What we don’t know about Mozart

Peter Gay

This book, let me say at once, is a masterpiece. It is also, I must quickly add, decidedly eccentric, offering the reader none of the landmarks, none of the orientation, that chapter divisions normally provide. Mozart is not quite a biography: while it dutifully includes a useful chronology and moves, by and large, along the spine of successive compositions, it is too episodic and ruminative to be yet another Life of a Great Composer. Its informal, almost conversational manner makes it first cousin to the essay, but expansive beyond the boundaries of that sadly neglected genre. It explores Mozart’s character with cheerfully acknowledged borrowings from Freud, but Hildesheimer’s use of psychoanalytic categories is so discreet as to remove his study from the ranks of psychobiographies. Though it speaks about Mozart’s compositions at satisfying length, it is certainly not an exercise in musicology – Hildesheimer disclaims any competence in such technical domains. Yet Mozart is in some measure all of these things: biography, essay, psychobiography, musical exegesis. Perhaps the best way to describe it is to call it a vast, uninterrupted meditation on Mozart, an unbuttoned yet orderly symphonic poem in words. The pleasure that Mozart gives is the pleasure we derive from watching a fine and virile intelligence playing upon an inexhaustible theme, and being right most of the time.

This massive excursion into the life and music of Mozart is the fourth, greatly enlarged version of a lecture that Hildesheimer first delivered in 1956. Its intention, thus long and carefully brooded on, is manifest: to discover the real Mozart behind the veils of idealisation. Generally, biographers’ efforts to ‘humanise’ a world-historical figure amount to trivialising him; they drown his genius in anecdotes or reduce it to his neuroses. Mozart has recently been subjected to this treatment in Peter Shaffer’s clever but meretricious play Amadeus, which turned him into a divinely gifted vulgarian, punning and burping his way through high society. But Hildesheimer’s way with this self-imposed assignment has none of these depressing features. He admires Mozart above all other humans: in fact, he concludes his book calling him ‘an unearned gift to humanity, nature’s unique, unmatched, and probably unmatchable work of art’. He wants to debunk not Mozart but Mozart’s idolators. Before we can paint his portrait, we must erase the caricatures.

Mozart worshippers seem to be a garrulous and pious tribe. Hildesheimer has a fine ear for the high-flown nonsense that seems to possess most of them, and he quotes some redolent exemplars. There is Bruno Walter, seeing Mozart as an ‘open, trusting soul’: a ‘happy, simple-hearted young man’, a benign fantasy that Hildesheimer brusquely banishes to the realm of wishes. There is Bernhard Paumgartner, who thinks that after Mozart’s rupture with his employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg, ‘the city on the Danube embraced the storm-tossed artist with maternal arms, becoming the homeland of his maturity’: a sentimental falsification on which Hildesheimer pours the cold water of historical reality. Such language seems to be obligatory in the presence of Mozart – witness Alfred Orel, resorting like Paumgartner to a kind of maternal-sexual vocabulary that Hildesheimer rightly finds objectionable: ‘and so the city on the Danube embraced Wolfgang Amadeus with its mysterious magic and, like so many others before and since, never let him go.’ While violins intone a Strauss waltz, drowning out the harsh truths about the ‘city on the Danube’, Hildesheimer stands by, impatient to break in and get them straight.

With a figure as enticing and inexplicable as Mozart, it was perhaps predictable that some writers with a theological turn of mind would adopt the verbiage of religion, and Hildesheimer is as alert to them as to the others. He recalls a passage from Karl Barth imagining that the angels, when they are left to themselves, play Mozart and that the Lord likes to listen to them with particular attention when Mozart is on the programme. And he catches even Alfred Einstein, the great Mozart scholar and biographer, at this dubious game: Mozart, Einstein liked to believe, was ‘only a guest on this earth’.

One of the themes on which Hildesheimer could have profitably meditated more than he does is why Mozart has evoked such gush. There is a certain biographical style – one associates it with the 19th century, and particularly with soulful Germans erecting statues to their favourites – which unapologetically indulges in such nebulous hyperbole. But there is more to it than this. Creativity is a very mysterious gift. Sigmund Freud, who bravely entered every realm of human activity, thought psychoanalysis incapable of illuminating the wellsprings of art. And the inconclusive debate over the role of neurosis in the creative act only suggests our continued floundering.

One way out has been to interpret music as the mirror of the composer’s life, to hear in it thoughts, feelings and events the biographer knows (or thinks he knows) from other sources. Thus, in a passage that Hildesheimer does not quote but has obviously read, Einstein describes the B-flat Piano Concerto, Mozart’s last (K 595) as a kind of prescient dirge, a farewell to life:

The mood of resignation no longer expresses itself loudly or emphatically; every stirring of energy is rejected or suppressed; and this fact makes all the more uncanny the depths of sadness that are touched in the shadings and modulations of the harmony. The Larghetto is full of a religious, or, as Mr Girdlestone calls it, a ‘Franciscan’ mildness; the Finale breathes a veiled joyfulness, as if blessed children were playing in Elysian fields, joyful, but without hate and without love. Mozart used the theme of this Rondo a few days later for a song entitled ‘Sehnsucht nach dem Frühlinge’ (‘Longing for Spring’). The theme has the resigned cheerfulness that comes from the knowledge that this is the last spring.

Hildesheimer, commenting on this piano concerto, one of the finest in a string of masterpieces Mozart wrote for this combination of instruments, acknowledges that it is far from cheerful: its ‘overpowering statement’ is ‘not about joy’. But he adds, quickly: ‘everyone will explain his reaction differently; we can neither comprehend nor measure perceptions of feeling.’ And, doubtless referring to the passage from Einstein’s study that I have quoted, he says: the concerto ‘is thought to have the quality of a transfigured farewell. Perhaps it does and perhaps not: we will continue to refrain from definitions of even the greatest masterpieces, and this concerto is one of them.’

This self-abnegation is much needed. If Einstein had not known that Mozart was to die the year he wrote his 27th piano concerto, Einstein could not have blathered about Elysian fields. If there is a leitmotiv running through Mozart, it is precisely this: we have no reliable way of moving, at least with Mozart, from the man to the music or from the music to the man. The composer has effectively concealed himself behind his compositions. Even his musical testimony – his use of key, for example – must be interpreted with the greatest reserve. Discussing the A minor Rondo for piano (K 511), composed while Mozart was working on Don Giovanni, Hildesheimer writes: ‘We, too, automatically prick up our ears at Mozart’s use of the minor, but we do not necessarily switch over immediately to “tragedy”, “destiny” or the “daemonic”.’ Mozart is a meditation on what we do not know about Mozart, and cannot know.

Fortunately, we have ample and dependable evidence of Mozart the man and his life apart from his music, especially from his letters. He was not a wholly spontaneous letter-writer (who is?): he was too quick to let himself drift on the sheer flood of his emotions. He knew (or sensed) what his father or his creditors wanted to hear and, intent on his music, he obliged. But while his copious and controlled outpourings do not guarantee access to the man, at least they invite the sensitive reader to track him down. And it is a pleasure to watch Hildesheimer at work on these documents, sorting out shrewd self-display from authentic feeling, conventional from personal rhetoric. He quotes in full a long and pathetic begging letter to Mozart’s favourite patron, Michael Puchberg, asking for money, describing his destitution and his wife’s ill-health, and then comments:

This letter is perhaps the most uninhibited and yet the most stylised of the 21 extant letters to Puchberg. Its tragic aspects (it is probable that Mozart is dramatising his wife’s suffering, though she may have exaggerated it to him) have the quality of a recitativo accompagnato. Only after the prelude, with its double address both to the friend and to the lodge brother, does the curtain rise on the troubled scene. It begins with the exclamation ‘Gott!’ much like the‘Deh!’ of opera seria ...

And so forth, point by point, playful and searching at the same time.

In this exploration in understanding, Hildesheimer avails himself freely of psychoanalysis. He works with the Freudian category of what he calls the ‘tragicomedy of repression’; he takes for granted Mozart’s dynamic unconscious; he understands the regressive charms of nostalgia, the powerful appeal of ambivalence, and the work of resistance and sublimation; he conjectures – prudently as always – that there came a time when Mozart’s death-wishes against his father reached consciousness; he sees Mozart, like all other human beings, as a wishing animal. He persuasively interprets a splendid slip of Leopold Mozart’s pen when, after hearing that his wife has died, he tells his son: ‘I am now going to lunch, but I will have an appetite.’ Omitting that little word ‘not’ achieves a certain eloquence in Hildesheimer’s hands. Freud’s ideas inform Hildesheimer’s very mode of composition: he follows, as he explicitly asserts, wherever free associations will lead him. Like all patients on all psychoanalytic couches, he does so rather imperfectly. But since a book is not a psychoanalytic session, this is all to the good: there is, in Mozart, much informal movement from one theme to another, but enough firm organisation and continuous argument to prevent the reader from losing the thread.

All this psychoanalysis is, however, quite unobtrusive: Freud’s name appears perhaps twice in the course of the book, and technical terms are rare. What is Freudian about Mozart is Hildesheimer’s perception of his man, and the fundamental conception of his investigation – its possibilities and its limits. It gives the book its almost unique mixture of prudence and boldness: scrupulously refusing to go beyond the available evidence, in fact warning against overinterpreting the music or some scanty biographical indications, Hildesheimer at the same time feels entitled to move beyond the manifest material, especially in the letters, to their latent content. Those unconvinced by Freud’s view of man will probably find this prudence unnecessary and certainly this boldness ill-advised. But those who, as I do, find the psychoanalytic perspective the most persuasive account of the mind we have yet devised must admire the delicacy with which Hildesheimer manages his Freudian ventures into interpretation. A book that is at once a biography and not a biography, one that uses free association as its principal guide, must be exposed to the hazard of incoherence: but Hildesheimer’s consistent sense of what must have animated Mozart the man serves to give Mozart a structure of steel, invisible but confidence-inspiring.

Hildesheimer’s refusal to overinterpret Mozart and to reduce him (as psychobiographics often tend to do) to a mass of neurotic symptoms, permits him to deal soberly with Mozart’s notorious addiction to scatology. He quotes freely from the letters to his mother and to an early mistress, and does not slight Mozart’s ‘dirty’ canons, such as ‘Lick my arse until it’s nice and clean’ (K 233/382d). Mozart wrote to his mother from Worms, in rhyme, ‘Well, now we’ve been over a week away/ And we’ve been shitting every day’: certainly the ‘fecal sphere’, as Hildesheimer notes, was of considerable interest to him. But it was not a symptom, or even a failure of good manners that his parents deplored. His mother could write to him, also in doggerel:

Addio, ben mio. Keep well, my love. Into your mouth your arse you’ll shove. I wish you good night, my dear, but first shit in your bed and make it burst.

Such primitive anal humour, coupled with considerable candour about sexual functions, was, if not exactly to everyone’s taste in Mozart’s day, far from an aberration. By neither giving it the silent treatment nor making it into the centrepiece of some psychopathology, Hildesheimer has, as it were, demystified Mozart’s pleasure in anal matters. By exercising caution as well as the privilege of interpretation, Hildesheimer gets us closer to the real Mozart than we have ever come before.

Hildesheimer’s Mozart is above all elusive, a man apart in his most convivial moments. Almost unbelievably gifted, he was wholly unself-conscious about the speed with which he composed and his uncanny musical memory; self-confident and wholly aware of his merits as a musician, he did not strut about exuding the sense of being a genius, a world-historical composer. He was sensual to a degree, until the end, but especially in his later years, as worldly success began to slip away and ill-health took its toll, he seemed to care mainly for one thing: his freedom to write music. He was fond of some people, including his wife, but really intimate with none, not because he held commerce with divine forces, but because he craved privacy for the work he had to do. All of this is only conjecture, but well-grounded and plausible conjecture. For Hildesheimer’s Mozart keeps his secrets.