The Magazine

The Real Amadeus

The Mozart of music, and the Mozart of the movies

Aug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By COLIN FLEMING
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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