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The Miracle Worker


by Peter Gay
Lipper/Viking, 177 pp., $19.95


Peter Gay’s Penguin Life of Mozart tells the story with grace and organizes it with dexterity. It is not pitched at a very high level, and the author has not found anything very distinctive to say about his subject. Gay is a distinguished historian of the Enlightenment, but his remarks on social or intellectual forces that might illuminate the life and works of Mozart are familiar and strike no sparks.

Thus Gay calls the third of Mozart’s operas with Lorenzo da Ponte, Così fan tutte, “a belated valentine to the Old Regime”; appearing as it did in 1790, only a few months after the storming of the Bastille, “there was still time for audiences to be frivolous, especially when frivolity was being served up by a genius.” The English historian John Rosselli, in his equally concise Musical Life, says it better:

Mozart’s most perfect dramatic work enshrines a society where men and women need concern themselves only with delectable follies, and where reconciliation mends all in the name of sense. Music of ideal beauty lifts the ironies of the tale onto a plane of grace—but that grace…is “an illusory realm forever beyond the pale of mundane reality yet somehow still true.” …Così fan tutte is the fine flower of the old regime at its point of dissolution.

Mozart’s life as much as his art shows him on the cusp of change from the old world to the new.

Well, yes, one thinks: a simple, ob-vious point. Then again, on second thought, not so simple. For Mozart did not enshrine the ancien régime in Così fan tutte until after he and da Ponte had subverted it in two much more radical operas: The Marriage of Figaro, a clear provocation in spite of music’s soothing touch, and that least soothing of all eighteenth-century art works, Don Giovanni, first performed in 1787. Why the relapse?

The term “relapse,” of course, is open to objection: the composer had limited control over the order in which librettos reached him; his “most perfect dramatic work” represents, if not an advance over Don Giovanni, levitation to a new aesthetic level. But the fact is that in the period of just a few years between those two op-eras, something serious happened to Mozart and his music—both to the quantity of that music (that is, his output) and also, more ambivalently, to its quality. This needs to be faced up to in any Mozart biography, and indeed there is a book, The Mozart Myths, by William Stafford, in which biographers are assessed and categorized according to their treatment of this very matter.1 David Schroeder will have none of it; his Mozart in Revolt “is not a biography of Mozart; if anything, it will make a biography more difficult to write” (even though “rebellion,” as it happens, is one of Stafford’s categories). Revolt is a secondary topic of this book, less original and cogent than its central thesis, a relatively narrow thesis about the Mozart family letters and how they should be read.

Mozart biography has to lean heavily on his correspondence and that of his family, including especially that of his father Leopold—those three fat volumes which have fascinated so many readers: Mozart now as effervescent as a piano concerto finale, now as caustic as A Musical Joke, now as pathetic as a soprano aria in G minor.

This last mood appears only in a much-discussed set of begging letters written in 1788-1791 to Michael Puchberg, a wealthy cloth merchant, friend, and Masonic brother. These letters furnish the chief source of information about Mozart’s severe financial straits at this time, and also the most vivid testimony to his state of mind. Abject and desperate, barely clinging to his self-respect, Mozart “opens his heart” to Puchberg in a distressing show of groveling and self-flagellation.

O God!—I can hardly bring myself to despatch 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. Yet I hope for your forgiveness…. Adieu. For God’s sake forgive me, only forgive me!—and—Adieu!2

Can we, must we abide this? Letter writing for Mozart was not the spontaneous expression of one’s real feelings, Schroeder maintains. It was a calculated literary exercise with an end in view. He notes the special passion for Carnival on the part of both Mozart and his father, and he sees Wolfgang as Harlequin, slipping on one new mask after another for his different encounters. The son learned about writing letters from the father, who as an author of some note (Leopold’s treatise on violin playing gained him considerable cachet) absorbed the literary culture of his time—an epistolatory literary culture exemplified by Richardson, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. Baron Melchior Grimm and Mme. d’Epinay, the Parisian friends and supporters of the Mozarts, were both great letter writers; he was responsible for that major instrument of the philosophes, the Correspondance littéraire, and she for several epistolatory texts, one entitled Letters to My Son.

Leopold resolved to publish a biography of his “miraculous” son—he said so in print: an epistolatory biography, no doubt, inspired by the epistolatory essay Lessons from a Father to a Son of Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, a mid-century poet, fabulist, and moralist much admired by German readers who thought of themselves as up-to-date and respectably enlightened. Leopold had corresponded with Gellert. His beautifully turned out bulletins to his family and to others in Salzburg describing the European triumph of his two child prodigies, circulated, copied, and carefully preserved, would have filled the opening chapters. Gellert also wrote two manuals on letter writing (Lord Chesterfield wrote one too): he enjoined parents to leaven moral advice with wit and pleasing anecdote. Leopold covers every grain of advice offered by Gellert’s father and provides an irresistible narrative to sugar the pill.

Once taught the art and artifice of letter writing by his father, Wolfgang used it against him in the long, coruscating epistolatory war of independence from Leopold’s overbearing domination. This began in 1777, when he embarked on a long job-hunting tour to various points in Germany and then Paris, aged twenty-one and accompanied by his mother—“one of the most famous disasters in musical biography,” as one observer has put it3—and continued well past 1781, when he quit Salzburg for Vienna and the life of a free lance. Veracity was a casualty in this war, as Leopold soon understood (and as Wolfgang once even admitted). All Mozart’s statements of fact must be scrutinized as possible disinformation, all his declarations of piety and virtue as possible camouflage.

Mozart applied what he had learned to his other correspondents—his wife, friends, creditors. He grew adept at telling them what they wanted to hear. Discovering in Puchberg a susceptibility to the discourse of ego collapse, he spun out tales with what Schroeder calls “The Virtuosity of Deceit”:

For Puchberg, Mozart acted a role he played for no one else, becoming for him a real-life sentimental épistolier, a familiar character emerging from the pages of a recognizable literary genre to touch his subject’s heart (and, in this case, purse).

Wolfgang Hildesheimer, too, in his provoking biographical study of 1982—the study that will not go away—evoked an eighteenth-century artistic genre to interpret the abject letter to Puchberg from which I have quoted. He read it as accompanied recitative:

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.4

Even John Rosselli, who never misses an opportunity—who indeed creates opportunities—to reject unsupported speculation about the composer, credits Hildesheimer’s interpretation here, and one can see why. We would rather have Mozart devious than miserable.


He was miserable, however, all the same. The letter to Puchberg says he is too ill and miserable to compose—a threat, Schroeder might say, that he will not be able to start working again, so as to be able to work off his debts, without another loan. In fact he really was composing next to nothing when he wrote the letter and this was driving him crazy, or at least into a state that made people stop and stare.

Mozart’s fallow periods are glossed over in many biographies, though the statistics are plain enough. In good times the record he maintained of all his work—his Verzeichnüss aller meiner Werke—expanded as prodigiously as Leporello’s catalog in Don Giovanni, tallying in one year, 1786, four concertos, a symphony, three trios, a string quartet, a piano quartet, a sonata for piano four hands, The Marriage of Figaro, and a dozen smaller pieces. In 1787, however—coincidentally or not, the year of Leopold Mozart’s death—Wolfgang’s output began to slow. After Così fan tutte, premièred in January 1790, he produced nothing of any scope for at least four months, and in midyear only a spasm of “oppressive labor” (mühsame Arbeit) led to the completion of two string quartets that were already half written (K. 589, 590). Then he remained inactive for another five months. The turnaround came in December, when he completed three very substantial works (K. 593, 594, 595).

Explanations for this dip in productivity have often been brought forward. War broke out with Turkey, distracting and dispersing the patrons Mozart relied on for commissions and subscriptions to his concerts. Emperor Joseph II died soon after the opening of Così fan tutte and the theaters closed. His successor showed Mozart less favor. Rosselli adds that in 1788 Joseph authorized opera to be performed during Lent, an action that drew audiences away from concerts, the staple of a freelance career. All in all, he seems satisfied with these explanations.

However, Mozart’s difficulties with composition did not begin in 1790. They go back at least to his Paris trip of 1777-1778. En route, friends at Mannheim helped get him a substantial commission for several flute concertos and flute quartets, but only a few of them were done when it came time to go on to Paris, and he collected less than half of the promised 200 gulden. This was no small matter. Short of money, the travelers were receiving missives from Leopold full of dire financial warnings, and they had repeatedly cited this commission as their best prospect.

Wolfgang had been too busy to finish, he wrote Leopold. “Moreover, you know that I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument which I cannot bear.”5 Really? How deeply can one hate the flute? To judge from those flute pieces that he does seem to have completed, it couldn’t have taken long to turn out some more. Although Wolfgang was indeed busy, now that he was out of Leopold’s oversight for the first time in his life, he could write what interested him, not what Leopold demanded of him. He was writing a mass that he hoped would impress the Elector Karl Theodor, not dull chamber music that he knew would get him paid.

  1. 1

    William Stafford, The Mozart Myths: A Critical Reassessment (Stanford University Press, 1991).

  2. 2

    The Letters of Mozart and His Family, translated and edited by Emily Anderson (Macmillan, 1938), Vol. 3, pp. 1383- 1385. For the remark “Open my heart,” see p. 1361.

  3. 3

    Ruth Halliwell, The Mozart Family: Four Lives in a Social Context (Clarendon Press, 1998), p. 231.

  4. 4

    Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Mozart, translated by Marion Faber (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982), p. 24.

  5. 5

    The Letters of Mozart and His Family, Vol. 2, p. 711.

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