By Paul Johnson
(Viking, 164 pages, $25.95)
For those of you with readers and music lovers on your Christmas list, boy do I have the perfect stocking-stuffer.
Conservative British historian, journalist, and author Paul Johnson is rightly esteemed for his early long and detailed historical books, including A History of Christianity, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, The Birth of the Modern, and A History of the American People. Those with vast amounts of reading time can learn vast amounts from these meticulous works, which are still available.
In his later career, Johnson, now 85, has turned to short but revealing portraits of important historical figures. In the last decade or so Johnson has parsed Socrates, Jesus, Napoleon, Darwin, and Churchill to our advantage. Now, in fewer than 200 pages, Johnson has produced a portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that will give pleasure to and increase the understanding of old Mozart hands as well as those reading for the first time about the man who may have created more beauty in 35 years than anyone who every lived.
Johnson outlines Mozart’s life, focusing on the music. He also economically portrays Mozart’s relationship with his wife, with other composers of his time, with the librettists and musicians with whom he worked, with the sometimes demanding and stingy royal patrons who employed and abused him, as well as with his musician father, Leopold, who abandoned his own career to promote that of his precocious son. (Next to the word “prodigy” in the dictionary, is a likeness of Mozart — he was a mature and productive composer in most musical forms by the age of 12.)
Though Mozart’s life was short, his production was vast and consistently of the highest quality. He composed rapidly and nearly painlessly; his scores showed very few erasures. He left behind more music than composers who worked into their dotages. Franz Liszt said that Mozart composed more bars of music than a trained copyist could write in a lifetime. An exaggeration perhaps, but not by much. Ludwig von Kochel, who more than a half century after Mozart’s death catalogued and numbered Mozart’s works, identified more than 600 compositions. The Requiem in D minor, unfinished at Mozart’s death, is Kochel 626. (Had Mozart enjoyed more decades of life and composing, Kochel might have been the one to die early, of exhaustion.)
Johnson gives evidence against some things commonly believed about Mozart — including some retailed in that entertaining but not always historically accurate 1984 Milos Forman movie, Amadeus. Johnson argues that though Mozart was often poorly paid for his work, largely because the music publishing industry did not exist yet and the royals he often worked for were tight as ticks, he was hardly poor. In fact he led what today we would call an upper-middle class life. Mozart was not buried in a pauper’s grave.
While Mozart liked the ladies, and they liked him, he did not bed sopranos seriatim, as has been suggested in some quarters. He was a jovial and friendly man who liked a joke and was prone to flirt. But he wasn’t a rake. Johnson says the evidence is that Mozart and his wife Constanze enjoyed a happy marriage, and she was not the flighty, poor household manager some have suggested.
In dealing with one of the biggest flights of fancy surrounding Mozart’s life, Johnson declares that Mozart’s contemporary, composer Antonio Salieri, was not unhinged by envy of the vastly musically superior Mozart, and certainly did not poison him. Mozart’s cause of death has been identified as camp fever, a form of typhus, aggravated by Mozart’s chronic kidney problems.
But the bulk of Johnson’s short work is not devoted to these tabloid type controversies and speculations that cling to Mozart, but to his music, a gift to the world that is still giving after almost two and a half centuries.
For lovers of Mozart’s music, in which camp I confess I serve, it’s harder than with most composers to choose one’s favorite pieces. Mozart composed many masterworks in all the important forms, and in the case of opera and symphonies, helped those forms to evolve to higher states.
In the summer of 1775, Mozart, at 19, wrote five violin concertos, some of the finest in a form to which he never returned. The instrument was improving in Mozart’s day, thanks to things like longer necks, strengthened fingerboards, and more robust strings. And he got the best out of the improved violin, which, along with the piano and viola, Mozart could play to concert standards.
Other composers of some repute — Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Tchaikovsky — all produced only one violin concerto, each of these very fine (I can find no fault with those who say Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is his most pleasing work). Jean Sibelius, who also produced one violin concerto, put it: “The violin takes it out of you, and if you pull off a concerto, you must rest content for life.” Mozart “pulled off” five before he turned 20, five which are still performed, recorded, and enjoyed today.
There is some confusion about how many symphonies Mozart wrote. Kochel originally listed 41, though a small number of these from Mozart’s early days turned out to be composed by others, and a small number of Mozart symphonies turned up after the original count. But the important thing is that many of Mozart 40+ symphonies are memorable and continue to be performed. (To sample from the best, start with Symphony 36, “Linz,” Symphony 38, “Prague,” or Symphony 41, “Jupiter.”)
In addition to these forms, Mozart turned out a gaudy number of concertos and sonatas for various instruments, masses, cantatas, oratorios, songspiels, magnificats, serenades, songs, marches, dances, and chamber music almost without end. His final composition was his single requiem (those who listen to it cannot fail to grasp, as Johnson does, that Mozart took his religion and his God seriously).
And then there are Mozart’s operas. Giants of the form, conjured by a man with no background in the dramatic arts and whose main composing efforts were in other musical forms. Operas in Mozart’s early years were, as Johnson phrases it, “glorified plays with music, in which famous singers performed celebrity solos and the band tagged along.” But with Mozart’s genius for presenting character through music, “human voice and instruments became a seamless garment.”
Mozart is the first composer of operas whose major works have never been out of the repertoire. One does not have to search long to find where performances of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan Tutte, or The Magic Flute are available. Most agree that opera’s three giants are Wagner, Verdi, and Mozart. But while these first two devoted their entire creative efforts to the form, opera is only part of Mozart’s remarkable creation, and not the largest part.
It’s impossible to separate Mozart the personality from his music, which is stamped all over with his belief that life is meant to be enjoyed. Genius and a sunny view led to music that is sensuous, and so full of charming melodies that it’s easy to miss the fact that it also has depth. Mozart is serious — but with him this never means solemn.
With the likes of Shakespeare and Mozart, writers attempting to render them save themselves considerable agony if they understand at the outset that genius and geniuses can never be explained. They can only be described. Johnson does a fine job of describing here. Like his latest subject, he never strikes a false note.