Discussions of what would prove to be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s last years tend to fixate on his death. Much talk there is—for Christoph Wolff, too much talk—of Mozart’s decline or fall, of the quality of resignation that supposedly crept into his music, even of the “autumnal world” that his late work is said to inhabit.

In contrast, Wolff, Adams University Professor at Harvard, is concerned with Mozart’s life—with his ambitious composition program and fervid assimilation of technique, the zeal with which he approached new projects and pursued his dream of acquiring distinction. Such emphasis on futurity endows this short yet altogether serious book with refreshing buoyancy.

During the last four years of his life (1788-1791), Mozart served the emperor of Austria as a court composer. Two compellingly drawn figures from that time are introduced in the first chapter: the emperor himself, the music-loving Joseph II, and the composer Antonio Salieri. As for the latter, he is very far from the envious hack made infamous by Amadeus (1984). A skilled composer, and one Mozart genuinely admired, Salieri was also a man with a talent for administration. It was Salieri whom the emperor entrusted with the position of court Kapellmeister, which had onerous everyday responsibilities. Mozart, meanwhile, received an appointment (as a composer and chamber musician) that included few actual responsibilities, allowing him the leisure to compose. The emperor showed himself to be a good judge of both Salieri’s temperament and Mozart’s genius. And there was no greater admirer of Mozart’s genius than Antonio Salieri.

Wolff quotes from a letter written by Mozart less than two months before his death. The two composers had recently attended a performance of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute:

Salieri listened and watched with great attention, and from the overture all the way through to the final chorus there was not a single number that did not elicit from him a “bravo” or “bello.”

Mozart’s position also allowed him time to branch out from Vienna and spread his reputation. In Frankfurt, he presented a number of concerts to drum up interest in his new work. In Leipzig, he gave a three-hour concert to showcase his versatility and virtuosity as a composer, conductor, and pianist. Unfortunately, the concert was more successful musically than financially, owing to characteristically inadequate planning on his part. About his stay in Berlin, little can be known for certain, but it likely saw Mozart taking in a number of concerts, meeting musicians of all sorts, and visiting some of the city’s salons, especially that of Sara Levy, in Wolff’s words, “a truly pivotal figure in the emerging bourgeois culture of the Prussian capital.”

Scattered throughout the book are details that help convey something of the flavor of everyday life in what it would not be going too far to call the Age of Mozart. One table provided by Wolff itemizes the salaries of Mozart and other imperial musicians, while another lists the addresses where he lived and how much he paid in rent; an appendix shows what, at the time, money could buy, whether a loaf of bread at six kreuzer or, for twice that amount, a music lesson with Leopold Mozart, the composer’s father. (The son charged 10 times as much as his father.) Mozart’s lavish spending habits are also set out. There is even an excursus on the subject of his deformed ears, which, according to some scholars, suggested he had trouble with his kidneys.

Wolff is at his best when describing the structure and context of individual works, ranging from the slight but well-wrought Gigue in G major

(K. 547) to more extensive ones, among them the last three symphonies (39-41), The Magic Flute, and the unfinished Requiem. Wolff’s treatment of the Piano Sonata in F major (K. 533) is especially fine: This work, he writes, “represented Mozart’s first and only piano sonata that featured imitative poly-phony from the very start.” (Imitation refers to the repetition of a melodic idea in another voice; poly-phony, quite literally, to music written for many voices or parts.) In the case of the first movement, the pianist first plays an idea using high notes in the right hand, then using low notes in the left hand. In the recording I have, Daniel Barenboim’s EMI release (1985), the left-hand imitation begins at the 0:11 mark. Not only is imitative polyphony used at the beginning, it returns, often prominently, throughout the remainder of the movement.

For seven pages, Wolff discusses the context of this “ambitious” and “extraordinarily sophisticated” sonata, whose technical demands, he holds, were “without parallel.” Why did Mozart write it as he did? Part of the reason had to do with his conception of himself as an artist: He wanted to be taken with the utmost seriousness. Celebrated as a wunderkind piano virtuoso, Mozart wanted, in Wolff’s view, to prove that he had grown up and mastered the craft of musical composition in its full complexity. Such mastery necessitated absolute fluency in the polyphonic techniques that were a hallmark of the work of earlier composers, J. S. Bach chief among them.

But there appears to be another reason why Mozart wrote this sonata when he did and as he did. He wanted to please his boss: “The composer knew well that Joseph II was especially fond of the strict polyphonic style, not only in church music but also in instrumental works.” Equipped with training in music, reasonably proficient as a keyboardist, and proud of the composer in his employ, the emperor would have realized, within a matter of measures, that Mozart in this sonata was up to something out of the ordinary—and, one assumes, he would have been deeply flattered by the appeal to his aesthetic sensibility.

Given that the first movement of the K. 533 was such a stylistic departure for Mozart, it is somewhat striking that he should have appropriated a previously written work, a rondo (K. 494), for the third and final movement. Interesting, too, how he modified the rondo to bring it into stylistic agreement with the opening movement. Chiefly, he inserted a newly composed section near its end marked by the energetic use of imitative polyphony. The original K. 494, in Mozart’s judgment, must have lacked sufficient heft for it to serve as the finale to his big sonata; something was needed to lend it greater weight, greater moment. This is exactly what the insertion provides.

Mozart’s forward-looking nature is ably demonstrated in Wolff’s discussion of two works from the composer’s last year. The Magic Flute, he insists, was not so much an ending as a beginning:

From the perspective of a completed oeuvre, it seems natural to view [it] .  .  . as a culmination or even the teleological goal of a line of development rather than a conscious fresh start. Yet, when Mozart conceived the work, he definitely had his eye fixed on the future—albeit a future whose artistic progress and end eludes any speculation.

As for the Requiem, Mozart seems to have welcomed its commission, viewing it as an opportunity to compose the kind of sacred music he felt sure he would be called upon to write once he had obtained a more influential position. It was not to be.

While Wolff’s writing is clear, a knotty sentence here and there calls for untangling. (Wolff’s first language is German.) Academic locutions appear, but in pardonable number. The few genuine lapses stand out all the more because they are so rare: the use of “valedictorian” when “valedictory” would have been better; the use of “politically correct” when the less charged “politic” seems to have been intended. The book contains little in the way of musical examples set out in notation, always off-putting to readers without musical training.

Mozartians—a category that includes nearly everyone who loves serious music—will profit immensely from Christoph Wolff’s splendid book.

John Check teaches music theory at the University of Central Missouri.

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