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.1 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 narrow thesis about the Mozart family letters and how they should be read.

Mozart biography has to lean heavily on his correspondence and that of his family, including especially that of his father Leopold—those three fat volumes which have fascinated so many readers: Mozart now as effervescent as a piano concerto finale, now as caustic as A Musical Joke, now as pathetic as a soprano aria in G minor.

This last mood appears only in a much-discussed set of begging letters written in 1788-1791 to Michael Puchberg, a wealthy cloth merchant, friend, and Masonic brother. These letters furnish the chief source of information about Mozart’s severe financial straits at this time, and also the most vivid testimony to his state of mind. Abject and desperate, barely clinging to his self-respect, Mozart “opens his heart” to Puchberg in a distressing show of groveling and self-flagellation.

O God!—I can hardly bring myself to despatch this letter—and yet I must! If this illness had not befallen me, I should not have been obliged to beg so shamelessly from my only friend. Yet I hope for your forgiveness…. Adieu. For God’s sake forgive me, only forgive me!—and—Adieu!2

Can we, must we abide this? Letter writing for Mozart was not the spontaneous expression of one’s real feelings, Schroeder maintains. It was a calculated literary exercise with an end in view. He notes the special passion for Carnival on the part of both Mozart and his father, and he sees Wolfgang as Harlequin, slipping on one new mask after another for his different encounters. The son learned about writing letters from the father, who as an author of some note (Leopold’s treatise on violin playing gained him considerable cachet) absorbed the literary culture of his time—an epistolatory literary culture exemplified by Richardson, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. Baron Melchior Grimm and Mme. d’Epinay, the Parisian friends and supporters of the Mozarts, were both great letter writers; he was responsible for that major instrument of the philosophes, the Correspondance littéraire, and she for several epistolatory texts, one entitled Letters to My Son.


Leopold resolved to publish a biography of his “miraculous” son—he said so in print: an epistolatory biography, no doubt, inspired by the epistolatory essay Lessons from a Father to a Son of Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, a mid-century poet, fabulist, and moralist much admired by German readers who thought of themselves as up-to-date and respectably enlightened. Leopold had corresponded with Gellert. His beautifully turned out bulletins to his family and to others in Salzburg describing the European triumph of his two child prodigies, circulated, copied, and carefully preserved, would have filled the opening chapters. Gellert also wrote two manuals on letter writing (Lord Chesterfield wrote one too): he enjoined parents to leaven moral advice with wit and pleasing anecdote. Leopold covers every grain of advice offered by Gellert’s father and provides an irresistible narrative to sugar the pill.

Once taught the art and artifice of letter writing by his father, Wolfgang used it against him in the long, coruscating epistolatory war of independence from Leopold’s overbearing domination. This began in 1777, when he embarked on a long job-hunting tour to various points in Germany and then Paris, aged twenty-one and accompanied by his mother—“one of the most famous disasters in musical biography,” as one observer has put it3—and continued well past 1781, when he quit Salzburg for Vienna and the life of a free lance. Veracity was a casualty in this war, as Leopold soon understood (and as Wolfgang once even admitted). All Mozart’s statements of fact must be scrutinized as possible disinformation, all his declarations of piety and virtue as possible camouflage.

Mozart applied what he had learned to his other correspondents—his wife, friends, creditors. He grew adept at telling them what they wanted to hear. Discovering in Puchberg a susceptibility to the discourse of ego collapse, he spun out tales with what Schroeder calls “The Virtuosity of Deceit”:

For Puchberg, Mozart acted a role he played for no one else, becoming for him a real-life sentimental épistolier, a familiar character emerging from the pages of a recognizable literary genre to touch his subject’s heart (and, in this case, purse).

Wolfgang Hildesheimer, too, in his provoking biographical study of 1982—the study that will not go away—evoked an eighteenth-century artistic genre to interpret the abject letter to Puchberg from which I have quoted. He read it as accompanied recitative:

It begins with the exclamation “Gott!,” much like the “Deh!” of opera seria. According to the musical grammar of the Neapolitan school, this would be a G minor chord. It is the heroine innocently plunged into distress. The pain is genuine, but the effect upon the recipient is a calculated one. A few lines later, with confused interjections, the declamatory tone dissolves and gives way to unrhetorical lament, a theme with abundant variations.4

Even John Rosselli, who never misses an opportunity—who indeed creates opportunities—to reject unsupported speculation about the composer, credits Hildesheimer’s interpretation here, and one can see why. We would rather have Mozart devious than miserable.


He was miserable, however, all the same. The letter to Puchberg says he is too ill and miserable to compose—a threat, Schroeder might say, that he will not be able to start working again, so as to be able to work off his debts, without another loan. In fact he really was composing next to nothing when he wrote the letter and this was driving him crazy, or at least into a state that made people stop and stare.

Mozart’s fallow periods are glossed over in many biographies, though the statistics are plain enough. In good times the record he maintained of all his work—his Verzeichnüss aller meiner Werke—expanded as prodigiously as Leporello’s catalog in Don Giovanni, tallying in one year, 1786, four concertos, a symphony, three trios, a string quartet, a piano quartet, a sonata for piano four hands, The Marriage of Figaro, and a dozen smaller pieces. In 1787, however—coincidentally or not, the year of Leopold Mozart’s death—Wolfgang’s output began to slow. After Così fan tutte, premièred in January 1790, he produced nothing of any scope for at least four months, and in midyear only a spasm of “oppressive labor” (mühsame Arbeit) led to the completion of two string quartets that were already half written (K. 589, 590). Then he remained inactive for another five months. The turnaround came in December, when he completed three very substantial works (K. 593, 594, 595).

Explanations for this dip in productivity have often been brought forward. War broke out with Turkey, distracting and dispersing the patrons Mozart relied on for commissions and subscriptions to his concerts. Emperor Joseph II died soon after the opening of Così fan tutte and the theaters closed. His successor showed Mozart less favor. Rosselli adds that in 1788 Joseph authorized opera to be performed during Lent, an action that drew audiences away from concerts, the staple of a freelance career. All in all, he seems satisfied with these explanations.


However, Mozart’s difficulties with composition did not begin in 1790. They go back at least to his Paris trip of 1777-1778. En route, friends at Mannheim helped get him a substantial commission for several flute concertos and flute quartets, but only a few of them were done when it came time to go on to Paris, and he collected less than half of the promised 200 gulden. This was no small matter. Short of money, the travelers were receiving missives from Leopold full of dire financial warnings, and they had repeatedly cited this commission as their best prospect.

Wolfgang had been too busy to finish, he wrote Leopold. “Moreover, you know that I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument which I cannot bear.”5 Really? How deeply can one hate the flute? To judge from those flute pieces that he does seem to have completed, it couldn’t have taken long to turn out some more. Although Wolfgang was indeed busy, now that he was out of Leopold’s oversight for the first time in his life, he could write what interested him, not what Leopold demanded of him. He was writing a mass that he hoped would impress the Elector Karl Theodor, not dull chamber music that he knew would get him paid.

One can take Wolfgang’s letter as a veiled way of telling Leopold this. Or perhaps he was reporting on an actual writer’s block. Perhaps we have here the first sign of a syndrome that can be deduced for the rest of his life. Peter Gay attributes Mozart’s problems in his late years to his lifelong contest with his father, a construction drawn from Maynard Solomon’s important biography of 1995, where it is developed at length.6 Leopold, according to Gay,

implanted in his son irreparable feelings of guilt and an awareness of emotional and financial obligations left unfulfilled, obligations that would continue to plague Mozart as long as he lived…. Leopold Mozart had taught Mozart that to fail to repay loans promptly was to lose one’s credit, and to lose one’s credit was to lose one’s honor. The father, even more powerful in death than he had been in life, had, it seems, won the duel after all.

Gay’s focus here is on Mozart “The Beggar”—his chapter title—rather than Mozart the composer. If we balance submission to parental demands on one level with resistance to them on another, the picture may become clearer. Distaste (or lack of enthusiasm) for the flute triggered his first episode of aggressive writer’s block. Later in life, there were more of them, and by this time it looks as though in general he did not function at his best except under unusual stimulus, a sort of musical shock therapy.

Not only did the quantity of his music shrink but something happened to its quality. A change in its mood, hard to analyze, has evoked adjectives from commentators and other listeners such as simple, spare, disengaged, resigned, veiled, death-chilled, melancholy, or merely sad. “Every stirring of energy is rejected or suppressed,” said one of them.7 Mozart’s music of the later 1780s has lost the verve and the immediacy of the earlier music. The music does not communicate as unselfconsciously as it did, as though the composer, less involved, is beginning to lose interest in his audience.

The change comes through most clearly in those beloved music-theater pieces where Mozart, at the piano, puts on a dazzling show for his admirers, those of them in the orchestra as well as those in the audience. Passionate piano concertos in the minor mode work the crowd as ably as scintillating ones in the major—no fewer than fifteen of them between 1782 and 1786. In contrast to these extroverted scores, Piano Concerto No. 23 in B-flat, K. 595, of 1788-1791 has become “a touchstone of Mozart’s ‘late style,”‘ in Rosselli’s words. One passage “has about it an infinite yet detached mercy,” another “work[s] through a pallid to an uncanny and, last, to a universal sadness, yet the music never raises a cry, never goes beyond self-communion.” When the piano first enters in this concerto, so far from trumping the orchestra’s theme it offers a subtly submissive variant, and when the orchestra responds to the piano, it almost fades away. Solo and orchestra have become slightly wary collaborators here. Something new (and certainly something very beautiful) has replaced the vivacious and stimulating friction in the old solo/orchestra relationship.

Rosselli responds to the special beauty of works from what he calls “The Last Phase” and also to their reserve. In the Clarinet Concerto of Mozart’s last months, passion seems withdrawn:

A conductor can nudge it towards wanness, but even that goes no further than the transparency of a life self-consumed; Mahler’s “farewell” last movements in Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony are, by comparison, memory-laden…. The astonishing modulations, the varied wind harmony of the “royal” piano concertos and the late symphonies give way to accompaniments so finely calibrated as to make a sound at once enchanting and diaphanous. We might call this the draining of Eros from Mozart’s creative personality.

For a palpable sense of the sheer joy of creation, it is hard to match Mozart’s earliest opera for Vienna, The Abduction from the Seraglio, dating from just before the earliest of the Viennese concertos. This is a composer absolutely and exuberantly at the top of his form, showering the singers with everything they needed to impress and more, luxuriating in the orchestra, and turning out such unheard-of inventions as Pedrillo’s serenade and Osmin’s famous breakdown in the closing vaudeville. For the first time he found a marvelous musical outlet for his notoriously well-developed sense of fun, in the comic numbers and also in the so-called Turkish music that crashes ludicrously into the score at unexpected times. (Not much of this drum-thumping, triangle-rattling, and piccolo-squealing survives the decorum of today’s productions, such as the recent one in New York…in spite of the New York City Opera’s capacity for amplification; only “early music” performances and recordings give us a charivari, Mozart with his Carnival noisemakers.)

Also palpable, in the operas of the mid-1780s, is his more mature elation at the new dramatic virtuosity he could achieve in The Marriage of Figaro. With Don Giovanni, the virtuosity turns hectic, tragic, obscene. Così fan tutte, on the other hand, “an opera about op-era,” is exquisite, literary, and super-sophisticated; low humor is now out of the question, and the wit is tinged with melancholy. One year later, in 1791, came La clemenza di Tito—“a distinguished work,” Rosselli remarks, but

how much of it lives in the minds of the audience after curtain fall?… We seem to hear the composer turning out music to a high standard but deliberately rather than spontaneously engaged.


Increasingly, I think, this composer needed the stimulus of novel challenges. Figaro, needless to say, had provided such a challenge. Opera was always his passion. He had been starved of the theater for four years, and collaboration with da Ponte made it all the more exhilarating; he had never before sat down with a librettist on terms of intellectual equality. With Don Giovanni the stimulus was the subject, not the poet. I have never felt that Mozart was happy with the libretto of Così fan tutte.

The troubled genesis of the quartets for King Wilhelm Friedrich of Prussia seems indicative. Mozart got down to them at once, on the return journey from his visit to the Prussian court in 1789, drafted three quartets almost simultaneously, and brought one to completion; but he let a year go by before finishing the others. He had risen to a self-imposed challenge: since the King was a cellist, the texture of the scores would be heavily biased toward the cello parts. Then after finishing one piece he lost interest or impetus. He always found this medium difficult, and in the latest movements of the “Prussian” Quartets the cello returns to its normal role.8

With the three last symphonies of 1788 we may infer an unspoken challenge from Joseph Haydn. Like Mozart’s earlier set of six string quartets, these symphonies laid claim to a genre that Haydn had made his own, and that Mozart would now enhance. The two earlier symphonies from the Vienna years had not achieved the individuation of character that he now provided for the Jupiter Symphony and its companions in E-flat and G minor. There is no lack of verve or engagement in these great works.

An entirely unsubstantiated anecdote is transmitted about another case of writer’s block. For the première of La clemenza di Tito, the maestro is in Prague with the singer Josepha Duschek, a friend of many years. But where is the overture? Messenger after messenger arrives to call for it:

Mozart calmly answered the reiterated injunction with “Not a single idea will come,” [Josepha] shouted at him, “Then for heaven’s sake begin it with the cavalry march!” He flew to the spinet and after the first two bars of the cavalry march, with which the overture really does begin, the melodies tumbled into place, the overture was finished, was quickly orchestrated, and the messengers hurried off with the sheets, still wet.9

The messengers hurrying with their inky papers sounds like a clip from Amadeus, but the idea of Mozart dragooned into action by a musical joke sounds right.

Two great projects came his way in his last year to raise his spirits, The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) and the Requiem. He would have found much about the opera project stimulating: the novelty of it, the Masonic aspect, the solemnity and the silliness, perhaps the invitation to reinvent the flute, as well as the incentive, not always considered salutary, of Schikaneder’s companionship. Emanuel Schikaneder was the easy-living actor-manager who wrote the libretto, with Mozart looking over his shoulder.

Robert W. Gutman also believes that the project realized a longstanding ambition to create a major German opera. Although he may take Mozart’s statements to this effect too seriously, since other statements record his enthusiasm for Italian opera, something must account for Zaide, the Singspiel he composed in 1779-1780 almost to the end—an hour and half of music—without any commission. German opera had launched Mozart’s career in Vienna; Gutman thinks that he got Schikaneder to model the plot of The Magic Flute on The Abduction, which remained his one greatest success.10 In both operas a noble young man with a humble companion sets out to rescue his beloved from a tyrant who turns out to be benign, and in both the lovers prepare to meet death together just before the end.

As for the Requiem: before this commission began to haunt Mozart he must have welcomed it. He had just gained the promise of a good position at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where the Kapellmeister seemed near death, so he would now be devoting himself to church composition for the first time in years. He seems to have had his eye on this position for some time, and had begun making sketches with sacred texts. It is a tragedy that the Requiem was left unfinished at Mozart’s death and had to be completed by his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr; a performance is always a trial because one cannot shut one’s ears (or walk out) when Süssmayr’s portions are sounding. Gutman solemnly exonerates Süssmayr: “If, at moments, solecisms mar its instrumentation or musical grammar, the burden sustained by a mediocre talent attempting to intuit the processes of genius provides pardon.” More to the point, Rosselli remarks sourly that parts of “this hybrid work…are merely decorous—and they are not all Süssmayr’s.”

Perhaps. But both this unfinished and certainly uneven work and The Magic Flute mark a return, I think, from the mood of Tito and the late concertos. Mozart was newly engaged. If he had lived, he would likely have written his best (perhaps his only) music to meet further unprecedented trials—challenges, breaks, dares that would have come his way or that he would have gone out of his way to find. Like Tamino and Pamina he would have emerged, as W.H. Auden wrote, “out into sunlight.”


Clearly a labor of love, Mozart: A Cultural Biography by Robert W. Gutman is the fullest biography available, the most colorful and crowded, and the most oracular in tone. The author announces at once his

loving admiration for this affectionate and generous man, an austere moralist of vital force, incisiveness, and strength of purpose who, though—like all—bearing the blame of faults and lapses, yet played his role in the human comedy with honor, engaging with grace the frustrations of his complicated existence: his goodness of heart, unaffected charm, winning ways, and self-humor run like gorgeous threads through its web.

Hence his devotion to all the minutiae of Mozart’s career, his determination to fill in every detail of fact and implication to be squeezed out of the letters, whatever the cost in compacted sentences and breathless footnotes. Virtually every personage visited, every opera attended, every music lesson, every hostelry gets its mention. Also included are sections or whole chapters on the Enlightenment, the War of the Austrian Succession, Freemasonry—where is the storming of the Bastille?—and annotated lists of music throughout.

The contingency of biography is barely acknowledged in this book. If there are gray areas in Mozart biography, or other writers with divergent things to say about it, the reader will never know. The only documentation given is for the two thousand or so quotations, mostly from the Mozart family letters. Gutman has read the necessary literature, though he does not cite or credit it, and as he says, the reader “will discover more than one unaccustomed interpretation of familiar documents and incidents” in his text, though he does not say where. In those that I have detected, speculation is sometimes pushed hard. I have learned from some and disagree with others.

What I also detect is a resolve to put the best possible construction on everything Mozart said, felt, and did—another outcome of this biographer’s attested admiration for his subject. In eight hundred pages Gutman includes only one or two sentences on the Puchberg letters and none at all on Mozart’s reported strange behavior in the late years11—his depression, his involuntary hand movements, his inappropriate horseplay. Even his students receive the benefit of the doubt, as the sentence about Süssmayr demonstrates. High on detail, low on focus, this book is biased inexorably by love.

This Issue

March 23, 2000