Biographies of composers are a relatively recent genre; those of Mozart were among the first examples. Though his life was not as sensational as that of Gesualdo, for example, who murdered his wife, Mozart was, from his early years, an international celebrity whose very personality posed questions beyond the eternal riddle of creativity. How could a mere child—he started performing publicly on the clavichord at the age of six—be so astoundingly versatile? As he toured Europe, going from court to court and salon to salon with his father, Leopold, and his older sister, Maria Anna—a talented musician as well—the delightful little boy in his nattily embroidered outfits enchanted his listeners, readily obliging them with requests, however crass: now playing with the keys covered, now with only one finger, to delighted applause.
All this technical skill and musical inventiveness appeared to be self-taught, a somewhat counterintuitive notion since Leopold, a distinguished composer and court musician and the author of a widely read treatise on violin-playing, was a renowned teacher. But both the first published account of Mozart’s life, the Nekrolog (obituary) brought out by Friedrich Schlichtegroll two years after the composer’s death, and the first formal biography five years later, by the Czech philosopher and critic Franz Xaver Niemetschek, cite many instances in which the six-year-old Mozart turns out to be smarter than his elders. In one story, his father comes home to find that the boy has tried to compose music. The notation on the page appears to be a blotchy blur, but on close examination it proves to be perfectly sound musically. On another occasion the boy asks a famous violinist why his instrument is mistuned by a quarter tone. The violinist pooh-poohs him; the instrument is brought forth, and Mozart is found to be right.
Their father immediately grasped the marketability of both Wolfgang and Maria Anna and whisked them off on tour in the fullest possible glare of publicity, much of it generated by Leopold. On May 17, 1764, just three months after Wolfgang’s eighth birthday, the readers of London’s The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser read an announcement of the forthcoming appearance of
the greatest Prodigy that Europe or that even Human Nature has to boast of. Everybody will be struck by Admiration to hear…a young boy of seven [sic] years of age play on the Harpsichord with such Dexterity and Perfection.
He had his detractors. A year later Leopold indignantly wrote to The Public Advertiser denouncing what he called Mozart’s “Defamers” for claiming that the boy was in fact a man—
a Man reduced by some defect of nature to an insignificancy of person, which conceals from the careless Observer his more advanced age—that he is now in his fifteenth, his twentieth or his thirtieth Year.
It was on that visit to London that the boy, confined to their digs while his father recovered from a throat infection, wrote his first, slight, but highly accomplished symphony, quickly following it with a second and third; he had already written a set of violin sonatas, much admired.
He never ceased, almost to the end of his short life—he died at thirty-five—to be a peerless performer and an astonishing improviser, but as he grew older his compositional genius began to assert itself. At fourteen he wrote the opera seria Mitridate, re di Ponto, and at sixteen, Lucio Silla, very ambitious and very long—three and a half hours of music. After being eclipsed for many decades by the later operas, both are now regularly performed.
Mozart’s early biographers had limited access to information about his touring years as well as the last ten years of his life in Vienna. Niemetschek reports the warmth of his reception in Prague, where Le nozze di Figaro was embraced in 1786 after its less than rapturous initial reception in Vienna and where Don Giovanni had its triumphant premiere in 1787, but the emphasis of these early chroniclers is heavily weighted toward his prodigious youth, and both insist on his childlike nature—playful, feckless, naive. Niemetschek in particular seems to idolize the composer, his only animadversion being incomprehension that his hero should have stooped to setting Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto for Così fan tutte. “Everyone,” he tuts, “was astonished that this man could have demeaned himself to waste his heavenly melodies on such a worthless libretto.” Otherwise, it is Mozartolatry all the way: “Who has once found Mozart to his taste will find little satisfaction in other music. And all this perfection he reached at an age when ordinary artists would hardly have completed their education!”
The next biography was another matter. It was written, or at any rate initiated, by Mozart’s widow Constanze’s second husband, the Danish diplomat Georg von Nissen, who in 1820, nearly thirty years after the composer’s death in 1791, began collating documents, including, crucially, some four hundred family letters given to him by Maria Anna. The old diplomat was shaken to the core to discover that in their correspondence Mozart and his family and friends were gleefully given to silliness and smut. This was not, he felt, how a great musician should be remembered, and he resolved to suppress a large quantity of the letters, in some cases actually rewriting them to give a more edifying impression of the late genius. Perhaps bowed down by exposure to so much high-spirited filth, Nissen died with the book unfinished, but the principles that informed his selection of material were adhered to even more rigorously by his successors. That, alas, was where the rigor ended; the book, when it finally made its sober appearance in 1829, was a shambles.
Curiosity about the life of the unaccountable genius was growing. As early as 1815 Johann Rochlitz, a German playwright, musicologist, and critic, published a letter of Mozart’s that offered a vivid account of how he composed:
When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer…the committing to paper is done quickly enough, for everything is, as I said before, already finished; and it rarely differs on paper from what it was in my imagination. At this occupation I can, therefore, suffer myself to be disturbed; for whatever may be going on around me, I write, and even talk, but only of fowls and geese, or of Gretel and Bärbel, or some such matters.
This letter was quickly seized on as an example of the workings of genius, with the composer—innocent, childlike—a mere conduit for divine inspiration. Alas, it was exposed as a forgery by the archaeologist and philologist Otto Jahn. The English musical essayist Edward Holmes had in 1845 produced the first coherent and thoroughly researched life of Mozart, but it is with Jahn’s searching, methodical account of the composer, which appeared in four substantial volumes between 1856 and 1859, that modern Mozart studies truly began. Jahn articulated for the first time the aim of Mozartean biography:
To represent, not only what immediately concerns Mozart, but also the time in which he lived, his circumstances, and the persons with whom he came in contact, insofar as all these affected the development of his genius.
The Romantic sense of Mozart as emblematic of the doomed artist was by then already well established. Even at the time of his death, the curious circumstances of the anonymous commission of a Requiem Mass, left incomplete on his deathbed, became the subject of stories that he believed himself to be writing his own requiem. Not much later, sensational rumors that he might have been poisoned by the composer Antonio Salieri, his Viennese rival, made the rounds. In 1825 Alexander Pushkin, in political exile on his mother’s estate, became fascinated by newly revived rumors that some years after Salieri attempted to kill himself, he confessed to murdering Mozart. In his handwritten notes to the intense and compact play he wrote on the subject, Mozart and Salieri, Pushkin describes how someone in the audience on the first night of Don Giovanni was overheard hissing: it turned out to be Salieri. “An envious person who could hiss Don Giovanni,” he wrote, “could very well have poisoned its creator.” There is some evidence that the poet, vivacious, full of practical jokes, yet able to concentrate fiercely, identified with Mozart.
At the beginning of the play, Salieri is brooding on how unworthy of his gift Mozart is:
O where is justice when the sacred gift,
Immortal genius, comes not in reward
For toil, devotion, prayer, self-sacrifice—
But shines instead inside a madcap’s skull,
An idle reveller’s? O Mozart, Mozart!
Mozart enters the inn by chance, bringing a broken-down fiddler with him, and roars with laughter when the old chap stumbles discordantly through something from Don Giovanni. This to Salieri is not only sacrilege, an insult to great music, but also a slap in the face for those—as he keenly feels himself to be—less talented than Mozart. But worse than that, as he confesses later, Mozart has left all other composers so far behind that they have become meaningless:
I must stop him now,
Or he will be the downfall of us all,
Us ministers and acolytes of music,
Not only me of humble fame…What good
If Mozart should live on to reach new heights?
Will music be the better? Not at all;
Music will fall again, he’ll leave no heir.
The play, brief as it is, has extraordinary power and an unsettling atmosphere, offering an uncannily vivid glimpse of an entirely credible and many-layered Mozart.
From then on, Mozart belonged as much to the dramatist and the poet as to the musicologist. In his novella Mozart’s Journey to Prague (1855), the provincial German pastor-poet Eduard Mörike describes Mozart and Constanze, on their way to the premiere of Don Giovanni, making an unscheduled stop at the house of a hospitable family of rural nobility. Having been cordially dined and fêted by his hosts, amid much merriment Mozart informally takes them through the new opera, abetted from time to time by Constanze; but then, the mood changing, he describes his state of mind when he composed its penultimate pages. He plays them the scene in which the Commendatore returns to drag Don Giovanni down to Hell. “And now,” writes Mörike,
followed that whole long, terrifying dialogue which snatches even the soberest of listeners away to the borderline of human understanding and beyond it: away to where our eyes and ears apprehend the supernatural, and we are helplessly tossed to and fro from one extreme to another within our own hearts….
Whose heart is not moved, who would not be shaken to the innermost core with simultaneous ecstasy and terror?
Overwhelmed by what they have heard, Mozart’s hosts finally ask him what he felt when he was composing this shattering music. Mozart confesses to having felt a little dizzy:
“Suddenly an unwelcome thought stopped me where I stood.” (Here he lowered his eyes for a moment or two, and when he continued there was a scarcely perceptible tremor of emotion in his voice.) “I said to myself: Suppose you were to sicken and die this very night, suppose you had to abandon your score at this point—would you rest at peace in your grave?”
As clearly as in Pushkin’s playlet (which Mörike almost certainly would not have known), these pages crystallize the image of a death-haunted Mozart. In an exquisite and subtle touch, after the Mozarts have resumed their journey to Prague, the daughter of the house, the sensitive Eugenie, reflects on what she has seen:
The utter conviction grew upon her that here was a man rapidly and inexorably burning himself out in his own flame; that he could be only a fleeting phenomenon on this earth, because the overwhelming beauty that poured from him would be more than the earth could really endure.
The nineteenth-century view of Mozart was increasingly one of a huge talent tragically snatched away from the world when it had only begun to come into its own. As late as 1932 the English poet Sacheverell Sitwell opined: “The maturity of Mozart is lost to us. There are only hints of it in his final work.”
Biographies and scholarly studies continued to appear, but Mozart the man became immensely more vivid with the publication in 1938 of a three-volume collection of his correspondence, compiled, translated, and lightly censored by the Irish suffragette, Germanist, and subsequently wartime code-breaker Emily Anderson. This latter talent helped her unlock some of the Mozart family’s codes and elaborate word games, and the Mozart whom Nissen had done his best to suppress suddenly sprang into multidimensional life—funny, tender, profound, paranoid, pious, ribald, priapic, desperate, affectionate, censorious, arrogant, hardworking, often deeply eloquent. This revelation of the many-sidedness of his character changed the perception of his work, enabling people to discern its intense originality and infinite variety.
After World War II, in both Britain and in America there was a new curiosity about forgotten performance practices, whose discovery seemed to strip layers of varnish from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music in particular. In addition, a fuller probing of the theatrical potential of the operas of Handel and Mozart revealed unsuspected depths and dimensions in them. Books such as Brigid Brophy’s Mozart the Dramatist: The Value of His Operas to Him, to His Age and to Us (1964) and her husband Michael Levey’s The Life and Death of Mozart (1971) examined the historical and social settings out of which the music had sprung; while Charles Rosen—a longtime contributor to these pages—in The Classical Style (1971) wittily and combatively examined Mozart (alongside Haydn and Beethoven) and the musical vernacular he inherited and transformed:
What is most extraordinary about Mozart’s style is the combination of physical delight—a sensuous play of sonority, an indulgence in the most luscious harmonic sequences—with a purity and economy of line and form that render the seduction all the more efficient….
It is only through recognizing the violence and the sensuality at the center of Mozart’s work that we can make a start towards a comprehension of his structures and an insight into his magnificence.
Into this ferment of Mozartean exploration, Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus exploded like a hand grenade in 1979. Mozart was not, at that time, particularly present in the minds—or indeed the ears—of most theatergoers. When the casting director of the National Theatre approached my agent about my playing the part of Mozart, she was unable to pronounce the play’s name (Ämajuice? Amardius?). For the general public, Mozart was a rococo figure, his music tasteful, pretty, harmless: if you’d heard Eine kleine Nachtmusik you’d pretty well gotten the measure of him.
All that was to change. Shaffer had seen in Pushkin’s playlet the rudiments of a grand spectacle, framed, like so many of his plays, as a duel between two men of different generations. Pity and terror were inherent in the material; Shaffer added comedy, a highly effective recipe. He framed the story as a melodrama, with old-fashioned transformation scenes, including an especially effective one in which the doddering, ancient Salieri—played by Paul Scofield—sheds twenty-five years before our very eyes, vigorously rising from his Bath chair, throwing off his shawl, and straightening up while a powdered wig is fixed to his head. Shaffer made sure that my first entrance as Mozart was as shocking as could be, placing in my mouth quotations from the exuberantly scatological letters the young Mozart had written to his cousin. The story of Mozart’s doomed struggle to assert himself, oblivious to the unfolding of Salieri’s Machiavellian plot to destroy his career, was linked to musical extracts that were cunningly chosen for maximum expressiveness and underpinned every phase of the story.
Shaffer pushed Pushkin’s opposition—a worthy and virtuous journeyman confronted with pure genius—to a theatrical extreme; his masterstroke was having Salieri address the audience as fellow mediocrities, so that they become complicit in Mozart’s elimination. This sumptuous piece of theatrical atavism bore little resemblance to the actual events of Mozart’s life, but most nonpurist musicians happily accepted the melodramatization; quite apart from the thespian pyrotechnics, the sophisticated choice of music was a revelation. Many in the audience heard for the first time the Masonic Funeral Music, which opens and closes the play; the sublime Wind Serenade K. 361, which is the first music of Mozart’s that Salieri hears, immediately after being exposed to a cascade of filth as Mozart and Constanze romp around on all fours; and the disco-beat finale of the last act of The Abduction from the Seraglio. Sales of Mozart recordings soared.
For the actors in the play, there was a fierce challenge: how to do justice to Shaffer’s flamboyant melodrama while retaining some connection to the people we were playing. Luckily, I discovered the book that utterly changed my understanding of the man: Otto Deutsch’s Mozart: A Documentary Biography (1965). By reproducing virtually everything that had ever been written about Mozart during his lifetime in letters and in memoirs, it supplied a series of dazzling snapshots that added up to a complete portrait, from life. Finally I knew how to play him: I had met him on the page.
The Mozart literature is vast, a mighty corpus of scholarship, an Aladdin’s cave of research, a great collective attempt to reveal this most extraordinary of composers in all his many facets, both as a quintessential figure of his time and a unique and utterly original individual. Patrick Mackie’s Mozart in Motion aims not so much to analyze as to synthesize, hooking up ideas and welding them together to create complex edifices of thought. The form of the book has something in common with Laura Tunbridge’s Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces (2020), but where her method is to focus on individual compositions, progressing chronologically from early successes to the composer’s final visionary works, Mackie, mercurially tracking back and forth across Mozart’s life, trains his microscope on a single movement, individual aria, or group of pieces, using them to illuminate a moment in European history, a school of thought, or a cultural phenomenon, and thereby to uncover the essence of Mozart’s enterprise. He has other strategies: sometimes he takes an unrelated work of art in another medium—a painting or a novel—and unpicks its strategies, uncovering in the process parallels to what Mozart was trying to achieve in music.
Chapter 1 (“In Motion”) focuses on Don Giovanni, plunging us headlong into its famous first night in Prague, perhaps Mozart’s greatest triumph. Mackie evokes the chaos backstage and out front, then goes in close on Leporello’s so-called catalog aria, in which he unrelentingly enumerates his boss’s pan-European conquests to his abandoned lover Donna Elvira: 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, but in Spain…in Spain, 1,003. “The awful truth is delivered here in a vein of brisk, outrageous comedy by a waggishly officious manservant. Whose side are these frisky violins on?”
This, says Mackie, exemplifies what made opera the most important art form of the late eighteenth century: the aria satisfies the cravings of listeners for pleasure and excitement “while also turning them inside out.” The idea of what an aria might be is profoundly challenged. Mackie then takes a characteristic leap:
Europe was wavering on the brink of the modern world, and Mozart became the key artist of the modern world because his music was so richly fired by so many of the factors and energies at work in this process.
At the end of the nineteenth century Wagner was held to be the quintessential artist of the modern world and Beethoven lauded as a revolutionary; Mozart, not so often. In a sense, Mackie’s book is a justification of this counterintuitive proposition: “Mozart was the sharpest analyst of this world, and his music lets us listen in to the heartbeat and the brainwaves of modern experience in the throes of its emergence.” There’s more to Mozart than meets the ear: “Thinking more deeply about the world in which he worked should also change how we hear his music; our ears should open to more of what those beautiful sounds chase after.”
Mackie wants to alert us to what he calls the trickier or darker aspects of Mozart’s music; over the remaining three hundred-odd pages he enlists psychology, musicology, art history, politics, and social history. It must be said that Rosen (whom he acknowledges in slightly patronizing form in the book’s endnotes) has been here before him, in The Classical Style:
Mozart was as unaccommodating as Beethoven, and the sheer physical beauty, prettiness, even, of so much of what he composed masks the uncompromising character of his art. It cannot be fully appreciated without recalling the uneasiness and even dismay that it so often evoked in its time, and without recreating in our own minds the conditions in which it could still seem dangerous.
But Mackie’s voice, and indeed his mercurial manner, make us think about Mozart quite differently from the more rigorously logical Rosen. His style is never less than exuberant. It has been compared to Mozart’s own, but to my ear it is more like Richard Strauss’s, vaulting, leaping, luxuriating in its own sound. But it perfectly expresses what he has to say:
The vim and the comedy of the catalogue aria are as exhilarating as its picture of a continent with its values upended by one man’s extravagant libido. But exhilaration is mixed here with cruelty, as the aria wheels through territories and categories with a spirit of violent flexibility drawn from Giovanni. Its expansiveness starts to feel grotesque, and so do the combinations of coolness and glee with which this odd manservant runs through the shadowy, crushing facts. The suaveness of the music leaves us nowhere to stand. Finally, the flighty, brutal mockery astir in the aria feels close to reaching out of the opera and turning on us. Are we inside or outside the world shown to us? We do not know whether to be fascinated or repulsed. The music is in motion and so is the opera’s moral world; we listen in inexorable motion too.
In essence, Mackie sees the composer, in whichever form he is working, as a dramatist. This is not a novel concept; what is new is the vertiginous way in which he conjures up a creative artist at full tilt. Sometimes his verbal virtuosity deserts him: “Paris was no longer even fully the centre of French politics even while it sought ever more pushily to define culture for the whole continent.” But then he’ll swiftly redeem himself with an epigram or an inspired coinage: going from salon to salon in Paris, providing entertainment and getting nothing back in return, Mozart became, he says, “a sort of door-to-door salesman of his own brilliance.”
Mackie takes the urgent, unsettled Piano Sonata in A Minor, K. 310, as the fulcrum of his chapter on Mozart in Paris, noting the composer’s much commented-on lack of engagement with the death of his mother while the piece was being written and quoting the shocking letter he wrote home as if she were still seriously ill, when she was in fact lying dead in the adjacent room. Mozart describes the huge success of the Paris Symphony, his favorite ice cream, anything but what had happened:
Maybe the shock of his mother’s death came not so much from the pain of her loss as from the fact that it had happened just as he was bracing himself for the seriousness and solitude that his creative identity would bring. Hereafter a side of him would be alone with his art, pressed up with it against the losses and promises of a modern world.
Here Mackie’s method fully reveals itself: to home in on a single piece, perhaps even a single movement or aria, slice it apart to gauge its character, examine everything that it contains—its historical moment, its musical procedures, its personal background—and thus offer a three-dimensional account of what is embedded in it, its DNA, as if it had been buried and needed to be probed for everything it could tell us about its creator and the vanished world of which it was a part. Mozart in Motion eschews both linearity and comprehensiveness, offering Mozart not only in motion—caught on the wing, so to speak—but at the center of his own universe.
Mackie’s examination of the so-called “Turkish” Violin Concerto no. 5, in A Major, written when the composer was nineteen or twenty, leads him to write about one of the central dilemmas of Mozart’s life: how to deal with his imperious, exigent, tough-loving father, Leopold. We’re introduced kaleidoscopically not merely to the old grump himself but to Salzburg and everything it represented for Mozart, for good or ill, including his relationship with the newly elected prince-archbishop, Hieronymus von Colloredo, for whom both Mozarts were, we are reminded, not merely employees: they were his servants. In this whirligig of a chapter we are also first introduced to Haydn, the most admired composer of his time. When in 1785 he hears the quartets that Mozart dedicated to him, he categorically informs Leopold that Wolfgang is the greatest composer known to him “in person or by name in the world,” a statement that must have been, for a son who had a highly complicated relationship with his father, a deeply moving thing to hear. But by then Mozart was twenty-nine, and his need for Leopold’s approval had ceased to be pivotal.
Mozart’s decision in 1781, at the age of twenty-five, to remain in Vienna was a double rupture, both from Salzburg and from Leopold’s immediate ambit, and it took some ruthlessness on his part to accomplish; things were never the same between them. But by then Mozart’s primary loyalty was to his genius. “Gifts in fairy tales and fables,” notes Mackie,
often bring dark results, and so too a gift on such a scale in the psyche will be trailed by shadows and wounds…. Displaying the grand talent can bring moods of utter absorption capable of effacing the world, and this may not help that world feel solid or nourishing, or make its responses seem trustworthy.
Mozart’s acceptance of the scale of his own talent set him apart from even those closest to him. “If such talent conveys sway and potency,” observes Mackie, “it can also bring neediness and insecurity. Mozart’s zest for communication came partly from his brilliance and partly from needing to find exits from its impasses.” Mackie gives an illuminating sketch of Colloredo, famous for allowing an officer of the court to kick his homegrown genius in the pants, after which Mozart resolved never to be anyone’s servant again. Yet Colloredo was no crass philistine, says Mackie, but “a substantial and talented man, a fine administrator who was also committed to at least some establishment version of enlightenment thought.” On being elected, he hung a portrait of Voltaire on his wall.
The Enlightenment—its aspirations, its contradictions, and its limitations—is almost a secondary character in the book, the increasingly unstable intellectual environment in which Mozart functioned. Mackie returns to it again and again, reading his music as an expression of its tensions:
Did figures like Voltaire and Rousseau really represent the future of the culture, or a past glory that had failed to change anything enough, or alien excitements by which the great city had consented to be stimulated or merely amused in passing? Mozart was on hand to inherit aspects of both their projects; his powers of osmosis were incalculable, and often enough involuntary too. The A minor sonata’s breakthrough is to suggest a version of modern culture capable of declaring its bleakest losses and uncertainties even while it maintains the most radiant surfaces.
We are always made aware of the intellectual currents of the time. In the chapter on the misnamed Jeunehomme Concerto (the talented young woman for whom Mozart wrote it was called Victoire Jenamy), we meet her father, Jean-Georges Noverre, one of the great figures of the cultural world of the late eighteenth century and the creator of ballet as we now understand it. It seems that Mozart wrote the concerto to curry favor with him. If so, the attempt failed, but the account of Noverre gives us a vivid glimpse of the theater of the time. Mackie remarks that “in art it is possible to be impatient and patient simultaneously; in fact great art relies on being so,” one of many epigrammatic utterances in the book, usually paradoxical in form, which may or may not mean anything. He seems determined to write in a certain manner; the gains of doing so are many, but not everything survives close examination.
What follows the Jeunehomme chapter, however, is of such surpassing brilliance that any epigrammatic excess is readily forgiven. It concerns Mozart’s relationship to the viola—“The Lowly Viola,” as the chapter heading has it. Mackie’s thesis is that Mozart, who was a perfectly good violinist, was drawn instead to playing an instrument that had the sterling quality of not being his father’s instrument and had a tonal range that had rarely been exploited. “It wants,” says Mackie,
to be as sonorous as a cello but as agile as a violin, and wants to live up in the air while making sounds better suited to ground level. Mozart’s interest may have been coloured by the ways in which the instrument hangs between two worlds….
[The Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola, and Orchestra] fills itself with sonic bridges and analogies between its vision of the orchestra and the viola soloist, and as a result the solo viola part ends up reinterpreting what soloistic music is meant to be. Far from rising above the orchestra as solo violins tend to do, its colours glint or glare or swim from right within the heart of the sound. It is like watching sunlight work its way through rich clouds.
The chapter enters into the heart of both the music and Mozart’s relationships with his father, Salzburg, and his art; it is a triumph of imaginative exegesis. As one reads, one is there, listening to the music as if for the first time, in the presence of the composer and his father, aware of all the tensions and the difficult love between them. At the same time, Mackie engages with the essence of Mozart’s art:
One reason to keep calling Mozart a classical composer in the widest sense is that his flights and expansions keep arching back towards comprehensiveness and coherence. So in this work every frisson of innovation comes alongside an insistent drive downwards into the solid earth of structure, and every gleam of melody brings broad stretches of orchestral sound in its train.
I know of no other writing about music that so completely reproduces the experience of listening to it. Boldly, Mackie sees the Sinfonia Concertante as a paradigm of the composer’s relationship with his father: “Whether or not they played it together, the piece suggests that the highest relationships have values of equality built in.” Is this musicology? Or a sort of novelistic projection? Or dramatization? Either way, it is hard to think of the music in the same way again:
Within it he can push deep into the sound of the Salzburg musical world, while projecting his artistic claims out onto the culture’s furthest reaches. He can ready himself to break with the little city without ceasing, meanwhile, to be immersed in whatever it still offers. He can be alongside his father without feeling ground down or boxed in. Becoming capable of teaching Leopold was one thing; an even finer achievement was staying able to learn from him.
Mackie is similarly riveting on Idomeneo, which Mozart wrote for Mannheim in 1781, a year that was momentous for him. Despite the rehabilitation of many of his early operas, this one, written when he was twenty-four, is still not among his most popular works, but Mackie makes us aware of the turning point it represents in the composer’s relationship to the genre, notably his growing certainty about what he wanted from it. Mackie notes the supremely confident way in which the young Mozart took over from his journeyman librettist, cutting the text, reshaping it, adapting it to the voices he had at his disposal in the company. Exile is the thread that runs through the chapter: his ongoing absence from Salzburg; the Mannheim court’s reluctant assumption of the Bavarian electorate in Munich; the exile of Ilia, King Priam’s daughter, after the fall of Troy—all fed into his work. Music itself, Mackie says, was in exile. Of the finished score, he writes, “In the end it does become possible to feel a little disengaged from the fervent and rather relentless splendour of the thing”; he is no abject Mozartolator.
At the end of the chapter, going just a little too far, as is sometimes his wont, Mackie begins to work up the notion that homelessness is the crucial clue not just to Mozart’s personal situation, or that of his characters, or even the court or the orchestra, but to all of his music:
Mozart’s finest concertos and symphonies can reveal themselves as brilliantly flexible narratives of errancy and homecoming, can amount indeed to existential allegories of the fates of psyches and societies pitched into change.
Well, yes, they could, but does that really illuminate them in any way? From time to time, the author falls into the essayist’s trap of believing that one idea is the key to everything.
Mackie is desperately keen to make connections, but sometimes they are strained to the breaking point. The chapter on The Magic Flute attempts to link the opera to Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. Speaking of the novels of the period, he floats this insight:
The novel grabbed hold of European literature over this period because as a form it was both satisfyingly monumental and tensely sceptical, and sonata form met the same need in music.
But sonata form has rules that can be adapted, to be sure, even broken, but only within a particular structure, whereas Tristram Shandy, for example, follows no rules whatever, making the form up as it goes along.
But these are mere differences of perception. In Mozart in Motion Mackie has brought intense imagination and a gift for making provocative connections to the life and work of a composer whom he illuminates as both an absolutely central figure of his time and one of profound and still startling originality. In his penetrating chapter on the last three symphonies, Mackie also does justice to the sheer intensity with which Mozart worked as he reinvented the form. One does not have to agree with his dismissal of the earlier symphonies to be exhilarated by his account of Mozart finally turning the full force of his genius on the genre:
Mozart’s voracity towards the past of the art, and also its present possibilities, powers the openness that threw his music into the future. His oeuvre bulges with ways of being both brilliantly and creatively unoriginal, of adapting or siphoning or twisting the music or projects of others; it can feel as if we were listening to hearing itself taken to a maximum level of hunger and creativity.
Mozart, he seems to be saying, puts new music into old pots, while Beethoven smashes the pots: Mozart’s final symphonies’ “lavishness flows from how ambitiously they rethink symphonic form in all its elements, and no evidence exists to establish some specific purpose that any one of them was separately tied to.”
Mackie brilliantly conveys Mozart’s titanic focus. He mentions the unfinished portrait that Joseph Lange, the composer’s brother-in-law—an actor by trade—painted of him. Mozart is in profile, wigless, so presumably at home. “Perhaps,” writes Mackie, “Lange’s closeness to some of the deeper vectors of Mozart’s life helped the picture combine breezy intimacy with a certain tender restraint.” The portrait has exceptional actuality, partly because it shows Mozart absorbed in something beyond the canvas—the score he’s working on, perhaps. To me, it is wholly convincing, like Martin Droeshout’s engraving of Shakespeare in the First Folio. In both cases we see a man whose brain gives him no rest, unendingly structuring and restructuring his thoughts—in Mozart’s case translating them into musical forms and impulses. Both men look worn out, drained by their creative processes.
The final chapter, naturally, concerns the requiem mass that Mozart was writing at the end of his life and that he left substantially unfinished. It was, famously, a mysterious commission from an allegedly unknown nobleman in honor of his recently deceased and beloved wife. Mackie is inclined to give this story the benefit of the doubt. “Perhaps,” he says, “there is some truth to the stories about some paranoia provoked in him by not knowing, as his health worsened and the days shortened.” Or perhaps, as a man of deep imagination and profound dramatic instinct, he connected to the unknown commissioner’s grief:
The vivid ardour of Mozart’s requiem is built to survive on the darkening historical terrain that was coming. The sweet decorative glee of the eighteenth century has been purged almost wholly from the requiem, right at the same time as it drains from history. But the music does not pause to regret what it jettisons, because its commitment is to the passionate artistic adventurousness that it safeguards and extends even as it does so. The weather in Vienna late in 1791 was especially awful. As the nights lengthened around Mozart’s dim apartment, he was composing something that would move beyond the ambiguities of his world and his situation precisely by grasping them so deeply.
Jan Swafford, in his Mozart biography, The Reign of Love (2020), writes, “In the end there is only love. As it always did in the end for Mozart, love reigns, a love of hearts and minds and bodies.” This is touching but fails to do justice to the uniquely complex man and artist that is its subject. Mackie, coming at him from all angles, takes us very close to meeting Mozart himself—in motion, indeed.