Mozart: A Life
Mozart: Portrait of a Genius
Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese School, 17401780
Mozart was famous in his day, first as an infant prodigy, later as a pianist and composer, especially of opera, and although his reputation later had its ups and downs it cannot be said that he has ever been neglected. There is consequently a huge bibliography, and the quantity of biographical material available is surprising until one reflects that he flourished at a time when the modern respect for recorded detail, and the Romantic cult of genius, were just getting going. Composers were gradually disengaging themselves from aristocratic patrons and establishing the right to explore the market and be respected on their own account. We think of Mozart as the friend of Haydn and Beethoven, though he was also the absconding servant of the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg and a favored employee of the Emperor Joseph II.
Like other great men of his day Mozart left a sizable body of correspondence, and it is from that and from other contemporary sources that we know so much about him. Modern scholarship, following up the work of nineteenth-century researchers, has added so much information concerning his life and his music that biographers can’t help sounding disappointed that there remain some gaps in their knowledge, brief periods when they don’t know quite what he was up to, whether a hiatus in a reassuring correspondence with his wife means that he was having an affair, exactly what he died of, and so on. There is another and greater cause for despondency: in the end it seems difficult or even impossible to explain the prodigiousness of Mozart’s achievement, which is after all the main reason for their laborious inquiries. A great quantity of music, much of it of an originality we still don’t fully value, was written in a short lifeâ€”a life interrupted by arduous travel, by the requirements of patrons, by the demands placed on him by recitals and opera rehearsals and teaching chores. He had to maintain his own growing family and a father who made righteous but unreasonable claims on him. And he had an irrepressible wish to enjoy himself, to spend money.
He was capable, and needed to be capable, of almost incredible exertions. To take as an example his last year, 1791: Mozart, according to his own tally, produced the B flat Piano Concerto (K. 595), the last String Quartet, The Magic Flute, La Clemenza di Tito, the Clarinet Concerto, the unfinished Requiem, and many other pieces, including church music, Masonic cantatas, and numerous dances for balls at court, no doubt written with some reluctance but with assiduous respect for the fine orchestra that would play them. Yet this was also the time when he is conjectured to have had an unknown number of love affairs and particularly onerous family responsibilities. He was, for reasons that are not fully understood, very short of cash and making urgent appeals for loans. Not surprisingly, he also found time to suffer from bouts of melancholy. By November he was terminally ill. There is plenty for biographers to explain.
Maynard Solomon, wisely observing that there can be no end to the explanations, now proposes some of his own. Justly celebrated for a biography of Beethoven which took a similar approach, he is a psychoanalytical explainer, and consequently devotes a great deal of attention to the composer’s father, Leopold. It is not easy to like Leopold, and Solomon, though he pays the old man a few rather grudging compliments on his pedagogical and musical skills, can’t help loathing him. The record of Leopold’s dealings with his son is here relentlessly explored, and the result is a portrait of an unscrupulous, paranoid bully. He more or less gave up on his own musical career to exploit the child genius, rushing around Europe and arranging recitals and exhibitions. Before the boy was too old to be presented as a prodigy he had made his father a lot of money, none of which he handed on to Wolfgang, who was a little annoyed to find that his father left him almost nothing in his will, preferring his daughter, Nannerl, who was gifted but not so obviously a genius; and she offered no oedipal threat.
Leopold’s account of his own childhood was a pack of lies and evasions. Solomon shows that far from being a model of obedient industry, he was a trial to his family, got kicked out of university, married against his father’s wish, and, also against paternal advice, became a musician. The choice of career was obviously useful to his own son, and Leopold’s hand can still be seen in Wolfgang’s juvenilia; but he virtually abandoned his own career to be his son’s impresario. According to Solomon’s calculations, he took care to minimize accounts of the profits on the European tour, and salted them away for himself.
Solomon credibly suggests that the father’s own disregard of parental wishes concerning his own career and marriage were remembered in his dealings with his son, especially in his attempts to stop Wolfgang’s escaping, at the age of twenty-four, from Salzburg to Vienna. Having at least helped to kill the affair between Mozart and his cousin Maria Anna Mozart (“the BĂ¤sle”), now remembered as the occasion of an extraordinary correspondence which gave full expression to the composer’s taste for sexual and scatological jokes, Leopold tried and failed to prevent the marriage to Constanze Weber. He almost invariably treated his son as feckless, wanton, and disobedient, and the son obliged him by sometimes behaving as if he really was an “eternal child,” haughty as well as clever, wanting his own way but fearful of his father’s disapproval. But like his father before him he made the break. Thereafter he was no longer Salzburg’s favorite son, or Leopold’s. He was now to find that both his native city and his father thought him a disgrace.
Leopold disliked and even scorned the pretensions of aristocratic patrons; Solomon attributes this to envy, but if it was that it was also a reflection of the change that was imminent in the relationship of artists to patrons. His son would make part of his quite large income from independently organized concerts and recitals, and from the growing sales of manuscript or printed music, piano versions of the court dances and later of the operas. Of course emancipation was not yet complete. Leopold could be on his dignity with the Salzburg court because his son had made him money; but the younger Mozart was all his life looking, without luck, for the security of an appointment as Kapellmeister. He notoriously suffered at the hands of Archbishop Colloredo and his courtiers, and was irked by having to dine at the servants’ table; but he showed more delight than now seems dignified at the compliments of royalty. He liked to talk about his honor, and since he was a Chevalier and technically not a commoner, he may have felt entitled to do so; but one senses some envy of the grander degrees of nobility.
The social conditions of Salzburg and Vienna as they affected musicians are described at length in Daniel Heartz’s large and valuable book, and are the subject also of Norbert Elias’s brief essay. Elias illustrates the changes that occurred between Mozart’s and Beethoven’s maturity: “Beethoven had a far greater opportunity to impose his taste on the musical public…. He was able to escape the compulsion to produce music as a subordinate…. Instead, he could compose music, if not exclusively then to a far greater extent, as a freelance artist…. In June 1801 Beethoven wrote to his friend Wegeler: ‘My compositions bring me in a good deal…. I state my price and they [publishers] pay. So you can see how pleasantly situated I am.” Beethoven was at ease with the grandest people, courted great ladies, and had the sort of privilege Leopold was bitter about deserving and not getting.
If Mozart had lived another ten years he would probably have been in a position similar to Beethoven’s. He had started his career in extremely favorable conditions, and he made his move for independence at the right moment. Salzburg was a good enough place to begin. Colloredo, in other respects an enlightened ruler, had prescribed strict, unimaginative rules for church music, but there was still plenty of work for composers. And Mozart was already known in the larger society of Vienna. FĂŞted there as a child by the high nobility, he had made later visits and was on good terms with the Emperor Joseph II himself. Leopold must have known that his son had a better chance of real success in Vienna, but he did all he could to keep him in Salzburg.
Mozart’s Viennese decade occurred during the period of transition from patron to marketplace, and insofar as they were, in a limited way, free agents, Mozart and Haydn outdistanced all contenders. But it cannot have been easy for the young man: his break from Salzburg was necessary for prudential as well as psychological reasons, but it was not made without cost, and the strained relationship with Leopold must, as Solomon argues, have been one of the causes for the recurring element of melancholy in Mozart’s work.
Despite his astonishingly early start, Mozart was not, like Mendelssohn, a major composer in his teens. He had high competence, of course, but at some point, or during some possibly identifiable period, he moved on from there. The experts differ about exactly when the transition to greatness occurred. Solomon argues for 1778, when Mozart, at twenty-two, wrote the A Minor Piano Sonata during a rather unhappy stay in Paris with his mother. In the andante of that sonata Solomon finds that strange compounding of ecstasy and anxiety he takes to be characteristic of some of the composer’s mature work: calm, “Edenic” music is suddenly interrupted by a passage of dissonance and rapid, disturbed modulation, after which there is a return to the first paradisial mood. The effect is probably most familiar from the slow movement of the D Minor Piano Concerto of 1785.
The “mood-pieces,” Solomon argues, are the ancestors of the Schubert Impromptus and Chopin Nocturnes; their relevance to Mozart’s biography lies in the fact that they are representations of “an infancy-Eden of unsurpassable beauty but also a state completely vulnerable to terrors of separation, loss, and even fears of potential annihilation.” Speaking of the effect of that A minor andante, he refers to D.W. Winnicott’s description of a baby as “an immature being who is all the time on the brink of unthinkable anxiety,” an anxiety kept at bay only by the mother’s validation of the infant’s existence. To recall infantile bliss is to reawaken that infantile terror, which is what happens in these Mozartian mood swings. And the music becomes an act of reparation, a security guaranteed, and archaic anxieties are stilled by their incorporation into the formal beauty of the piece. None of this was evident to Leopold, who thought it dangerous to be so adventurous and unconventional, and wrote to warn Wolfgang against producing arcane music with “harmonic progressions, which the majority of people cannot fathom.” Mozart fans of today may find it hard to believe that complaints about the undue difficulty of his music were not uncommon, and they increased as time went on.