Slim biographies of the most famous people tend to have a more philosophical slant than the big life-of-so-and-so books. That 200-page volume on Napoleon, say, isn’t going to be some soup-to-nuts treatment, jammed with quotidian minutiae and copious excerpts from letters, but rather a study in how the man’s thoughts while in exile on St. Helena might help you manage your own life better.
This sub-200-page affair on Wolf-gang Ama-deus Mozart from historian Paul Johnson has its own angle: It’s a record-straightener, you might say—here to debunk the faulty mythos of Mozart-the-concept that, for nonclassical music fans, has exceeded Mozart-the-man.
If you don’t pepper aspects of your life with Mozart’s wind concertos and weekend doses of Don Giovanni, there’s a decent chance what you know of Mozart is thus:
When you need to cite a famous composer, you go with either Beethoven or Mozart.
CDs of Mozart are alleged to make your baby smarter.
He’s a lot like the version of him portrayed in Amadeus (1984), who is poor, has that rival who does him in, and was kind of a savant with a love for flatulence jokes.
Actually, Mozart could be pretty earthy; and even in this compact biography we see bawdy humor on display, freely flowing between Mozart and his parents. Don Giovanni—which Johnson puts a peg below The Marriage of Figaro in terms of operatic achievement (an order I’d reverse)—is tantamount to aesthetic porn, as lusty a work of art as you will ever find, and as commanding. Just about.
Johnson is a skilled recommender. That is, you will appreciate the debunking that goes on in these pages. But whether you’re a Mozartian veteran or a newcomer to Mozartworld, you’ll come away primed to check out other items, such as the wonderful set of letters between Mozart and his family compiled by Emily Anderson. These letters clearly informed much of Johnson’s thinking, and rather than tuck them away as potentially compromising evidence that could cut into his achievement, Johnson celebrates them, and so should you. We don’t often think of Mozart as a letter-writer at the level of Keats or Fitzgerald—or even van Gogh, who was a writer so skilled in the medium that I’d argue his correspondence surpasses the artistry of his paintings, one of the neater tricks in art—but Johnson’s excerpts show just what an ordered mind Mozart had and how much he could keep straight inside it all at once.
This skill allowed Mozart to go at a superhuman pace as a composer, something that Schubert would understand but would make almost anyone else incredulous. In theory, Mozart should not have been able to produce with the celerity that he did; and yet, there is the work, the work lasts. While one might quibble over facts from time to time, there is no quibbling with the overriding truth that Mozart did what he did better than anyone has ever done just about anything else—and he did it faster, too.
Mozart’s wife Constanze hasn’t fared as well as she deserves at the hands of biographers; she’s sometimes portrayed as shrewish, doltish, or a combination of the two. Mozart’s father opposed their union—but then again, he opposed much of what his son got up to—and Mozart’s attempts to explain his various positions (which he does with even-tempered logic) are the leitmotifs of the letters.
As for why Mozart married, Johnson nails a big portion of it: “[H]e was lonely and he wanted the intimate companionship of matrimony. He distrusted himself, and he wanted a sagacious person who would help to manage his life and career.” This might seem cold and utilitarian to some, but Mozart himself was anything but cold and not wired to be utilitarian, even though (as Johnson states) he could turn any disadvantage into an advantage, an extra-musical skill that fed his creative approach to music.
Mozart was clearly one of those passionate people who cannot do anything—including enter into a relationship—without a marked degree of passion for the endeavor. In this case, it would extend to a person and, really, a partnership. We see how Mozart let Constanze in on his art and trusted her with it in a way that, for all of his generosity, was uncommon for him. He might have been driving the coach, so to speak, but she rode up front along with him.
Johnson discusses Mozart’s music in terms the nonmusical can understand, and without talking down, although there are a few curious moments of sniping and defensiveness. Speaking jointly of Mozart’s operas, and how he overhauled the genre, and his contribution to instrumental music, Johnson says this:
Opera is unthinkable without Mozart. All the same, if Mozart had ceased to write orchestral and chamber music, there would be a huge hole in our culture, unless you are one of those rich, cultured people who spend virtually every evening at the opera and regard it as the supreme form of art.
I’m not sure where this note comes from. I am a veritable pauper, but these days, more than ever, opera is available on the cheap by way of Netflix, DVDs, even YouTube videos, for anyone who wants it. Still, such outbursts are rare, and while Mozart: A Life is chatty, it wants to make sure you learn a few very specific things before you back away from the table and head into your life again.
Consider Mozart’s supposed poverty. We all know the bit from Amadeus: There’s Mozart, penniless, racing against time, just a nip in front of the Reaper’s scythe, to finish his Requiem. He is reduced to writing begging letters. But, as Johnson writes, “lending money was a part of friendship” at the time, an element of the fraternal code. Mozart was not only “always in the top 5 percent of the population in terms of earnings,” he had a valet, a horse, large rooms, access to a country house and private coach, a billiards table, and the very best piano.
We also find a man bereft of ego, who knew exactly what he did and the level at which he did it. Johnson correctly comments that while we can feel Bach thinking in his work, we’re never conscious of anything in Mozart’s music save the music—which makes hearing it an experience unlike any other. In the spectrum of human achievement, is there anything greater than that?
Colin Fleming is the author of Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories.