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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 ThĂŠodore 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.

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    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.

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