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 …

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Letters

What Mozart Meant: An Exchange December 6, 2007