Scholarly biographies of composers, once a sure way forward in terms of professional advancement, often the culmination of a distinguished career, are now unfashionable in the academy. For musicologists, virtually all of whom are still preoccupied with formalistic concerns, the genre is redolent of earlier, less severe periods: of fat, comfortable books in which the documents of a musician’s life would be lovingly assembled, often with the stated purpose of bringing us closer to ‘the music’, but rarely offering concrete ways in which such a conjunction might be attempted. Perhaps contemporary neglect of the genre also raises larger issues. We have now become rather wary of narrative histories of music, whether of periods or genres, and so it is probably inevitable that the stories once embedded in these grand designs – among which ‘lives of the great composers’ have always figured prominently – are also in decline. Whatever the case, the business of musical biography has recently, and with a few notable exceptions, been continued mostly in books intended for the general reader. These are rarely critical, and even more rarely sustain a level comparable with the best of literary biography.
Mozart has probably suffered more than most from this attention, since the romantic myths that rose around him during the 19th century have proved extraordinarily tenacious. So cliché’d is the sad tale of his last years that we can, aping Humbert Humbert’s laconic account of his mother’s demise – ‘(picnic, lightning)’ – get by with a telegram: isolated artist – writing for posterity – bohemian life – society misunderstands, ignores – faithless, feckless wife – dies young, in poverty – the Unmarked Grave. And this picture has of late been injected with new life and massively disseminated by the success of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, whose veneer of shocking realism and occasional flights of pure fancy hardly conceal its basic reinscription of the romantic image. It was time for scholars to hit back, and Amadeus was cited by H.C. Robbins Landon as a main reason for his 1791, Mozart’s Last Year(1988), a book soon followed by his volume on Mozart’s ‘Golden Years’ in Vienna and by the Mozart Compendium. Landon’s efforts are now joined in this country by Braunbehrens’s book about Mozart’s last ten years, which first appeared in German in 1986.
Between Landon and Braunbehrens, and with, in the latter case, help, which is often unacknowledged, from recent German and Anglo-American scholarship, the record of Mozart’s later career has probably been put about as straight as it will get. There remain a few mysteries, as the documentation of these years is – considering Mozart’s growing reputation during the period – surprisingly sparse. Few of his letters survive, fewer still that were written to him; many were undoubtedly hastened to oblivion by his widow and her second husband; the evidence that remains thus constantly threatens to present a distorted picture. However, of the basic facts there can now be little doubt.
After his move from Salzburg to Vienna in 1781, and after his acrimonious departure from the service of Colloredo, Archbishop of Salzburg, the 25-year-old Mozart fashioned for himself a highly successful career as what we would now call a ‘freelance’ musician. He received money from private piano pupils, from opera commissions, from selling music to publishers and, most of all, from a glittering career as composer-pianist, playing and sometimes organising concerts in which he would star as the soloist in his own piano concertos. By 1785, he was living in a spacious apartment in the centre of Vienna, doing very well indeed.
The second half of the 1780s saw a significant decline in his fortunes. The Turkish wars caused many of Mozart’s aristocratic patrons to withdraw from Vienna, and his concert career seems virtually to have collapsed. Although a series of opera commissions (Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte, La Clemenza di Tito, and The Magic Flute all come from his last six years) brought in considerable sums, and although he netted a modest court appointment and continued to profit from sales to publishers, his income decreased, perhaps sharply: he was obliged to move into less luxurious accommodation and, increasingly, to borrow from friends. However, by 1791 he was again in the ascendant: the success of The Magic Flute was impressive, he was paying off debts, sending his son to an expensive boarding-school, considering lucrative offers from impresarios in other capital cities. His fatal illness, probably a kind of rheumatic fever, was sudden and unexpected. He was buried in a communal grave, unattended by mourners not because he died in obscurity – far from it, his international reputation was steadily growing – but in accordance with Joseph II’s draconian brand of rationalism: as well as banning corsets, bell-ringing in thunderstorms and the making of honey cakes, the Emperor had strictly enlightened views on how to economise on and sanitise burial of Vienna’s dead.
In spite of this new and more accurate picture of Mozart’s life and times in Vienna, our protagonist’s personality remains something of a mystery. Since there are relatively few contemporary accounts of Mozart, our major source of information is the composer’s correspondence, and the voice that speaks to us from these pages is not easy to decipher. Many of Mozart’s letters are to his father Leopold, who remained a central influence well into the composer’s adult life, and whom the son treated with a complex mixture of affection, fear, exasperation and solicitude. As Braunbehrens makes clear, Mozart’s opinions as gleaned from this family correspondence often seem less his own than notions of what a distant, anxious and deeply conservative parent might want to hear. For example, although most of the evidence suggests that Mozart’s marriage to Constanze Weber was ‘modern’ in its level of what we might anachronistically call emotional equality, Mozart, when describing his future bride to Leopold, painted a distinctly old-fashioned picture, quite possibly intended as a soothing re-creation of his mother’s role in his father’s life: ‘Her whole beauty consists in two little black eyes and a pretty figure. She has no wit, but she has common sense enough to enable her to fulfil her duties as wife and mother. It is a downright lie that she is inclined to extravagance ... Tell me whether I could wish myself a better wife? ’
After Leopold’s death in 1787 we have even less to go on. Apart from the famous series of ‘begging’ letters to his fellow freemason Michael Puchberg, documents that have been profoundly influential in constructing the pathetic scenario of Mozart’s last years, very little correspondence has survived until the final year, when we encounter a group of intimate letters to Constanze, from whom he was separated while travelling in search of new commissions, or while she underwent treatment at a nearby spa. These last letters have caused some embarrassment to biographers, and were occasionally ‘cleaned up’ by Constanze and her second husband. They contain a good number of private jokes and much banter, some of it scatological, almost all pretty far below the sublime:
On June 1st I intend to sleep in Prague, and on the 4th – the 4th – with my darling wife. Arrange your sweet nest very daintily, for my little fellow deserves it indeed, he has really behaved himself very well and is only longing to possess your sweetest [word deleted]. Just picture to yourself that rascal: as I write, he crawls onto the table and looks at me questioningly. I, however, box his ears properly – but the rogue is simply [word deleted].
The idea of Mozart’s ‘rascal’ being ‘simply [word deleted]’ was one which, understandably, biographers eager to paint a picture of the pathetic last years found hard to accommodate.
As well as ignoring certain types of evidence, Mozartian biographers of the past, particularly it seems the Teutonic ones, have often armed themselves with hindsight’s heavy club, apportioning blame and dealing out punishment to those judged responsible for the misfortunes of their hero. To continue with the role in Mozart’s life played by Constanze, past verdicts offer some pretty hair-raising examples of where the finger often pointed, and of why. Arnold Schurig, writing in the 1920s, confided that ‘she certainly does not belong among the radiant figures who, in their companionship with an homme supérieur as a friend, lover, or wife, recognised his calling.’ Alfred Einstein, in what is probably still the most widely disseminated Life and Works, declared that Constanze ‘was not even a good housewife. She never looked ahead, and instead of making her husband’s life and work easier by providing him with external comforts she thoughtlessly shared the bohemianism of his way of living’. Even Wolfgang Hildsheimer, whose impressionistic biography of the late 1970s was consciously ‘revisionist’, plays the same misogynist tune: ‘Constanze ... played no role in the tragedy of his estrangement from society. It seems probable that she never suffered mental torment, and even her physical sufferings seem primarily to be an excuse for her visits to spas. Constanze had a lighthearted, instinctual nature; she granted Mozart (and perhaps not only him) erotic, or at least sexual satisfaction, but was unable to offer him the happiness a lesser man needs for self-realisation.’ It is difficult to escape the feeling that Constanze is punished, not only because she gave no sign of having worshipped her husband, but because she was the recipient of those late letters in which Mozart’s sexual and emotional needs are so plainly stated. She made him seem embarrassingly normal, and for that could never be forgiven.
In this and in many other related areas, both Landon’s Compendium and Braunbehrens’s biography are a useful corrective to the old school. They can, of course, be supplemented: by Landon’s earlier two volumes, and by recent specialist books such as Andrew Steptoe’s studies of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas (Oxford, 1988), and Neal Zaslaw’s volume on the symphonies (Oxford, 1989). And these many publications are all, one fears, avant le déluge. 1991 is, as everyone must now know, the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death, and the extraordinary level and diversity of attention this event has stimulated means that books on the composer are appearing with alarming regularity. As might be expected, the standard varies a good deal.
The British Library invites us to ‘pay homage to Mozart’s genius’ by buying a facsimile edition of his Thematic Catalogue, scrupulously transcribed, edited and introduced by Albi Rosenthal and Alan Tyson. The Thematic Catalogue has, as it happens, been published in facsimile before, but that earlier edition ‘did not, as does the present one, reproduce the blank but fully stave-ruled pages following Mozart’s final entry’. There are 14 of these beautifully reproduced blank pages (about a third of the entire facsimile): and – in case we should worry about world deforestation – they are, the editors tell us, ‘a poignant comment on the tragedy of Mozart’s early death’.
The Compleat Mozart aims at a much broader target, proclaiming itself ‘ a very readable and authoritative guide to the music of one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, creative genius’. It derives from the bicentennial events at New York’s Lincoln Centre, which has undertaken the – for some, grotesque – plan of performing all of Mozart’s music during the course of this year. The book, culled from various sources, is a collection of programme notes, one for each of Mozart’s more than 600 compositions. It will prove useful to many, not least to those with the stamina, leisure, money and idealism to attend the New York ‘celebration’ from start to finish.
Last, and certainly least, comes H.C. Robbins Landon’s fourth book on Mozart in as many years, Mozart and Vienna. Nearly three-quarters of its 200 pages are taken up by a translation of Johann Pezzl’s Sketch of Vienna, 1786-90, an occasionally entertaining contemporary guide. The other fifty or so pages are a ragbag of recycled commentary on Mozart’s connections with the city, interspersed with synopses of recent literature on related topics. A Book Too Far if ever there was one.
In view of all this activity, it is tempting to play the ethnographer: to propose which strands of our culture are contributing to the elevation of Mozart as a prime cultural icon. But it may in the end be more responsible to return to Braunbehrens’s biography, certainly the most ambitious of the books under review. For Braunbehrens differs from his competitors in one essential respect. Landon, in common with the majority of his musicological colleagues, is diffident about suggesting too neat a connection between biographical and artistic matters. Braunbehrens, on the other hand, and perhaps because unfettered by institutional fashions, aspires further: his biographical enquiries encourage him to reveal the truth about Mozart’s music.
A biographer’s right – perhaps even duty – to attempt a view of ‘the works’ within ‘the life’ should of course be defended: but where composers are concerned, the problems of such comparative studies are uniquely severe. As the great German musicologist Carl Dahlhaus repeatedly stressed, searching out the biographical, political and social background of musical works is a necessary and laudable enterprise, but one should never underestimate the difficulties of relating such material directly to the music in hand. Music will rarely shoulder external semantic burdens without a sense of strain, and can sustain their weight over long stretches only with the help of repeated special pleading. Braunbehrens doesn’t seem to have thought about this very much: for him Mozart’s artistic legacy is diaphanous, ever-ready to reveal its inner meaning to the proper historical gaze.
Although there are some desultory attempts to relate various instrumental works to personal and political events, Braunbehrens for the most part concentrates on a full-scale attempt to ‘read’ the mature operas in the light of his historical researches. His decision to concentrate on opera was well-nigh inevitable: operas carry texts and (not only for this reason) boast a rich history of involvement with political and social issues. However, such enquiries are seldom undertaken without some sacrifice, and immediately Braunbehrens turns to even the periphery of artistic matters, his critical position vis-à-vis ‘the evidence’ shifts. When dealing with matters of biography, he justly castigates those who read Mozart’s correspondence uncritically, with no consideration of the context in which various statements are made. But when quoting from Mozart’s few letters that mention artistic matters, he seems – like virtually all his predecessors – to take the words with no salt whatsoever: the composer, it seems, is now writing to us. It is surely more likely that many of Mozart’s statements about his operas and their music were yet another conservative stance intended to set his anxious father at peace. Leopold would feel more relaxed about his son’s future as a marketable composer after being assured that ‘in opera the poetry must always be the obedient daughter of the music’, or that ‘passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed in such a way as to excite disgust, and ... music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear. ’
The above quotations are from an extensive group of letters written by Mozart to his father during the composition of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and Braunbehrens uses them more than once as evidence of the composer’s ‘new conception’ of musical drama, his desire to ‘shatter rules of form, do away with moribund patterns, and develop a contemporary music theatre that was both dramatically and musically capable of portraying individuals instead of types’. Here is one romantic myth – of the artist breaking generic boundaries – still fully in place: this and the emphasis on ‘realistic’ rather than generic characterisation bears a remarkable similarity to the terms in which Wagner attempted to steer Mozart into his own particular aesthetic pond.
The placing of the operas in this ‘revolutionary’ artistic context is, it seems, a necessary preliminary to the real matter in hand: revealing a detailed political programme in each opera. His account of The Marriage of Figaro is representative. Announcing that ‘everything about the opera was ... entirely new ... a drastic break with everything that had previously been seen on the opera stage’, Braunbehrens then offers us the opera as a covert message in support of Joseph II’s attempts to reform aristocratic privilege; its generic context as an opera buffa had, for Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte, been only ’the theatrical medium for their political argument’. What is more, he claims that the various systems at play in the opera function miraculously together, in all circumstances and at all times: ‘The music interprets every word, every gesture and stir of emotion, with a subtlety never before known on the operatic stage ... Not until Alban Berg’s Lulu did opera again achieve such a versatile treatment of dialogue and such an exact musical reflection of the text. ’
Quite sensibly in the circumstances, Braunbehrens restricts his discussion of the poetry and music to these general terms when arguing an interpretation: indeed he tends to divorce the work almost entirely from its artistic context. As graphic emphasis of this process, extracts from the libretto are printed in plain prose, all hint of their poetic and dramatic context purged. Of course, no single interpretation can hope to take into account the thousands of rich contexts that opera’s strange amalgam of competing systems produces: but a reading that ignores the possibilities of tension and uncertainty – between generic expectations and the particular demands of a character or situation, or between the semantic immediacy of words and the patterns and symmetries of musical development – pays too high a price. The resulting sense of relevance to the times will at best be superficial and strained.
It is in this sense significant that Braunbehrens has least to say about Cosi fan tutte, an opera that is increasingly recognised as central to the composer’s dramatic achievement, perhaps even to his entire production. Of course the symmetries of Cosi’s plot mechanism will hardly admit to comfortable political allegory and ‘explanation’, just as they defied adaption to the kind of sentimental comedy that 19th-century audiences would have wished the opera to be. Cosi constantly challenges assumptions about how music should behave: how it should reflect ‘sincerity’ of feeling, should accord with the words or the stage actions it accompanies. In this opera above all others, Mozart’s musical voice seems to float free, sprinkling beauty and passion according to some strange, powerful but ungraspable logic. Don Alfonso’s cadential phrases in Soave sia il vento render his feigned farewell to the departing soldiers just as affecting as that of their sweethearts, who believe in the depth of their feelings. Even the recurring theme, that most reassuring link between words, music and stage action, is questioned. In the Act Two finale the lovers unmask, singing snippets of past themes to reveal their deception. But the first theme they ‘quote’ has not previously been heard. Where does it come from? What does it mean?
Such considerations touch somewhere near the heart of Mozart’s operatic achievement, for they engage some of the delicately poised balances that enliven all great operas: this is a medium whose deep irrationality is often cloaked in rigid generic conventions, whose systems of communication sometimes only superficially agree, and whose political, social or biographical subtext will thus shift easily, march willingly with the times. The fact that a composer devotes his energies to opera will probably always encourage those difficult, delicate connections between ‘the life’ and ‘the works’: but such connections will be enlivened if they occasionally remind us of a sense of resistance springing directly from the works they address.