Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; drawing by David Levine


More than any other famous composer, Mozart arouses not just admiration but envy. Brahms once called him the greatest disaster that can happen to another composer. Debussy, in his combat against the mainstream Teutonic tradition, said that it was a pity that Mozart wasn’t French, because he would be worth imitating.

For the two hundred fiftieth anniversary of his birth, publishers have produced several new books to mark the event, but it has become difficult to find something both new and interesting to say after centuries of celebration in which so many conflicting views of Mozart have already been offered. Two of the best new accounts are by Julian Rushton and David Cairns, historians who coincidentally are specialists in Berlioz as well as Mozart. Rushton’s is simply entitled Mozart. He discusses both life and works, treating the latter in separate chapters by genre (keyboard music, sacred music, German opera, etc.). It is not deeply original, but always sensitive, judicious, and stimulating. It is too short—not too short for Mozart but for Rushton, who has certainly much more to say that would be of interest. There are many music examples, but there should have been more.

A measure of what Rushton’s book has to offer can be seen from a splendidly rich sentence in his final summary:

No one moved as he does, above all in his later instrumental music, with such swiftness, serenity, and sleight of hand to create a musical argument combining his greatest loves—counterpoint, chromaticism, comedy.

The only important omission in his admirable book is revealed by his comment on the two versions of Don Giovanni, the first for Prague in 1787, the second for Vienna a year later. The new singer for Don Ottavio in Vienna could not sing the difficult aria “Il mio tesoro” in the second act, and Mozart wrote a new and simpler one for him in the first act, “Dalla sua pace,” and composed a virtuoso aria for Donna Elvira, “Mi tradí,” to replace the brilliance of the tenor’s own. Rushton comments: “Any sentimental attachment to first thoughts (Prague) comes into conflict with the excellence of Elvira’s new scena.” However, in the Prague version, Donna Anna’s tremendous call for vengeance on the murder of her father is followed at once by the scene with Don Giovanni’s so-called “Champagne” aria, a celebration of debauchery, making a grand effect with a dramatic contrast of tonalities. In the Vienna version, “Dalla sua pace” damps down the contrast.

Rushton does not adequately consider how Mozart constructed his operas with startling changes of action musically rendered by dramatic changes to harmonically distant keys, and the way that the occasional incoherence of the libretto is offset by the impression of logic given by the music. Rushton claims that Mozart was “no reformer,” and this is true in the sense that he belonged to no official, dogmatic movement of reform, but by sheer willpower he did more than any other composer before Wagner to ensure that an opera had a musical logic that could both exist on its own and interpret the action.

David Cairns’s more specialized treatment, Mozart and His Operas, is a loving account of the operas starting with I domeneo. The earlier works are quickly dispatched in a dozen and a half pages: this is a pity only for La finta giardiniera and for the unfinished Zaide—fragmentary as the latter is (it lacks, however, only an overture and a closing number), it is masterly throughout, and Cairns shows that he knows that even as he dismisses the work rapidly. It contains two of Mozart’s finest arias, two of his most accomplished ensembles, and his two most interesting experiments in what was then called “melodrama,” that is, the combination of spoken dialogue and music.

On the later works, Cairns is consistently judicious, giving a detailed account of the commission, the composition, and the production of each opera: the chapter on I domeneo, above all, is brilliant and satisfying. His comments on the music are always cogent, but there are far too few musical examples: I do not want to be told, for example, about “the magical erotic effect of the strings’ still [i.e., tranquil] chord after two bars of chirpy woodwind in Zerlina’s ‘Vedrai, carino'” without a quotation so that I have to rush to the bookshelf for the score. Both Cairns and Rushton make out a case for the recently reinstated opera La clemenza di Tito, but their efforts seem halfhearted. Cairns says the duet for Servilia and Annio is “ravishing”; I agree, but along with the too short finale of Act I, it is the only number in the opera that seems to me genuinely inspired.

Nicholas Kenyon’s Faber Pocket Guide to Mozart is an excellent work, giving a quick summary of the life and a well-informed, surprisingly complete view of the work. Instructive and entertaining throughout, it is marred only by a decision to give stars to the pieces that Kenyon considers the most deserving—one to four stars like a guide to restaurants. It is only human to respond less to some works than to others, but advertising a lack of appreciation is undignified. How can the concerto that Alfred Einstein called the equivalent for Mozart of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (K. 271) get only one star? It is Mozart’s first masterpiece and with an unsurpassed revolutionary treatment of the conventions of concerto form. Why does Beethoven’s favorite quartet by Mozart—the A Major—get only two stars? Why does the concerto with my favorite slow movement (K. 453) get only two stars? Every reader will have different reasons for indignation. When Kenyon admires a work, he writes very sensitively, and we could forgive his reticence about other pieces if his lack of enthusiasm was not enthroned by his grading system.1


The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia is a more uneven production. Edited by Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keefe, two of the most important Mozart scholars of the past half-century, it has forty-nine contributors. Almost everyone that Mozart knew is given a potted biography; there are articles on all the important cities he visited, many of the composers he influenced and was influenced by, and surveys of all his works.

Eisen’s brief article on the viola quintets contains some of the finest writing on Mozart that I have read. Indeed, few of the other accounts of the music come up to this level: Eisen should have written more of the book himself. Keefe’s entry on the concertos is admirable but far too short: there was no room to mention extraordinary achievements in the concertos, such as the combination of fugue and opera buffa style in the finale of K. 459, the dramatic slow movement of K. 466, the development section of the opening Allegro of K. 595 (see footnote 5). The article on the Musical Joke (an example of the way idiots would write and play music that Mozart actually made delightful) says only “See SERENADE,” but the article on serenade does not mention the Musical Joke. There are two long articles on aria, but astonishingly none on ensemble or finale.

In his Mozart, Rushton observes that the originality of Mozart’s opera buffa “lies mainly in the ensembles,” and adds that “the multi-movement finales [are] among the glory of these operas.” In the Mozart Encyclopedia, the article on The Marriage of Figaro does not even discuss the famous second- and fourth-act finales or mention the sextet that Mozart thought the finest number in the opera. That is like writing about Hamlet without mentioning the soliloquies. There are, of course, many other things to say about these works, but an encyclopedia is supposed to provide what is traditionally considered basic even if it is old hat to the specialist.2

The survey of the works in the Mozart Encyclopedia, naturally brief, is sometimes unduly perfunctory. Calling the Andante of the A Minor Sonata for Piano “graceful” with no other comment, for example, is absurd since this movement at its center has an explosion of violence unparalleled in any other slow movement of Mozart except for that in the D minor concerto; it would have been better to say nothing than to be so inadequate. The volume is useful but disappointing: the article on reception only treats of the eighteenth century and does not even touch on the history of Mozart’s reputation in the centuries to come.


In 1783, when Mozart was only twenty-seven years old, the teacher of the thirteen-year-old Beethoven in Bonn said that “he would certainly become another Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart if he continues as he has begun.” Evidently Mozart had recovered from the often damning reputation of a child prodigy and was already accepted as one of the leading European masters, although outside the German-speaking countries (and even within them) his music was often contested for its difficulty, complexity, and unintelligibility until well into the nineteenth century.

We may conveniently assess the character of Mozart’s fame by the poets and artists to whom he was compared. In a conversation with the emperor of Austria, Joseph II, in the 1780s, the composer Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf compared him to Klopstock, a poet renowned for his difficulty and his pretensions to the grand style, who transferred the meters of classical Greek poetry to German verse.

Less than two decades later, Mozart’s glory had reached the summit from which it could no longer be dislodged, although it could be shaken, and different views of his music would develop over time. In a novel of 1803 by the Romantic master Jean Paul, who would be the favorite writer of Robert Schumann, there is a discussion about music in which Haydn, Gluck, and Mozart are compared grandly to Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. One of the company objected that “it was all right about Gluck, but Mozart was more like Shakespeare.”


Only four years after this, a disciple of Jean Paul wrote a review of Beethoven’s EroicaSymphony, in which he compared Beethoven to Jean Paul, for his fantastic imagination and humor, and Mozart to Schiller for his passion—“unfortunately we have no composer like Goethe,” he added. This is the figure of Mozart exploited a few decades later in 1843 by Søren Kierkegaard in Either/Or: he had become the model Romantic composer, with Don Giovannias the ideal, or, indeed, for Kierkegaard, the only possible, opera, embodying the essentially erotic nature of music.

In the nineteenth century, however, the standard coupling of Mozart with another artist was to be Raphael, possibly initiated by the painter Ingres, who idolized both, and Mozart was transformed into an icon of classicism, an emblem of grace and purity. As the century proceeded, both Mozart and Raphael suffered, not from a loss of prestige—that was only too firmly in place—but from a growing disdain among the avant-garde of practicing artists and composers for the established classicism in favor with the academies of art and music. Bernard Shaw protested acutely that people did not realize how powerful Mozart was because his music was so beautiful. Brahms’s appreciation of Mozart was equally passionate and nostalgic: how wonderful it must have been to be a composer at the time of Mozart, he thought, “when it was easy to write music,” as if Mozart was the great representative of a prelapsarian age, before the exile from paradise.

The view of Mozart as a master of a conventional, respectable style obviously called for revision, and it was sensibly provided by an age of expressionism in the early twentieth century. With the generation of Arnold Schoenberg, the qualities of morbid passion, tragedy, complexity, and radical experiment were restored to Mozart: he became a modern composer. The most systematic expression of the new view was found in the work of the greatest biographer of Mozart, Hermann Abert; he revised Otto Jahn’s nineteenth-century biography, but made it into basically a new work, with the emphasis on the music, its sources, and its development, rather than on the life3 ; he also wrote the article on Mozart for the 1929 Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music, a once indispensable reference book. The editor, shocked at its dark revisionist view of Mozart, printed it out of respect (Abert had just died), but protested that Mozart had always been compared to Raphael, while this made him seem much more like Michelangelo.

It is significant that this new view restored the sense of difficulty that Mozart’s contemporaries had found in his work, but making it a virtue rather than a failing. As late as 1812, the novelist Ludwig Tieck, protesting the latest works of Beethoven, had written: “If we may call Mozart mad, Beethoven often cannot be distinguished from a raving lunatic.” The difficulties of Beethoven’s art were correctly attributed to his adherence to the tradition of Mozart.


Today, the most recent generation of music historians has attempted to dismantle the view of Mozart as a radical visionary and reduce him to an ordinary artisan, better at his job than anyone else, of course, but just trying to make a living. Nicholas Kenyon, after an excellent summary of the changes of Mozart’s reputation in his Faber Pocket Guide, gives a sympathetic account of the new perspective:

We cannot be sure if “composing freely” is a concept that Mozart would have understood or desired: all the evidence is that he yearned to be needed and appreciated—to be asked to write music because people wanted it, to show off the skills of his singers and players as well as possible, to make the most of whatever practical performing circumstances he was faced with. Yes, he wanted his audiences to enjoy his music, and to show by their attention that they were enjoying it. Yes, he wanted his music to be better, cleverer, more passionate, and more memorable than everyone else’s, and probably believed it to be so, but there is not a shred of support for the idea that he ever consciously wrote for some far-distant future.

We have, however, at least a shred of evidence that Mozart thought beyond the immediate practical circumstances suggested by Kenyon. In a letter on February 12, 1778, Leopold Mozart went somewhat beyond his usual exhortations to his twenty-two-year-old son to make enough money to support his parents:

Now it depends solely on your good sense and your way of life whether you die as an ordinary musician, utterly forgotten by the world, or as a famous Kapellmeister, of whom posterity will read.

There is, after all, something missing from Kenyon’s picture of Mozart’s ambitions. He wants to be a success, he wants to be loved by his performers and his public, he wants his music to be acknowledged as better than everyone else’s—but he seems not to care what kind of music it is, he has no artistic principles, he never tries to win over listeners or musicians to music they might not have expected. That is not the Mozart of history. Already at the age of twenty-two, when the leading singer at the Munich opera complained that in the quartet of I domeneo (“the highest musical achievement of the opera,” according to Rushton) he could not spianare la voce, that is let the voice float lyrically and evenly above the orchestra, Mozart retorted that the singer didn’t seem to know that in an ensemble you were not supposed to sing spianato but parlando, with a speaking effect. In fact, if Mozart had not so often been intransigent about imposing his own standards, his own vision of music, he might have been given the permanent post in a large city that was always refused him and that went to more accommodating composers like Salieri,4 about whom posterity reads only because they had some contact with Mozart.

Each of these successive views of Mozart has its merit. He was, as so many of his contemporaries thought, a difficult composer whose music was challenging to follow. More than twenty years after Mozart’s death, E.T.A. Hoffmann was still defending him against claims by other musicians that his harmony was incomprehensible. The comparison to Shakespeare and Schiller made sense, as the dramatic power of his work is still astonishing today. Kierkegaard’s insistence on the erotic element in his work was certainly accurate. Mozart could write a love duet as erotic as Wagner (in Cosí fan tutte, the music of the duet for Guiglielmo and Dorabella graphically illustrates the caresses of his hands as he feels her heart beat), although he was constrained by the musical language of his time—he could not, like Wagner, make a love scene last three quarters of an hour.

Mozart as the correct composer, the Raphael of music, is equally persuasive: he was a master of all the conventional tonal procedures of his time, and the correctness of his counterpoint impressed Chopin as much as the work of Bach (when he tried to explain counterpoint to a layman like Delacroix, he was just as likely to refer to Mozart as Bach). The early twentieth century’s image of a turbulent Mozart drew attention to his expressive power, and it is still to some extent the approach of those who are most passionate about his achievement. It has, however, the disadvantage of diminishing an appreciation of his technical skill. In spite of his radical experiments, Mozart could be one of the most conventional composers of his time—except that no one ever handled the basic conventions with such skill and such ease, and he must have gloried not only in his ability to shock, but also in his facility at producing the conventional with such purity and grace.

Long phrases of absolutely conventional figuration and banal motifs articulate his works at the end of short sections, and give the structure its clarity. (Beethoven imitated Mozart closely in this respect, but he had the knack—already to be found in Mozart, but with less panache—of making one think that he had invented the most conventional motif expressly for each piece.) Writing about Mozart, we are always tempted to dwell on the extraordinary purple passages without noticing that in every case they are followed or preceded by the most conventional devices.5 They complement and support each other.

After a century of modernism, it is hard for us to delight in the simple craftsmanship of Mozart. The advantage of the most recent approach, above all in the brilliant researches of Neal Zaslaw and Cliff Eisen, is that it restores this craftsmanship, makes us understand Mozart as artisan, not working in a void but with the everyday problems of singers, instrumental performers, impresarios, and patrons, and it has enlarged our understanding of how his art came into being, and how it worked in his world. The preoccupation of both writers with the everyday aspect of music production, however, tends to impose an image of Mozart as an accommodating fellow, always giving his patrons, singers, and public what they wanted. But there are too many cases of Mozart willfully going his own way to make this tenable. After receiving the first of three commissioned piano quartets, for example, the publisher canceled the contract: the music was too difficult.

A comic example of Mozart’s suiting himself rather than his clients is the Sonata in D Major for Piano, K. 576. In The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, there is some difference of opinion about this work. According to Cliff Eisen on p. 184, this is one of the easy keyboard sonatas that Mozart said he was writing for Princess Frederika of Prussia, but on p. 470 John Irving writes that “the whole of the sonata K576 is technically beyond all but the most experienced performer.” Eisen is right, as a glance at the slow movement will show (there is a beautiful section of exceptional simplicity where the young pianist need play with only one hand at a time). But I have heard great pianists like Walter Gieseking and Solomon mess up the first movement.

What happened is that Mozart was unable to resist showing off his polyphonic ingenuity; the main theme lends itself easily to stretto (a contrapuntal device like “Row, row, row your boat” in which a melody is played with itself by having a second voice come in with it after the first has started). In K. 576, the second voice enters and combines with the first after one beat, then after three beats, then again after six beats, and some of this is difficult to play, particularly when the two voices are only one beat apart, because the strong accent of the theme no longer coincides in the two hands. The only phrases of the first movement that are difficult to execute are in simple two-part counterpoint (that is, when each hand has to play only one note at a time), and Mozart mistakenly seems to have thought that this was easy—much like J.S. Bach, whose Two-Part Inventions were also intended for beginners and are actually very hard to perform. It is clear, however, that Mozart miscalculated out of vanity or exuberance, displaying his contrapuntal skill just as he did in the finale to the JupiterSymphony, the Wind Octet, the second-act finale of Cosí fan tutte, and so many other works. In any case, the rest of the sonata is easy, unless one tries to make the last movement, which should be played at a sedate tempo, into a stormy virtuoso piece.


No one really writes for posterity. Occasionally a stubborn, hardheaded artist produces work that is not immediately popular, but hopes that the public will eventually come around. Nevertheless, the concept of posterity had a clear and novel importance for musicians in Mozart’s day: he arrived on the scene together with the invention of the history of music. The first significant attempt to write such a history came from Giuseppe Martini, called the Padre Martini, a Bolognese composer and scholar, with whom Mozart studied briefly when he was fourteen—he always mentioned him with reverence afterward—and from whom he derived much of his contrapuntal learning. It was at this time that the Padre was working on his history: the publication did not get very far, only through classical Greek music theory, but some of the medieval material was in manuscript. He certainly intended to include the contemporary scene, since he collected portraits of all the important musicians of his day, including one of the young Mozart.

The first publication of a history of music that dealt with both the medieval and the contemporary age arrived from Charles Burney when Mozart was twenty years old in 1776. Burney did not really know Mozart (although Mozart, at the age of four, had sat on his lap), and he later recorded another musician’s opinion that the prodigy had not lived up to his early promise. His interest in the history of music, however, marked a radical change in the conception of the art. For the first time, musicians could be placed on a level with painters, writers, and architects: they could be compared to Sophocles, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo.

This was a moment of crisis for composers. Patronage and support for music from church and court was diminishing and even being withdrawn. Haydn, professionally imprisoned in a small court at Esterhazy, found his independence and international prestige by exporting his symphonies to Paris, by publishing his quartets, and, released from his duties at Esterhazy, by traveling to London and directing his works in concert—that made him a fortune. Furthermore, like Figaro in Mozart’s opera, composers were beginning to resent their status as servants to the aristocracy. An enhancement of their prestige had become imperative.

Mozart was perhaps the most ambitious composer in the history of music. He produced at least one and generally several imposing masterpieces in almost every genre of music—concerto, song, opera (serious and comic, German and Italian), string trio, string quartet, string quintet, quintet for piano and winds, trio and quartet for piano and strings, quintet for wind instrument and strings, divertimento for wind octet, double concerto for violin and viola, symphony, piano sonata, violin sonata. Although he left no completed major work of religious music, his two fragments—the C Minor Mass and the Requiem—are monumental even in their unfinished state. In comparison, Haydn’s major successes were largely restricted to the two genres of symphony and string quartet; only when he was much older than Mozart ever became did he create his most impressive piano sonatas, piano trios, and the important vocal works with the late masses and the two oratorios. And only after Mozart’s Prague Symphony had surpassed in size and weight any of Haydn’s orchestral works, setting an example, did he expand his symphonic style.

Mozart expanded the forms of his time by combining genres. The finale of his Piano Sonata in B-flat, K. 333, is a large concerto movement, with imitations of the contrast of orchestra and soloist, and a huge cadenza like an improvisation. He introduced operatic effects in his chamber music, and symphonic and concerto passages into his opera arias. His concertos have moments of intimate and complex chamber music. The finale of the JupiterSymphony has an unprecedented display of learned counterpoint, simultaneously combining six themes. He magnified almost every genre in which he worked.

Mozart’s string quintets and string trio have a spacious gravity never before achieved in chamber music. The power and drama of his Fantasy and Sonata in C Minor were not to be found again in piano music until Beethoven appeared on the scene. The Marriage of Figaro was much longer and more serious than any comic opera before; Da Ponte apologized for the length by claiming that he and Mozart had created “something absolutely new.”

Mozart was to trump that achievement two years later with Don Giovanni, in which a mythical, iconic figure of two centuries of European renown was given a tragicomic artistic form that crushed most of the previous incarnations as well as those still to come. In a spectacular effort in the first-act finale, Mozart placed three dance orchestras for the ball on the stage, each one playing entirely different and even contradictory rhythms but in perfect harmony, the greatest pyrotechnical display of contrapuntal art ever put on the stage. With The Magic Flute, he went still further, combining popular Austrian style with music of religious gravity, a double fugue for an overture, a chorale prelude on a Lutheran hymn (in Catholic Vienna!) in the style of J.S. Bach, a virtuoso display of coloratura passagework that is still dazzling, and music of the most exquisite and moving simplicity to celebrate the ideal of fidelity in marriage.

No wonder he was never offered an important official position at court. Although famous and even celebrated, he had to live by occasional, well-paid commissions and by teaching piano.

This Issue

May 25, 2006