The Best Book on Mozart

W.A. Mozart

by Hermann Abert, edited by Cliff Eisen, and translated from the German by Stewart Spencer
Yale University Press, 1,600 pp., $55.00


Another book in English on Mozart might not seem to be a pressing need just now after the extravagant outpouring of the 250th anniversary of his birth last year, but we have waited a long time for this one. When, eighty-eight years ago, Hermann Abert’s W.A. Mozart appeared, it was recognized as the most authoritative survey of the composer’s life and works. (It claimed to be a revision of Otto Jahn’s pathbreaking life of Mozart of 1882, but in fact almost nothing was left of Jahn; when one of Jahn’s observations does appear in Abert, it is quoted as if from an external source, so it is just as well that Jahn’s name is no longer displayed on the title page.)

Abert managed to set down practically everything of interest about Mozart’s life that was known in 1919, and he added a complete overview of Mozart’s works, very many of them discussed in great detail and related to a masterly account of the music world in Mozart’s time and the different musical traditions of the age. Over the years the project of translating Abert often came up, but until now, no one had the courage, the good sense, or the resources to carry it out. The 1,500-page monument has finally been issued in an excellent translation by Stewart Spencer (even Mozart’s letters in rhyme when quoted by Abert appear like reasonable English doggerel), and it has turned out to be not only the most satisfactory but also the most readable and entertaining work on Mozart available in English.

Nevertheless, so much research has been expended on Mozart since 1919, so much more is known, and so many dates and facts have been corrected and revised that the book could not simply be translated. It had to be brought up to date. This has been done with full respect for the original by Cliff Eisen, one of the most brilliant Mozart scholars of our time. He has himself written profoundly on Mozart, above all on the viola quintets, and his knowledge of the composer and the musical life of his time has no superior and few equals. Without altering the original, he has added thousands of footnotes that correct or expand the text, indicating the most useful of recent publications on almost every aspect of Mozart taken up in the book. An immense bibliography has made this publication not only a pleasure to read but extremely useful for music-lovers, students, and scholars alike. We may well ask, however, after so much recent scholarship and revision, how a work of almost a century ago can retain its importance not just as a document of the past but as an adequate presentation of Mozart for the modern listener.

In his introductory editorial note, Eisen may give us a clue to an answer when he sets forth his main disagreement with Abert. He presents his case eloquently:

The heart of Abert’s book is chapter 31, “Mozart’s Personality.” For all his discussion of biography, of social circumstance, of commerce and industry, patrons and the public, it is Abert’s firm belief that, above all, Mozart’s music expresses Mozart himself, his keen observation of, and boundless empathy for, his fellow man: “…it is impossible to separate his life from his music: in both, the same force is at work.” And it is here that I profoundly disagree with Abert: as I see it, Mozart was a keen observer of mankind, and boundlessly empathetic, but what he expressed in his music was us, not himself. Put another way, Mozart was the consummate artist, able to manipulate and cajole his listeners, to draw them in and draw them out, to create art, to construct art not for the sake of self-expression but to allow us to express ourselves.

Yet this fundamental difference with Abert is exactly why I like the book so much: if I could, I would say exactly the same things about the music, I would describe it in exactly the same words and with the same images, for Abert’s words and images correspond more or less exactly with how I hear the music. At the most basic level, then, Abert and I agree, not only that Mozart’s music is profoundly expressive but also as to what it expresses. So it is really of little consequence, in the end, whether Mozart is expressing himself or expressing his listener. Either way, Mozart’s is a compelling story: to whom, or to what, we attribute meaning in his music only determines the thrust and trajectory of the narrative, not its substance and not, ultimately, its effect. It is a story that can be read and told in a multiplicity of ways and Abert’s, because his understanding of the music resonates so strongly within us, no matter what our view of Mozart’s creative personality, remains perhaps the most compelling of all.

Eisen’s point is subtle, and provokes elucidation, but this is not simple. He is ill at ease, and to some extent rightly, with the old-fashioned and only too-well-established idea that the composer is simply expressing himself; this turns the composition of music, a social activity, into a purely personal act, and it is true that some critics of the past and even of our time have absurdly treated works of art as private creations, published so as to allow readers, listeners, and spectators to eavesdrop on the artist’s intimacy. When Eisen, however, says that what Mozart “expressed in his music was us, not himself,” it is not easy to identify the “us.” Who are we? Mozart’s contemporaries, or his patrons, or the connoisseurs of his work, or the listeners of his posterity? To choose any one of these makes expression too narrow, too limited. To choose all of them makes it too vague to be given a precise meaning. When Eisen, after declaring a profound disagreement with Abert about expression, writes, “At the most basic level, then, Abert and I agree, not only that Mozart’s music is profoundly expressive but also as to what it expresses,” he seems to be trying to take back, at least in part, his initial objection. Yet his disquiet is well founded.

To justify Eisen’s dissatisfaction, we should turn not to the chapter on Mozart’s personality, but to a passage in Abert’s own preface that reveals his great strength but also betrays a methodology that is at the root of some less than satisfactory emphases in his book. Here he pays generous tribute to his predecessors, in particular the work of the French team of Théodore de Wyzewa and Georges de Saint-Foix, but he makes one sharp criticism of their work:

For them, Mozart’s art is like a mosaic, made up of a series of influences to which he succumbed in the course of his life as a result of chance. This rationalistic desire to bring clarity and order to a varied picture is typically French, but quite apart from the fact that it is a fatal error to see genius as the sum total of the influences that affect it, this approach provides us with no answer as to two main questions: how did Mozart choose which of his many models to adopt? And which elements did he appropriate from them and make his own? Why did Johann Christian Bach and Schobert, for example, affect him more deeply than the incomparably greater Gluck?1

This is a profound indictment not merely of Abert’s predecessors, but of an enormous amount of research on Mozart between Abert’s death in 1927 and our own time, so often devoted to a demonstration of how frequently Mozart borrowed from his contemporaries. Much of this is already in Abert (a great deal of subsequent research reads, in fact, like footnotes to his work): he constantly reveals what Mozart took from J.C. Bach, Johann Schobert, Giovanni Paisello, and others. He observes, for example, that the opening theme of the famous Symphony in G Minor is an eighteenth-century commonplace (and that it is found yet again in Tamino’s first aria in The Magic Flute), but he also points out the two details that Mozart added to the motif that transformed the banal into something new.

Immediately following the above quotation from the preface are a few sentences about the difference between a genius and the common man that will provoke a shiver of distaste from most modern scholars:

Not even ordinary mortals imitate things if they do not already contain within them the nucleus of what they are imitating. In the case of the genius, this selective process already bears within it the stamp of creativity: it is his first attempt to assert himself in the face of tradition, to cast aside what inhibits him and is alien to his nature and not just to imitate all that he feels drawn towards but, at the same time, to recast it and make it his own.

Today, no one (or few, at any rate) would deny that there is a difference between a genius and an ordinary craftsman or hack, but it is felt to be not very nice or democratic to mention it. Of course, we know that an uncritical ascription to Mozart of Romantic nineteenth-century ideals of revolutionary originality gives a false picture of the career and thought of a late-eighteenth-century composer. Nevertheless, to claim that the ideals of originality and revolutionary inspiration do not apply in any way to Mozart (a claim sometimes made today in the newly fashionable view of Mozart as a simple professional craftsman only out to please the patrons who commissioned his work) gives a picture equally false, and one that impedes any workable view of the music.

Abert’s view of genius, however, leads him into a typology of Mozart’s works that, while it does not actually do much harm to his book, is nevertheless dubious. He depreciates the importance of the traditional division of musical works into sacred, dramatic, instrumental, and vocal, because that would mean examining trivial works of Mozart alongside more important ones, but he does not reject it. He sets up a new division, however, partially based on the way Mozart’s works were responses to commissions and to external circumstances. He writes:

A living tradition still existed at this time, a summation of formal and stylistic rules acknowledged and felt by all, whether they were the patrons responsible for issuing the commissions…or the artists responsible for carrying them out. No artist could afford to ignore them.

There are three groups of work for Abert. First, there were those written to fulfill a commission,

in which his genius conformed to tradition without further ado, in some cases even subordinating itself to that tradition…works written for various celebrations, the pieces intended for pupils and individual singers, with their specific demands, and so on. The second group consists of those works that are still part of the tradition described above, but where tradition is permeated and hence transformed and enriched by the elemental force of the artist’s own experience, its range of forms increased in consequence. Typical of this group are the great keyboard concertos of the 1780s, which still clearly embody the old ideal of music written to divert society…. In the works of the third group, finally, the artist’s archetypal experience, his basic emotion comes to predominate, with the result that the tradition is completely overshadowed by it. Here the focus of the artist’s interest passes from the receptive element—his audience in society—to the artist himself. In these works, tradition is annealed by the fire of Mozart’s genius to the point that it falls away like ash, allowing entirely new shapes to emerge.

To this final group for Abert belong “the great symphonies and string quintets” as well as the great operas.

This system of classification is neither entirely misleading nor indefensible, but it is tendentious. It preempts judgment. Abert himself admits that the distinctions are not hard and fast, and even observes that it is a pleasure to try to decide in which category a work belongs. Excluding the wonderful concertos of the 1780s from the category of the sublime because they are sociable is certainly a dubious point. This distinction of categories inclines us to underestimate the influence of tradition in the most radical works of the third group, a tendency that Abert, however, largely resists successfully in spite of his programmatic statement above. (He knows perfectly well that in the most individual works the musical tradition does not “fall away like ash.”)

His categories assume unwarrantably that the composer always expressed his art more personally when transforming tradition than by conforming to it, that Mozart, in short, was most Mozartean only when most radical. That is particularly dangerous with this composer because it may prevent us from recognizing that Mozart could be as inspired when he conformed to tradition as when he was revolutionary. The refusal to acknowledge that Mozart often showed his genius when he was most conventional has inspired such foolishness as Theodor W. Adorno’s rueful assertion that Mozart, unlike Beethoven, could not always write the way he wanted, or Glenn Gould’s attempt, by performance as well as writing, to demonstrate that Mozart in his last years had become an inferior composer.

Abert’s preference for the radical and revolutionary works is certainly due in large part to the contemporary situation in the arts in 1919. This was the moment of German expressionism in painting and literature, with Kirchner, Kandinsky, Beckmann among the artists, and Hauptmann, Wedekind, and Thomas Mann among the writers. It was the era of the French Fauve painters and cubism, of Joyce and Proust as well; the period dominated in new music by Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, and Igor Stravinsky. A new view of Mozart was required.

Abert’s preference for the Mozart that could seem, at least, most personal and radical did not, in fact, affect his judgment of music except in minor ways. Perhaps the only important exception to this is his treatment of the piano concertos. This is not to say that he was insensible or unappreciative of their extraordinary qualities; it would not be easy to find a treatment that was fairer. But he treats them oddly as a group, and does not give them individually the analysis extended to the viola quintets and the symphonies, not to speak of the operas (the field of Abert’s greatest expertise). He does not trace the extraordinary change in the style of the concertos from the A Major K. 414 to the C Minor K. 491, and while he is aware that Mozart transformed the tradition of the concerto as greatly as he did the opera and the symphony, he does not choose to set this in relief. He does not even treat the early masterpiece of the twenty-year-old Mozart, the Concerto in E-flat Major K. 271, separately from the two concertos that preceded it. This is the opus that Alfred Einstein called Mozart’s Eroica Symphony, the stylistic breakthrough that confirmed his mature style, and about which H.C. Robbins Landon remarked that with it Mozart “quietly bursts the form which was bequeathed to him by his precursors: for K. 271 is indeed far removed from the form and content of the pre-classical concerto.”2

It is clear that Abert’s aesthetic risks a distortion of history, and we can see why Eisen should be made uncomfortable by it. Yet it has had two admirable effects, and these are strangely contradictory or at least paradoxical. The first effect is that it has increased our appreciation of Mozart by setting in relief those works that appeal to musical taste today. Our interest in the art of the past is necessarily discriminating, and we must not expect to admire with an equal passion everything that our ancestors valued before us. Abert and his generation put new life into Mozart by making him into a composer that appealed to the twentieth century. They brought out what they felt to be the demonic aspect of Mozart, the dramatic force and even the violence, and created a figure very different from the more graceful and charming but blander Mozart generally conceived by the nineteenth century (with, of course, a few notable exceptions from E.T.A. Hoffmann and Kierkegaard to George Bernard Shaw, who were all aware of Mozart’s power).

The expressionistic aesthetic, historically flawed as it is, had, as its second effect, a historical restoration of the way that Mozart was viewed by the late eighteenth century. For his contemporaries, Mozart was a difficult composer, not only hard to play but hard to listen to. Most of the more ambitious works, they felt, could only be performed by the finest professionals, or else they would make a poor impression. Not only were there too many notes, there were above all too many new ideas and new themes, all coming one after the other in a profusion that was painful to follow. (In most operas by other composers, the second violins played the same notes as the first violins most of the time, but in Mozart they are more often given an independent line, and the violas, as well, are allotted interesting phrases.) And the harmony was often outrageous and impossible to understand (to this complaint E.T.A. Hoffmann replied that connoisseurs understood Mozart’s harmony without difficulty, the uneducated public was emotionally stirred by it, and only the half-educated music amateur was bewildered). Abert and his generation restored Mozart’s difficulty and made him definitively the dramatic equal of any composer in history.


Nowhere does Abert shock modern scholarship more than in his low estimate of Mozart’s last opera, La Clemenza de Tito.3 This work has been revived with some success in the last two decades, and is sometimes advertised as a seventh great opera along with I domeneo, The Abduction from the Seraglio, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosí fan tutte, and The Magic Flute. It was a work that Mozart wrote hurriedly in ill health, and he had to get someone else to compose the recitatives. With all his other operas he almost certainly had something to do with the choice and even the construction of the librettos—he forced rewriting of I domeneo, messed up the libretto of The Abduction to get a more effective finale for the second act, chose the Beaumarchais play The Marriage of Figaro himself, and must have influenced the last three with their profusion of ensembles and a Protestant chorale for The Magic Flute—but not with Tito. He was not, as Abert remarks, able to create here something original, but only to set quickly an old libretto of Metastasio, fixed up and abridged in advance.

Abert gives a sympathetic account of the work, admiring above all the first-act finale (“one might even say that it is the spirit of classical tragedy that finds expression here”), but his final judgment is severe:

Any comparison between I domeneo and La clemenza di Tito is bound to be to the latter’s disadvantage, as the later work lacks the sense of profound personal experience that we find in the earlier piece. In I domeneo Mozart still believed in his artistic mission even in the field of opera seria. By the time he wrote La clemenza di Tito, this world lay far behind him, and his only concern was to carry out his professional duty and complete a task that only sporadically engaged his interest.

His severity is, I think, justified. There are a number of fine things in the opera, but for most of it Mozart’s ability to give new life to the commonplace, to transfigure the banal, has deserted him. One has only to compare the fine rondo of Sesto in the second act with the similar but much more affecting rondo of Fiordiligi in the second act of Cosí to see the lower level of inspiration.

In one sense, the way Abert privileges the most radical works gives a truer representation of Mozart in history than an effort to reconstruct an eighteenth-century cast of mind; not only does it restore Mozart’s complexity, it also sets in relief those works that changed the course of music. It was these radical works that had the greatest effect on composers after Mozart. The progeny of Don Giovanni are innumerable. The Abduction from the Seraglio changed the way the Sing-spiel was composed afterward. Cosí fan tutte was imitated by Beethoven and Stravinsky. Schoenberg said that he learned the secret of eccentric phrasing by studying Mozart’s works. In short, the demonic composer that Abert partly discovered and partly created restored Mozart to history.

Of two largely neglected works of Mozart, Abert gives a lengthy and brilliant account that makes their importance convincing. One is the unfinished German opera on a serious Turkish theme, Zaide, written just before the comic Turkish opera The Abduction. Abert is understandably repelled by the miserable style of the libretto (all the spoken dialogue has disappeared except for two experimental sections called melodrama—that is, spoken dialogue with orchestral accompaniment), but gives full justice to the music, which presents some of Mozart’s finest arias and ensembles. Except for the overture (always the last piece to be written, because it needed no stage rehearsal) and the final number, the work is complete.

The other work to which, as far as I know, only Abert has done full justice is The Musical Joke. This is a sextet for string quartet and two horns that Mozart wrote in 1787. Abert relates it to “a venerable tradition of caricaturing worthless and incompetent colleagues” and observes that “the real parody is directed at the work’s imaginary composer.” This is Mozart’s Art of Music which takes the form of an example of how not to do it, and it makes a wonderful introduction to his conception of composition. What is magnificent is that Mozart’s imaginary idiot blunders into every possible clumsy mistake, and yet Mozart succeeds in making the piece sound delightful. Abert goes into great detail explaining each error and so giving a beautiful résumé of Mozart’s aesthetic, and remarks, “Rarely has so much wit been expended on creating an impression of such witlessness.”

I have only one serious disagreement with Abert to offer; he does not believe that Mozart’s setting of “Viva la libertà” (“Hooray for liberty”) in Don Giovanni has a secret political meaning. It is true that the overt significance of the words at Don Giovanni’s party is that they invite his guests to enjoy themselves; but Mozart’s setting is clearly martial and stirring, with trumpets and drums reintroduced for the first time since the overture of the opera, and the music resonates like a call to arms. In any case, the belief that the setting was subversive was later accepted, as the words were changed to Viva la società.

One important aspect of Abert’s view of Mozart was omitted by him in this book, and appears only in the short introduction to his edition of The Marriage of Figaro: the harmonic construction and logic of the opera as a whole. On this subject Abert’s considerations have become unfashionable, and some critics have tried to deny that a Mozart opera has the unity that so many have felt about each of the mature works. Of course, the unity of an opera is not the relatively closed structure of a sonata or symphony, which is not, in turn, the even denser structure of a single movement, or the absolutely closed form of a rounded melody. Nevertheless, the way Mozart worked out the harmonious relationships in his later operas has a logic and a symmetry that has convinced many listeners, and they were best indicated and described by Abert in his Eulenburg edition of the orchestral score. Recent writing on this subject does not seem to have understood or paid much attention to his arguments, and it would be a good idea to add the few pages as an appendix when the book is reprinted, as I expect it will be. The power and the cogency of Albert’s account of Mozart’s achievement are due in large part to his understanding of Mozart’s ability to organize his works on the largest scale.


What Mozart Meant: An Exchange December 6, 2007

  1. 1

    We must not mind the touch of Gallophobia in the reproach of French rationalism, natural enough in a German in 1919, and Abert’s initial praise of the French team is evidently whole-hearted. At the opening of the book Abert makes it clear that he thinks Mozart was not really Austrian but Swabian, as his father was born in Augsburg. It might be objected that Augsburg is not actually in Swabia but in Bavaria, but it is on the border of Swabia and administratively incorporated into it. Abert himself came from Stuttgart, which is the main city of Swabia.

  2. 2

    The Mozart Companion, edited by H.C. Robbins Landon and Donald Mitchell (London: Rockcliff, 1956), p. 249. Earlier in his article, Robbins Landon had insisted that Mozart’s concertos are incomprehensible without a knowledge of the preclassical form, and he seems to contradict that here. He is, I suppose, right on both counts; it depends on how you think music is—or ought to be—understood.

    It should be added that if Abert’s treatment of the individual concertos is disappointing by comparison with his passionate discussion of the other works, his chapter ends with a very long section with two dozen examples on the virtuoso figuration and texture of the piano style in the concertos that is more interesting and informative than anything else I have seen on the subject.

  3. 3

    The overture to The Magic Flute was written after Tito, but the rest had been composed before.