I began reading at age 4, starting out with elementary school texts such as Fun With Dick and Jane. Some time shortly after that I read Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, The Bobbsey Twins and The Wizard of Oz series of books. But, I fell in love with Plutarch’s Lives, which introduced me to the wonderful world of the ancient Greeks and Romans. To this day biographies remain my favorite genre, followed closely by mysteries.
Over the past few years, I have begun acquiring the many biographies in Penguin Lives. I recently vacationed in Williamsburg, VA. where I found an extraordinary bookshop, Mermaid Books located at 421 Prince George St., selling, among other things, first editions and signed editions of works by well and lesser known but highly collectible authors. I was pleased to find a boxed set of three editions including Leonardo da Vinci, Jane Austin, and Mozart.
While I have a Masters in Liberal Arts with a focus on literature, I do not presume to be a qualified book reviewer. However, I am an avid reader and am sharing my thoughts on Peter Gay’s biography Mozart.
My previous exposure to Mozart’s life and times has been limited to the movie and stage versions of Amadeus and reading libretti for his various operas. Some of what Peter Gay writes about can be gleaned from those sources, but much of what he passes on to us was either new information or a different take on popular myths surrounding Mozart’s life and death. The prime examples of which are the myths surround Salieri and the manner of Mozart’s burial. The scenes in Amadeus with the scatological and lewd comments are confirmed as traits of both his youth and adulthood.
Chapters 1 to 3 focus on Mozart’s early years, describing Mozart’s prodigious talents and his troubled relationship with Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s overbearing father. Peter Gay describes in great detail how the father tried to control every aspect of Wolfgang’s life, including his married life. Leopold quickly learned that he had been surpassed in every musical way by his talented son. He also learned that Wolfgang’s earnings capacity could be exploited and at a very young age, Wolfgang became the major source of financial support for his entire family. There is no surprise then when one reads that Leopold did everything possible to control every aspect of Wolfgang’s life, including making attempts to prevent Wolfgang from marrying and taking the largesse from his talents elsewhere. Young Wolfgang’s nature which was one of trying to please his father made it difficult for him to break free. As Gay writes, Leopold was able to control Mozart from beyond the grave.
It is during these years that Wolfgang becomes tired, bored and stifled with living in Salzburg which, in those days, was a kind of provincial backwater and he constantly looked to escape to the larger stages of Vienna, Prague, London and Paris. His father and to a greater degree, the Archbishop of Salzburg did everything possible to keep him in Salzburg.
Wolfgang did break free in 1781, resigning from the Archbishop’s service. The Archbishop’s Chamberlain, Count Karl Felix Arco rudely terminated Mozart’s services by kicking him in the rear end. According to Gay, “This definitive dismissal has become a standby in the storehouse of legends about Mozart, yet it seems to have actually happened: Mozart himself vouches for it.”
Mozart went freelance after receiving the ceremonial kick in the behind. In the 1780s Vienna, as the cultural center of the Hapsburg Empire and the third largest music center in Europe, had a growing class of well-to-do aristocrats who relocated to Vienna in much the same way as people looking to improve their financial lot move to within the Beltway these days. These people, seeking exposure and the power and influence that go along with successful exposure were more than willing to be seen as supporting the arts.
Mozart’s timing was spot on; with Vienna’s heady music scene, he was sure to profit. With his enhanced financial resources took the first important step toward breaking away from the influence of his father by marrying Constanze Weber who, along with her sisters, was an accomplished musician. Mozart fended off his father’s attacks against the union by describing his bride-to-be as far from beautiful, but a good housekeeper. One can only wonder whether Constanze read that letter. On the plus side Constanze’s sensual appetites matched Mozart’s. According to Gay’s account, “their marriage would be shadowed by tensions but marked also by companionship and sensual satisfaction.” As an aside I would observe that, were it true, this would have been a great marriage.
These years were a time of prodigious professional and economic growth for Mozart. Chapter Four, Freelance, describes the works produced during these years in great detail. When we get to Chapter 5, Beggar, we see that the childish Mozart was unable to manage money; spending the time up to his death constantly begging for financial aid and ending up in desperate financial straits. Constanze was much the better business person. After Mozart’s death she shrewdly marketed his work and did quite well for herself and her family.
Chapters Six and seven cover his tremendous growth in talent, fame and influence. Chapter Six describes his musical mastery and Chapter Seven, my favorite tells about his role and dramatist where, he and Lorenzo da Ponte created the greatest operas ever written and produced. I have been fortunate enough to have seen two versions of The Marriage of Figaro performed live in Los Angeles. I have seen The Magic Flute at the Garnier Opera House in Paris, in German with French subtitles, but I have never heard or seen Cosi fan Tutti. Gay’s descriptions and anecdotes related to Mozart’s work and the popular reaction, alone, make this book a more than worthwhile read. In fact, I have just purchased the dvd of Cosi fan Tutti and eagerly await its arrival.
Chapter Eight, the Classic covers Mozart’s mysterious commissioning of his Requiem. Gay writes: “Decades later Mozart’s widow recalled his telling her that he was writing the Requiem “with the greatest pleasure since it was his favorite kind of music; his friends and enemies would study it after his death as his masterpiece and swan song.” I had not know that he did not live to finish this work but a combination of his notes and access to Mozart’s gifted pupil, Xaver Sussmayer, a minor composer resulted in a filling of the gaps.
The remainder of this final chapter covers the time until Mozart’s untimely death. It discusses the wrong-headed myth about Salieri poisoning Mozart and what has been often described as Mozart having been buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
Penguin Lives publications are, in a way swords that cut both ways. They are concise and to the point, but they leave out a lot. The various authors attempt to compensate for the lack of detail by including lengthy lists of sources. Should you read this book, I recommend reading the Notes section and following up on your own.
I do wish that there had been room to cover the influence on Mozart’s operas of the sopranos he used, especially Nancy Storace. Wikipedia has a good article on her life and work. According to Gay and his sources, Mozart wrote the part of Susanna in the Marriage of Figaro especially for her and to take advantage of her voice and comedic skills. This topic is one that I will research further when I have time.