Obscene Child

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Biography by Piero Melograni, translated by Lydia Cochrane
    Chicago, 300 pp, £19.00, December 2006, ISBN 0 226 51956 2
  • Mozart: The First Biography by Franz Niemetschek, translated by Helen Mautner
    Berghahn, 77 pp, £17.50, November 2006, ISBN 1 84545 231 3
  • Mozart’s Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music by Jane Glover
    Pan, 406 pp, £7.99, April 2006, ISBN 0 330 41858 0

As Saul Bellow once wrote, we have a problem talking about Mozart. It is the fear of having to contemplate transcendence and being embarrassed by something for which we have no vocabulary. To make matters worse, Mozart composed sublime music but, in contrast to Beethoven, had the wrong personality for sublimity, being prone to clowning and lavatory humour. Think of the babyish and buffoonish Amadeus of Peter Shaffer’s play. Or the impetuous, tousle-haired and disconcertingly North American figure in the Milos Forman film, stalked through the Vienna night by Antonio Salieri to the sound of the Dies irae from the Requiem. Franz Niemetschek, Mozart’s contemporary, whose biography (not the first, pace Berghahn, but the second) was published in 1798, concedes Mozart’s propensity for jokes but presents him as a gentle soul who, as Cliff Eisen remarks in his introduction, is almost a candidate for sainthood. ‘Who can unravel all the countless felicities, the fathomless beauties of his art?’ Niemetschek asks: ‘Who can describe in words his new, original, sublime and sonorous music. Listen with an open mind, and you will feel this more keenly than can be expressed in words.’

Such passages were easier to write at the end of the 18th century than at the beginning of the 21st, especially when the author was a Prague professor of philosophy undoubtedly well schooled in rhetoric. Both Piero Melograni and Jane Glover sidestep the issue of transcendence. Melograni, like Niemetschek, is an academic: an Italian political scientist whose best-known scholarly work is Lenin and the Myth of World Revolution. Not surprisingly, the music itself (as opposed to its commissioning, performance and reception) is almost absent from his account of Mozart’s life. But at least – unlike Lenin, who told Maxim Gorky that he couldn’t ‘listen to music too often, it affects the nerves, makes you want to say kind, silly things’ – he shows no discomfort in its presence. In the liveliest of these books, the conductor Jane Glover focuses mainly on family relationships, with the exception of an interesting chapter on Mozart’s singers and how he tailored the music to fit their gifts and capacities.

Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s father, is a key figure in every account of Mozart’s life. Leopold was the creator and artistic and business manager of the child prodigy, and he continued to shower his son with advice and criticism even after Wolfgang’s emancipatory departure for Vienna and marriage to Constanze Weber in his mid-twenties. In his 1995 biography, Maynard Solomon gives perhaps the strongest version of the case against Leopold, depicting him as a control freak who tried to maintain his domination of Wolfgang by treating him as an eternal child. Glover, too, is definitely on the anti-Leopold side; she notes his habitual lying, his ‘essential meanness of spirit’ in his dealings with his wife and daughter, and describes him as ‘tyrannical and paranoiac’, not to mention ‘hysterical, self-pitying, often irrational, melodramatic, verbose and manipulative’. Melograni, too, notes that Leopold was a past master at instilling guilt in his formerly model son (whose motto as a child, as he later reminded his father, was ‘Next to God comes Papa’) and, thanks to his ‘anxious disposition’ and tendency to discourage Wolfgang from innovation, was increasingly an impediment to his musical development. As to how Wolfgang felt about his father, perhaps Shaffer and Peter Hall captured his ambivalence in the two contrasting backdrops used in the first American production of Amadeus, one showing a huge, lowering Leopold-as-Commendatore; the other a transformed Leopold-as-Sarastro, emblematic of wisdom and love.

Maria Anna, Wolfgang’s elder sister, known as Nannerl, is another puzzle. Did she harbour lifelong resentment because Wolfgang first outshone her as a prodigy and then, as an adult, lost interest in her? Or was she, as Glover suggests, basically a proud and loving sister, despite fading from the picture after Wolfgang settled in Vienna and both siblings began their married lives? Melograni believes Nannerl was ‘jealous of her brother’ for his greater success as a child prodigy and latterly was also ‘angry at him’. Glover does not gloss over Nannerl’s faults – she was highly-strung, inclined to shout at servants and succumb to illness at times of crisis, an obsessional keeper of lists, and lacked her brother’s liveliness and humour – but presents a more sympathetic portrait, especially when she writes about the problems Nannerl faced after her marriage (in 1784, at the late age of 33), when she found herself banished to cold and dreary St Gilgen, living with an older widower whose children were hostile and out of control.

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