The Magazine

The Wonder Man

A second opinion on Mozart’s final days.

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By JOHN CHECK
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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.