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. 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 …