Mozart at 250


by Julian Rushton
Oxford University Press, 306 pp., $30.00
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…

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