1791: Mozart’s Last Year 
by H.C. Robbins Landon.
Thames and Hudson, 240 pp., £12.95, May 1987, 0 500 01411 6
Show More
Mozart: The Golden Years 1781-1791 
by H.C. Robbins Landon.
Thames and Hudson, 272 pp., £14.95, October 1989, 0 500 01466 3
Show More
Show More

The first thing that strikes the reader of Professor Landon’s many books is how very likeable they are. His enthusiasm and energy have remained undimmed over the years, and his disarmingly unpretentious style of writing brings the world of late 18th-century Austria vividly to life. The preface to 1791 begins with a description of how the author first fell under the spell of Mozart’s music at the age of 13, and ends with a sentiment with which few would want to take issue: ‘The Mozartian legacy ... is as good an excuse for mankind’s existence as we shall ever encounter and is perhaps, after all, a still small hope for our ultimate survival.’

It is sad to see that the same preface finds it necessary to explain Mozart’s popularity at the expense of his greatest contemporary, Haydn. Haydn, we are told, does not invite us ‘to share in his problems because he has reduced these problems to a brilliant intellectual tour de force. His great quartets, symphonies and religious music unfold before us like a pageant which we watch with fascination but which does not necessarily require our personal participation, our immediate emotional involvement.’ This, said of the composer of such heart-warming works as The Creation and The Seasons, the ‘London’ symphonies, the ‘Nelson’ Mass and the string quartets Op. 76, is hard to swallow; and coming from a scholar who has done more than anyone else in our time to promote the cause of Haydn’s music, it is strange indeed.

Robbins Landon’s avowed intention in both these books is to make some of the fruits of recent Mozart research available to the general reader. Although they adopt a rather different approach (1791 is essentially a chronicle of the events of that year, leading up to the composer’s premature death on 5 December, while its more lavishly-illustrated successor ranges considerably wider, and includes some discussion of the music), the two books are intended to be complementary. For this reason, the main events of Mozart’s last year – the composition of La Clemenza di Tito and The Magic Flute, the circumstances surrounding the commissioning of the Requiem, and the nature of the composer’s final illness – are glossed over in the later book. This means that neither volume contains any musical comment on Mozart’s last two operas, whereas in the second volume the three great collaborations with Da Ponte earn an analytical chapter to themselves.

Landon’s chronicle of Mozart’s last year actually begins in the previous autumn, with the composer’s attempt to bring himself to the notice of the new emperor by appearing in Frankfurt at the time of his coronation. ‘Laying siege to Leopold II,’ notes Professor Landon wrily, ‘was a dubious operation for a composer,’ and the venture was certainly not a success. Back in Vienna, Mozart spent the first three months of 1791 trying to improve his desperate financial situation by writing dance music. (‘Too much for what I did, not enough for what I could do,’ he scribbled on a receipt for a set of dances.) It was, as Landon says, an appalling waste of Mozart’s genius.

Mozart’s next bid to obtain financial security was to seek the post of Kapellmeister at St Stephen’s Cathedral, in succession to Leopold Hoffmann, who had become dangerously ill. To this end, it is likely that he composed his Kyrie in D minor, K.341 – no doubt intending it as the start of a solemn Mass. However, Hoffmann recovered, and Mozart did not continue with his Mass. The impressively austere Kyrie has previously always been ascribed to Mozart’s Munich period of 1780, on no better grounds than that it uses the same large orchestral forces as some of his other music of that time, and the drastic new dating (mainly the result of research by Alan Tyson) is likely to come as a surprise to many readers of this book.

Another – and much better known – work on which Landon throws fresh chronological light is the last piano concerto, K.595. Mozart entered it in his own running catalogue of works on 5 January 1791, and it has hitherto been assumed that the concerto was entirely written at this time. However, a study of the watermarks of the paper used for the work points to a much earlier conception, in 1788 – the year in which Mozart gave his final series of subscription concerts. (It was during this year that he wrote the ‘Coronation’ Concerto K.537.) An examination of paper types has also led to a fascinating discovery concerning the genesis of La Clemenza di Tito – Mozart’s much-reviled last opera. (In a memorable phrase, the Empress Maria Luisa is supposed to have dismissed it as una porcheria tedesca – ‘German trash’, rather than ‘a German swinishness’ as Landon renders it.) On 26 April 1791, Mozart’s friend the soprano Josepha Duschek took part in a benefit concert in Prague. One of the items she sang was a rondo by Mozart, with obbligato basset-horn. This can only have been Non piu di fiori from Act Two of La Clemenza di Tito: yet Mozart did not begin work on the opera itself until mid-July at the earliest. Since the paper used for the rondo differs from the types found in the opera, it is clear that Mozart imported a pre-existing concert piece into the stage work; and it is significant that the text of the rondo is not found in Metastasio’s original libretto.

In Landon’s hands, the train of events that led to Mozart being commissioned to write La Clemenza di Tito reads like a detective story. Because Haydn was in London, Prince Esterhazy was forced to choose Salieri’s star pupil – and Haydn’s godchild – Joseph Weigl to write the large-scale cantata for the festivities marking his installation as lord-lieutenant of Oedenburg, in August 1791. (‘You could have saved me 40,000 Gulden,’ was the Prince’s reproach to Haydn when next they met.) Weigl was unofficial conductor at the Imperial Court Theatre of Vienna, and in order to allow him more time to compose the cantata, Salieri took over many of his duties. This, in turn, meant that Salieri had to turn down the commission for the new opera to mark the coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia, on 6 September. Thus it was that Mozart found himself having to write a large-scale opera within the space of less than three weeks. He returned from Prague to Vienna barely a fortnight before the premiere of The Magic Flute (for which the Overture and the March of the Priests that opens the second act still had to be written). Professor Landon is particularly illuminating on the Masonic symbolism of this work; and his speculation that Mozart and his librettist Schikaneder felt able so openly to disclose the rituals of Freemasonry because the Lodges themselves were under threat from Imperial edicts is convincing enough.

Whether or not it was the hectic activity of this period that laid Mozart open to the streptococcal infection that was to prove terminal is not clear. At any rate, the details of the composer’s last illness have been handed down by witnesses at his bedside – his wife Constanze, his sister-in-law Sophie Haibl and his doctor; and it is a measure of the widespread influence of the popularising version of events adopted by Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus that this book should have to devote so much space to dismissing the myths of Mozart’s murder (whether by the jealous Salieri or by the Freemasons), and to a vindication of the character of Constanze.

In attempting to cover considerably more ground in approximately the same amount of space, Professor Landon’s second volume is necessarily less detailed. (‘Golden Years’ is a curious epithet to apply to this most perfect among the great composers: the years in question actually cover the entire Viennese period, from 1781-91.) Again, much documentary evidence is drawn upon, not least Mozart’s own letters. Many of these are well-known, among them the long letter written to Constanze on 26 September 1781, in which he discusses in meticulous detail the music for Die Entführung aus dem Serail. In doing so, he provides a fascinating insight into his art: Osmin’s ‘words Drum beym Barte des Propheten etc are in the same tempo but with quick notes, and since his rage increases steadily one thinks the aria is already at an end, but the allegro assai – in quite another metre and in another key – will certainly be most effective; for a man who is in such a rage completely loses control and breaks all the rules, not being himself – and thus the music must not know what it is doing, either. But since the passions, violent or not, must never be expressed in an offensive manner; and music, even in the most appalling situations, must never offend the ear and hence must always remain music; the key I have chosen is not foreign to F (the key of the aria) but related to it, though not the nearest, D minor, but the next one away, A minor.’

As always, Professor Landon is particularly adroit at setting the musical and social scene, and there are valuable sections covering concert life, the organisation of the opera, the pianos of Mozart’s day, music publishers, and the Viennese tradition of wind-band music which had such a strong influence on the sonority of Mozart’s scores. (The great Serenade for 13 wind instruments, which has been shunted backwards and forwards in the Mozartian canon countless times, is now once again placed in 1782, as a wedding gift to Constanze.) The complicated history of Mozart’s association with the Esterhazy family is unravelled, and there is an attempt to chart the relationship between Mozart and Haydn. Landon cites as the principal differences between the two composers the greater density of Mozart’s sonorities, and his more mercurial sense of tempo. But the two men were surely creative opposites in a far more fundamental way. Mozart may on occasion have attempted to imitate Haydn (the curiously athematic slow movement of the E flat major String Quartet from the set he dedicated to Haydn, which draws on the slow movement from the older composer’s quartet in the same key Op.20 Nol; or the less convincing Haydn pastiche found in the finale of the Piano Concerto K.451), but his music is not motivated by the same type of rhythmic energy. For this reason, the art of symphonic development may be said to have come less naturally to Mozart than it did to Haydn. Many of the great innovations in Mozart’s instrumental music tend, indeed, to be found in its melodic structure. In this, he stands apart from both Haydn and Beethoven.

Professor Landon makes a not altogether successful effort to furnish a psychological explanation for Mozart’s turbulent minor-mode works. The composer may well have shown manic-depressive tendencies (‘It has to be emphasised,’ writes Landon’s source for this medical excursion, ‘that cyclothymics are very difficult people to live with’), but to append a list of his works in minor keys and to suggest that they are the product of a troubled mind is a questionable procedure. One could more plausibly find evidence of manic depression in the fact that these dark, minor-mode works were so often composed in close proximity to a companion which inhabited a wholly different emotional world. Thus, early in 1785 the stormy D minor Piano Concerto was immediately followed by the C major K.467; Mozart entered the G minor String Quintet K.516 in his running catalogue of works on 16 May 1787, just three weeks after the C major K.515; and in the summer of the following year the gap between his last two symphonies, in the same two keys, was barely a fortnight. There is in any case no reason to suppose that the minor-mode works are in any sense more personal – or, indeed, greater – than their companions; nor would it be easy to offer a convincing explanation as to why Mozart sat down to write his (admittedly excruciatingly unfunny) Musical Joke barely a fortnight after the death of his father.

Much is made in the chapter on the Da Ponte operas of their element of forgiveness. Landon regards Cosi fan tutte as the ‘supreme example of Mozart’s loving forgiveness because, in this most musically perfect of all his operas, there is the most to forgive, and consequently the greatest demand on true love’. ‘The particular poignancy of Cosi fan tutte,’ Landon continues, ‘lies in the fact that the necessity for forgiveness is present not only at the end of the opera but throughout the scenes of deception, when the audience know – although the ladies do not yet – that their actions require more forgiveness than does any other action, perhaps, in any other Mozart opera.’ This, surely, is a one-sided view of Cosi. The opera presents a dangerous experiment in human emotions, and there can be little doubt that the men make more painful discoveries about themselves than the women, just as it is the men who are ultimately more in need of forgiveness. It may well be that at the end of the opera the original pairs of lovers are reunited, but it would take a greater cynic than even the confirmed old bachelor Don Alfonso to imagine that their relationships could ever be the same again.

Hardly any space is given to Mozart’s string quartets (Landon rightly believes that the quintets form a more original contribution to the chamber repertoire), but room is found to discuss the two masterly duos for violin and viola. Legend has it that Mozart wrote them in a hurry, to help his friend Michael Haydn – Joseph’s younger brother – out of difficulty. Haydn had been commissioned by the Archbishop of Salzburg to compose a set of six duos, but when Mozart called on him, he found him ill and unable to complete the works in time. According to Landon, Mozart deliberately wrote his contributions in the style of Michael Haydn, so that his authorship would not be detected. Yet it is quite impossible to imagine that agreeable but minor composer being able to pass off Mozart’s work as his own: while his own four duos are essentially violin tunes with viola accompaniment – and bland ones at that – Mozart’s two show the full extent of his contrapuntal genius, with the players treated as equals almost throughout. That Landon should refer to them as pastiches is baffling.

Such lapses of judgment do not, however, seriously mar what is a useful and attractive introduction to Mozart for the informed musiclover. Its fascinating and well-annotated illustrations alone would repay ample study. A couple of small inaccuracies should be mentioned. The ‘grand new concerto in D’ that Leopold Mozart describes his son as having played on 15 February 1785 is the D minor K.466, and not the D major K.451 (which was nearly a year old); and in a note on the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata Landon quotes the heading of the opening movement – Si deve suonare tutto questo pezzo delicatissimamente e senza sordini – as evidence that no pedals whatever were required for its performance. But senza sordini, far from meaning that the soft pedal was not to be used, was Beethoven’s standard indication for the application of the sustaining pedal – i.e. without dampers.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences