Mozart was famous in his day, first as an infant prodigy, later as a pianist and composer, especially of opera, and although his reputation later had its ups and downs it cannot be said that he has ever been neglected. There is consequently a huge bibliography, and the quantity of biographical material available is surprising until one reflects that he flourished at a time when the modern respect for recorded detail, and the Romantic cult of genius, were just getting going. Composers were gradually disengaging themselves from aristocratic patrons and establishing the right to explore the market and be respected on their own account. We think of Mozart as the friend of Haydn and Beethoven, though he was also the absconding servant of the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg and a favored employee of the Emperor Joseph II.

Like other great men of his day Mozart left a sizable body of correspondence, and it is from that and from other contemporary sources that we know so much about him. Modern scholarship, following up the work of nineteenth-century researchers, has added so much information concerning his life and his music that biographers can’t help sounding disappointed that there remain some gaps in their knowledge, brief periods when they don’t know quite what he was up to, whether a hiatus in a reassuring correspondence with his wife means that he was having an affair, exactly what he died of, and so on. There is another and greater cause for despondency: in the end it seems difficult or even impossible to explain the prodigiousness of Mozart’s achievement, which is after all the main reason for their laborious inquiries. A great quantity of music, much of it of an originality we still don’t fully value, was written in a short life—a life interrupted by arduous travel, by the requirements of patrons, by the demands placed on him by recitals and opera rehearsals and teaching chores. He had to maintain his own growing family and a father who made righteous but unreasonable claims on him. And he had an irrepressible wish to enjoy himself, to spend money.

He was capable, and needed to be capable, of almost incredible exertions. To take as an example his last year, 1791: Mozart, according to his own tally, produced the B flat Piano Concerto (K. 595), the last String Quartet, The Magic Flute, La Clemenza di Tito, the Clarinet Concerto, the unfinished Requiem, and many other pieces, including church music, Masonic cantatas, and numerous dances for balls at court, no doubt written with some reluctance but with assiduous respect for the fine orchestra that would play them. Yet this was also the time when he is conjectured to have had an unknown number of love affairs and particularly onerous family responsibilities. He was, for reasons that are not fully understood, very short of cash and making urgent appeals for loans. Not surprisingly, he also found time to suffer from bouts of melancholy. By November he was terminally ill. There is plenty for biographers to explain.

Maynard Solomon, wisely observing that there can be no end to the explanations, now proposes some of his own. Justly celebrated for a biography of Beethoven which took a similar approach, he is a psychoanalytical explainer, and consequently devotes a great deal of attention to the composer’s father, Leopold. It is not easy to like Leopold, and Solomon, though he pays the old man a few rather grudging compliments on his pedagogical and musical skills, can’t help loathing him. The record of Leopold’s dealings with his son is here relentlessly explored, and the result is a portrait of an unscrupulous, paranoid bully. He more or less gave up on his own musical career to exploit the child genius, rushing around Europe and arranging recitals and exhibitions. Before the boy was too old to be presented as a prodigy he had made his father a lot of money, none of which he handed on to Wolfgang, who was a little annoyed to find that his father left him almost nothing in his will, preferring his daughter, Nannerl, who was gifted but not so obviously a genius; and she offered no oedipal threat.

Leopold’s account of his own childhood was a pack of lies and evasions. Solomon shows that far from being a model of obedient industry, he was a trial to his family, got kicked out of university, married against his father’s wish, and, also against paternal advice, became a musician. The choice of career was obviously useful to his own son, and Leopold’s hand can still be seen in Wolfgang’s juvenilia; but he virtually abandoned his own career to be his son’s impresario. According to Solomon’s calculations, he took care to minimize accounts of the profits on the European tour, and salted them away for himself.


Solomon credibly suggests that the father’s own disregard of parental wishes concerning his own career and marriage were remembered in his dealings with his son, especially in his attempts to stop Wolfgang’s escaping, at the age of twenty-four, from Salzburg to Vienna. Having at least helped to kill the affair between Mozart and his cousin Maria Anna Mozart (“the Bäsle”), now remembered as the occasion of an extraordinary correspondence which gave full expression to the composer’s taste for sexual and scatological jokes, Leopold tried and failed to prevent the marriage to Constanze Weber. He almost invariably treated his son as feckless, wanton, and disobedient, and the son obliged him by sometimes behaving as if he really was an “eternal child,” haughty as well as clever, wanting his own way but fearful of his father’s disapproval. But like his father before him he made the break. Thereafter he was no longer Salzburg’s favorite son, or Leopold’s. He was now to find that both his native city and his father thought him a disgrace.

Leopold disliked and even scorned the pretensions of aristocratic patrons; Solomon attributes this to envy, but if it was that it was also a reflection of the change that was imminent in the relationship of artists to patrons. His son would make part of his quite large income from independently organized concerts and recitals, and from the growing sales of manuscript or printed music, piano versions of the court dances and later of the operas. Of course emancipation was not yet complete. Leopold could be on his dignity with the Salzburg court because his son had made him money; but the younger Mozart was all his life looking, without luck, for the security of an appointment as Kapellmeister. He notoriously suffered at the hands of Archbishop Colloredo and his courtiers, and was irked by having to dine at the servants’ table; but he showed more delight than now seems dignified at the compliments of royalty. He liked to talk about his honor, and since he was a Chevalier and technically not a commoner, he may have felt entitled to do so; but one senses some envy of the grander degrees of nobility.

The social conditions of Salzburg and Vienna as they affected musicians are described at length in Daniel Heartz’s large and valuable book, and are the subject also of Norbert Elias’s brief essay. Elias illustrates the changes that occurred between Mozart’s and Beethoven’s maturity: “Beethoven had a far greater opportunity to impose his taste on the musical public…. He was able to escape the compulsion to produce music as a subordinate…. Instead, he could compose music, if not exclusively then to a far greater extent, as a freelance artist…. In June 1801 Beethoven wrote to his friend Wegeler: ‘My compositions bring me in a good deal…. I state my price and they [publishers] pay. So you can see how pleasantly situated I am.” Beethoven was at ease with the grandest people, courted great ladies, and had the sort of privilege Leopold was bitter about deserving and not getting.

If Mozart had lived another ten years he would probably have been in a position similar to Beethoven’s. He had started his career in extremely favorable conditions, and he made his move for independence at the right moment. Salzburg was a good enough place to begin. Colloredo, in other respects an enlightened ruler, had prescribed strict, unimaginative rules for church music, but there was still plenty of work for composers. And Mozart was already known in the larger society of Vienna. Fêted there as a child by the high nobility, he had made later visits and was on good terms with the Emperor Joseph II himself. Leopold must have known that his son had a better chance of real success in Vienna, but he did all he could to keep him in Salzburg.

Mozart’s Viennese decade occurred during the period of transition from patron to marketplace, and insofar as they were, in a limited way, free agents, Mozart and Haydn outdistanced all contenders. But it cannot have been easy for the young man: his break from Salzburg was necessary for prudential as well as psychological reasons, but it was not made without cost, and the strained relationship with Leopold must, as Solomon argues, have been one of the causes for the recurring element of melancholy in Mozart’s work.

Despite his astonishingly early start, Mozart was not, like Mendelssohn, a major composer in his teens. He had high competence, of course, but at some point, or during some possibly identifiable period, he moved on from there. The experts differ about exactly when the transition to greatness occurred. Solomon argues for 1778, when Mozart, at twenty-two, wrote the A Minor Piano Sonata during a rather unhappy stay in Paris with his mother. In the andante of that sonata Solomon finds that strange compounding of ecstasy and anxiety he takes to be characteristic of some of the composer’s mature work: calm, “Edenic” music is suddenly interrupted by a passage of dissonance and rapid, disturbed modulation, after which there is a return to the first paradisial mood. The effect is probably most familiar from the slow movement of the D Minor Piano Concerto of 1785.


The “mood-pieces,” Solomon argues, are the ancestors of the Schubert Impromptus and Chopin Nocturnes; their relevance to Mozart’s biography lies in the fact that they are representations of “an infancy-Eden of unsurpassable beauty but also a state completely vulnerable to terrors of separation, loss, and even fears of potential annihilation.” Speaking of the effect of that A minor andante, he refers to D.W. Winnicott’s description of a baby as “an immature being who is all the time on the brink of unthinkable anxiety,” an anxiety kept at bay only by the mother’s validation of the infant’s existence. To recall infantile bliss is to reawaken that infantile terror, which is what happens in these Mozartian mood swings. And the music becomes an act of reparation, a security guaranteed, and archaic anxieties are stilled by their incorporation into the formal beauty of the piece. None of this was evident to Leopold, who thought it dangerous to be so adventurous and unconventional, and wrote to warn Wolfgang against producing arcane music with “harmonic progressions, which the majority of people cannot fathom.” Mozart fans of today may find it hard to believe that complaints about the undue difficulty of his music were not uncommon, and they increased as time went on.

Others place the moment of change rather late, for example with the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola of 1779, and surely nobody could take this wonderful work as immature. The C Minor Mass of 1782-1783, which broke all of Colloredo’s rules forbidding fugues, solos, and undue length, is another landmark. It was performed in Salzburg, but, like the works already mentioned, it was largely written elsewhere. Yet to argue that the turn to greatness occurred only when he defied Leopold and left home would be to substitute myth for history. The true relation of the music of the earlier years to the masterpieces that came later is beautifully illustrated by Solomon’s study of the Salzburg serenades. These were written in quantity by Michael Haydn and others, including Mozart, for festive Salzburg occasions. They were really orchestral suites, taking as a whole the name of serenade from one of the numbers, a serenade in the more usual sense, a song by a lover to his beloved. Rather simple in style, they were rarely performed more than once. Most of them have disappeared, though there are some well-known examples by Mozart, including the Serenata Notturna and the Haffner serenade.

Solomon argues very persuasively that the later Mozart developed certain characteristics of these serenades in works no longer restricted by their original setting. The operas contain several serenades in the original sense, usually with simulated guitar or mandolin accompaniments, for example Pedrillo’s in Die Entführung and Don Giovanni’s “Deh, vieni alla finestra“; but the most striking instance is Susanna’s serenade in the fourth act of Le Nozze di Figaro, perhaps the most perfect of all serenades, yet with a characteristic swerve from the usual; it is sung by a woman, and although it may well be thought to express Susanna’s love for Figaro it is embedded in the complicated plot to deceive a nobleman. Charles Rosen points out, in The Classical Style, its formal design, calling it “sonata-minuet,” with a recapitulation which is “a half-disguised variation of the opening.” Rosen commends this “exquisite and subtle aria” for its blend of freedom and balance, and points out that it was achieved after many sketches.* Here is an example of the skills, and also of the freedoms, that were earned by hard labor in the pre-Vienna days.

In something like the same way the early operas, with their attention to the relations of word and music, were preparation for the controlled ingenuities of the Da Ponte operas later. Georg Knepler has a charming analysis of Zerlina’s aria “Vedrai, carino” in Don Giovanni, with its crafty invitation toccami qua, touch me here, directing Masetto downward from her heart, which has been ticking on in the orchestra until she says this; we no longer need “the mimetic rendering of the heartbeat,” and the orchestra now follows Zerlina’s hand downward. When she asks Masetto can he guess where she keeps her medicine, it is the orchestra that answers her. There is a lot more to this delightful explication, part of a demonstration of the ways in which Mozart “semanticized” operatic music.

Knepler points out that the aria is remarkable in another way: of its 108 bars ninety-six are in C major, and the progression from dominant to tonic occurs forty-one times. This “semblance of simplicity” is also a belated reward for labor on the Salzburg simplicities. The beautiful aria “L’amerò” in Il rè pastore, written in Salzburg when Mozart was nineteen, shows clearly that he had studied the original setting of Metastasio’s words by Bonno in 1751, and probably that of Gluck in 1756, yet he outdoes his predecessors in pathos and musical ingenuity. At this stage, anyway, his aim was to follow the masters but do better in the same kinds; later he would be more daringly original, to the consternation of Leopold.

And it seems there was always a desire to be extraordinary, to be in excess, yet to remain within decent bounds, as Mozart said when discussing Osmin’s enraged aria in Die Entführung. But excess need not be mad or impassioned, it may be pure generosity, an inability not to deliver something surprisingly, wonderfully more than is called for. An obvious instance is the beautiful F minor aria given to Barberina at the beginning of the fourth act of Figaro: the plot is near its dénouement, the lost pin is important to the plot, but a passage of recitative would serve very well; yet Barberina is given this delightful moment, in a completely unexpected key; it is over almost before one has savored it, an exquisite miniature, although anybody who conceived this lovely idea could be forgiven for lingering a while. Delicious excess is very characteristic of Mozart, perhaps in life as well as art. He himself remarked that his extraordinary facility depended on long and hard work, but it depended also on an enlarged capacity for pleasure.

Leopold warned his son, who could easily please the many, about his tendency to be difficult, to address the few. One can see why a general audience, which Leopold despised even as he insisted it must be pleased, might shrink from the opening bars of the “Dissonance” Quartet (written to impress and pay homage to his musical “father,” Haydn) or perhaps from the last movement of the Jupiter Symphony. But complaints were not confined to such works. Gernot Gruber quotes a musical encyclopedia of 1790:

This great master, in his early years, made such a deep and intimate acquaintance with harmony that it is very difficult for the unpractised ear to follow him. Even those skilled in listening must hear his works several times over. It is indeed fortunate for him that he was still a young man when he reached his fulfillment among the charming and trifling muses of Vienna….

The implication is that Mozart calmed himself down under mellow Viennese influence, which would suggest that the writer, who could have heard Mozart play many piano concertos (expressly designed, according to the composer, to please the inexpert while giving refined pleasure to the cognoscenti) and might also have heard the three Da Ponte operas, mistook the “semblance of simplicity” for surrender to less exacting standards. Solomon’s view is that, in spite of all the warnings, Mozart sometimes gave himself permission to neglect hoi polloi in works like the six Haydn quartets and the Piano Concerto in F (K. 459), having in mind connoisseurs, who might perhaps sense what was happening when the clouds of his anxiety overshadowed “Edenic” simplicities.

Beethoven said of the String Quartet in A (K. 464), that “Mozart was telling the world: Look what I could do if you were ready for it!” But Giuseppe Sarti called him “the pianist with ruined hearing”; others complained that in his operas he subjugated voices to orchestra; and his patron Joseph II said that Don Giovanni was “divine, and perhaps it is finer than Figaro, but it is not food for the teeth of my Viennese.” Mozart’s reaction, according to Da Ponte, was “Let us give them time to chew it.” So Don Giovanni had its great contemporary success in Prague, not Vienna; later, as Gruber’s book explains, it achieved full glory with the Romantics, who were not afraid of excess.

Mozart’s position in Vienna was therefore short of being entirely secure. His professional contemporaries admired him, he rejoiced in many more general plaudits, but he was not a universal favorite. One way and another he had a good though fluctuating income and he always lived well, to the annoyance of his father. There is a good survey of the financial position of the best composers of the time in an article by William and Hilda Baumol in the collection edited by James M. Morris. They calculate that when Haydn left Esterhazy and made spectacular sums in London he was “the equivalent of a 1990 millionaire in the United States”; had he lived Mozart would probably have done as well. Unlike modern audiences, those of Haydn’s day wanted only new music, hence the profusion of new and even of “difficult” works.

Mozart rarely wrote anything without a commission, or at least an occasion such as a concert calling for a new piano concerto. An essay by Neal Zaslaw in the Morris collection argues that even the last three symphonies, described by Alfred Einstein as having “no occasion, no immediate purpose, but an appeal to eternity” were in fact attempts to solve urgent financial problems, and that Einstein was merely perpetuating a Romantic myth. Much that is to this day commonly believed concerning Mozart’s habits of composition derives from a forged letter, published in 1815 and discredited by the most authoritative nineteenth-century biographer, Otto Jahn, in the 1850s. Mozart wrote for money, and might, had he lived even a little longer, have made a lot of it.

His income fell in his penultimate year, partly because of a war with the Turks which hit the theaters and caused an inflation, partly because this was one of his few rather dry periods; but his average annual earnings in the Vienna decade were equivalent, we are told, to $175,000 in 1989 money, certainly a good middle-class income. Solomon arrives at a similar estimate.

Nobody can quite explain how the composer got into financial difficulties toward the end of his life. Leopold would have put it down to profligacy; more sympathetic commentators simply conjecture mismanagement. What is now agreed is that it is wrong to say he died a pauper, for his funeral was in accord with local regulations and exactly like that of most Viennese citizens who were not noble.

His widow, who outlived him by fifty years, came, as Gruber remarks, to resemble the “type of artist’s widow (by no means extinct)—a mixture of grail-guardian and businesswoman, full of distrust.” She disposed of her assets as well as she could, and supplied detail, not always hagiographic, for an early biography.

“Hagiographic” is Solomon’s dismissive word for the biography of Alexandre D. Ulibischeff, published in 1843, though I learn from Gruber that the Russian biographer, like his successor, wished to “let musical analysis go hand in hand with the psychological.” He saw Don Giovanni as a self-portrait of the composer, with Leopold as the Commendatore, and he was probably right to say that Mozart, with all his irresponsibility and “verbal lack of restraint,” couldn’t be expected to write Don Giovanni and at the same time be an admirable paterfamilias, deal patiently with his father, and leave his family a fortune. I haven’t read Ulibischeff, but on Gruber’s account of him he was hardly more hagiographic than Solomon himself. This is not adverse criticism, for anybody who cares about the whole mystery of rule-bound creativity (Glenn Gould excepted) must feel at least a touch of reverence for Mozart. And Solomon’s attitude is formed by a proper and lasting wonder at his astonishing subject.

His insights into unconscious motivation are impressive, though he is apt to labor a point, making much, for example, of Mozart once calling himself not Amadeus or using his baptismal name Theophilus (of which Amadeus is a translation), but “Adam.” This oddity occurs in the marriage documents, including the register at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and apparently nowhere else. “Amadeus” he rarely used, and perhaps only as a joke Latin translation of “Amadé,” itself a variant of “Gottlieb.” “Amadeus” was the version preferred by pedants and film makers, and we should probably stop using it. Solomon argues that the bridegroom, in signing himself “Adam,” was arrogating to himself “a great power,” for Adam was “the progenitor of mankind,” Wolfgang was also by this means cancelling Leopold’s power over him, starting afresh; “a new persona is adopted and a bothersome spirit is laid to rest.” This is one of the few places where one suspects over-interpretation. If we say that “Adam” was probably just one more of Mozart’s sometimes weird or obscure linguistic jokes, Solomon would doubtless remind us of the psychoanalytic import of jokes.

For the rest, he is persuasive as well as enormously scholarly; his annotations and bibliography are admirably exhaustive. One wishes only that there had been occasion for more musical interpretations, like the illuminating passage on the importance of the Salzburg serenades, or like Knepler’s explication of “Vedrai, carino.”

The lives of great men and women are always on the point of crystallizing into myth, and this has been true of Mozart. Since he is modestly sure of the transient value of interpretation. Solomon would not claim to have provided a psychoanalytical myth that will work forever. It may simply be a myth for our time, as earlier biographies have provided myths for other times. But it is hard to believe it will not last a long while. And perhaps we may hope for a supplement or sequel, like the one he added to his Beethoven, in which we could learn more about particular works, not least the great operas, in which music is made semantic and meaning made musical, and we are compelled, like the Contessa, to pardon in simple C major the faults of noble husbands, lecherous dons, importunate ladies and susceptible peasant girls, Leopold Mozart, Constanze Mozart, Wolfgang Mozart, e tutti quanti.

This Issue

October 19, 1995