- Mozart the Dramatist: The Value of his Operas to Him, to his Age and to Us by Brigid Brophy
Libris, 322 pp, £17.50, June 1988, ISBN 1 870352 35 1
- 1791: Mozart’s Last Year by H.C. Robbins Landon
Thames and Hudson, 240 pp, £12.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 500 01411 6
- Mozart: Studies of the Autograph Scores by Alan Tyson
Harvard, 381 pp, £27.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 674 58830 4
The literature on Mozart is almost as diverse, though surely not quite so glorious, as Mozart’s own output. These three books are a case in point: a freewheeling analysis of Mozart the opera composer in the Enlightenment, a thoroughly documented survey of Mozart’s last year, and a technical study of Mozart’s manuscripts. Together, they give us a sense that we are closing in on the real Mozart, stripping away as they do myth after myth and replacing impressionistic conjectures by precise information. It is good news, if hardly astonishing, that Mozart’s stature is in no way diminished by such microscopic examination.
[*] She means, of course, Mozart’s operas, which have for half a century or more received more or less faithful performances – his orchestral music or, for that matter, his chamber music have never lost their power over their audiences.
[†] Not all his material is wholly unexplored: one long passage, which Robbins Landon attributes to a report in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung of October 1800, had already been quoted in Eduard Hanslick’s Geschichte des Concertwesens in Wien (1869-70), and attributed there to a correspondent to the Leipziger Musikzeitung.
Vol. 10 No. 14 · 4 August 1988
What a strange world Peter Gay lives in, divided as it appears – even as he reviews three books on Mozart (LRB, 7 July) – between Freudians and anti-Freudians. Perhaps the avowedly Freudian slant of Brigid Brophy in Mozart the Dramatist, and the authorship of another of the books by a well-known editor of Freud, Alan Tyson – although it does not contain a single mention of Freud – are thought sufficient grounds for his selection as reviewer. In the context, his reference to the ‘anti-Freudian mafia’ – as if Freud presented a complete and all-encompassing system of reality which must not be challenged – can only be comic. At the same time his expertise on the subject of Mozart, primarily conditioned as it would seem to be by such contemporary mythographers as Wolfgang Hildesheimer and Peter Shaffer, leaves much to be desired. The game is finally given away when he remarks of H.C. Robbins Landon’s 1791: ‘Not all of his material is wholly unexplored: one long passage, which Robbins Landon attributes to a report in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung of October 1800, had already been quoted in Eduard Hanslick’s Geschichte des Concertswesens in Wien (1869-70), and attributed there to a correspondent in the Leipziger Musikzeitung.’ It would of course be remarkable if Professor Landon, writing nearly two centuries after Mozart’s death, was wholly dependent on new material. Indeed, it is not saying anything detrimental to Landon or his purpose to point out that virtually none of it is – it is only disturbing that Gay does not seem to realise this. This attempt at easy pedantry further misfires because the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung was the most famous musical journal of the 19th century, and was published in Leipzig. It was therefore the very same journal to which, in familiar terms, Hanslick was certainly referring.
Gay is also wrong in his assertion, correcting Brigid Brophy, that Mozart’s orchestral and chamber music have had a more constant following over the last two hundred years than the operas. At least three of the operas continued to hold the stage throughout the 19th century, and were the public’s major reference-point for Mozart’s music. Knowledge of the instrumental music was sketchier: thus Delacroix, an ardent Mozartian, could write in his journal in the mid-19th century of a C minor symphony, undoubtedly meaning the G minor No 40. In the late 1850s Brahms had to encourage Clara Schumann to take up the Mozart piano concertos, which she did not know. Proust writing at the end of the century about a performance of a Mozart piano concerto by Saint-Saëns is unable to specify which it was – indeed it is not even clear that he realised there were others. It must be doubtful whether Gay’s prognostications on this subject are based on anything more than childhood impressions.
Gay is incorrect in his belief that Wolfgang Hildesheimer is a professional musicologist. The letter’s musical commentary seldom gets beyond pretentious waffle about the significance of keys, devoid of any genuine critical sense of what determines their use. His attitude to historical detail is also essentially casual, a starting-point for whimsical reflection.
Peter Gay’s final burst of scholastic piety has its irony. He writes: ‘As the great German art historian Aby Warburg used to say, Le bon Dieu est dans le détail.’ But does he know for sure Warburg ever uttered this candidate for inclusion in Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, let alone whether he was in the habit of repeating it? Or is it testament to a simple failure to distinguish history from hokum?
Vol. 10 No. 15 · 1 September 1988
John Stone (Letters, 4 August) makes heavy weather of a footnote in my review: having used Hanslick’s history of music in Vienna for years in my work on 19th-century culture, I knew that his citations are hopelessly incomplete. I also know that what appear, by their presumably different titles, to be two journals are, as Mr Stone points out, the same. What I meant to convey in this ill-written note was not that Mr Robbins Landon was misquoting, but that his dependence on earlier material is heavier than it might have been. Certainly all scholars use their predecessors, and the Mozart material has, of course, been diligently explored. My chief criticism (which Mr Stone chooses to ignore) was that Robbins Landon drops in pages-long chunks of texts without the kind of independent commentary one would hope for in a book that is not a collection of documents. As for Wolfgang Hildesheimer, I know that he is not a professional musicologist and I do not anywhere say that he is. I still like his book on Mozart, and have said so. Mr Stone’s heavy-handed comments about Alan Tyson only make my point for me. I praised his study, not because he is a distinguished scholar of Freud, but (as my review should have made plain to anyone) because it is a fascinating study for its own sake. Mr Stone is not a close reader. Evidently he does not believe, with Aby Warburg (and I quoted this favourite saying of his as long ago as 1978, in my Freud, Jews and Other Germans, page 129, basing myself on biographical articles), that le bon Dieu est dans le détail.
Vol. 10 No. 17 · 29 September 1988
Peter Gay (Letters, 1 September) alleges I am not ‘a close reader’, but what am I to make either of his account of my letter (Letters, 4 August) or of his own article (LRB, 7 July)? It is still remarkably hard not to read his footnote as an attempt to correct Landon’s scholarship. It does not read as if it was ‘ill-written’ but it does carry – given his present elucidation – an aberrant meaning. The point that Landon is unoriginal in many places – something which, contrary to Gay, I did address in my letter – remains very weak. Landon was writing a biographical study, not introducing a compilation of newly-discovered documents.
Gay now insists that he did know that Wolfgang Hildesheimer was not a professional musicologist, and that he never said he was. If I may quote: ‘Unlike Wolfgang Hildesheimer … she [Brophy] writes less as a professional musicologist than as a philosophical theatre critic.’ Because the grammar is somewhat clumsy in this sentence I was at pains to point out in my letter that Hildesheimer’s book is not a work of professional musicology either – something which Gay does not in his response take issue with.
I never suggested that Gay praised Alan Tyson ‘because he is a distinguished scholar of Freud’. I merely speculated that the fact that Tyson was incidentally a Freud scholar may have governed what I still believe to be the highly eccentric choice of Gay as a reviewer of books about Mozart. I should also like to emphasise – a perhaps accidental implication of Gay’s letter – that I did not say anything pejorative concerning Tyson’s book.