1791: Mozart’s Last Year
by H.C. Robbins Landon
Schirmer Books, 240 pp., $19.95
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. 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 …