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.

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