction—the disclosure that as many as six of these works were begun (on one paper type) several years before they were completed (on another) is perhaps the most interesting and suggestive of all the discoveries that have come out of paper studies. Tyson seems to acknowledge this, though he does not pursue it.3 Two of the works whose autographs he has studied, the Piano Concerto in B flat (K.595) and the Clarinet Concerto, have long held a special place among the denizens of that “hauntingly beautiful autumnal world of music written in 1791,” as Landon puts it, “where the sun’s rays are slanting sharply and are soon to turn into sunset and twilight….” Tyson shows that the two concertos were both begun before Labor Day, as it were, during the high summer of the “Jupiter” Symphony.

Received opinion about the style of this music would certainly seem due for some strenuous revision, as Tyson suggests:

Any sharp picture of stylistic development must acknowledge that some works were started, and in certain cases a good part of the first movement outlined, long before their completion date…. The implications of this for style-study are obvious, and I need not dwell on them.

But not only doesn’t he dwell on those implications, he also doesn’t tell us which parts, themes, or measures of the concertos are written on the old paper, which on the new. It seems strange, in a book that gives us a small anthology of watermark pictures, to skimp on minutiae of a musical nature. The sharp focus on musicological method here leaves musical implications hazy.

  1. 1

    Marion Faber, tr. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

  2. 2

    An example is Landon’s treatment of the old rumor that the son born to the Mozarts in 1791 was illegitimate. It would appear that this is effectively scotched by a report that the child inherited a special ear-form (“Mozart Ear”) from his father; yet Landon does not mention the report except in an end-note, and even there he does not trouble to establish its credentials. He does, on the other hand, scold Alan Tyson for bringing up the rumor—rather unfairly, since Tyson was commenting upon Hildesheimer’s heavily embroidered version of it (The New York Review, Nov. 18, 1982, pp. 3–7).

  3. 3

    To be sure, the book is not set up for extended treatment of the concertos; none of Tyson’s individual studies concentrates on a piano concerto autograph. There is an illuminating piece about the unfinished horn concerto that Mozart resumed in 1791 but did not finish, the D-major (K.412). The other works in question are the Piano Concertos in E flat (K.449), A (K.488), and C (K.503).

  • Email
  • Print