Mozart’s Cross

Brigid Brophy

  • The Letters of Mozart and his Family translated by Emily Anderson
    Macmillan, 1038 pp, £38.50, November 1985, ISBN 0 333 39832 7

Mozart the letter-writer, like Mozart the composer of virtually every form and species of music, is the supreme non-bore. The ‘daughter of Hamm, the Secretary for War’, must, he reports to his father from Augsburg in 1777, have a gift for music since, even without having been well taught, she can play several clavier pieces ‘really well’. Yet she is an affected performer. Tuition in Salzburg from Mozart père would improve both her musical knowledge and her intelligence, and the teacher would get ‘plenty of entertainment’ in return.

She would not eat much, for she is far too simple. You say that I ought to have tested her playing. Why, I simply could not do so for laughing. For whenever, by way of example, I played a passage with my right hand she at once exclaimed Bravissimo! in a tiny mouse-like voice.

It is easy to imagine how Mozart would have set the word for such a voice.

He goes on to recount an enthusiastic proposal to arrange a concert for him in Augsburg and the proposer’s wriggling out, when he

remarked quite coolly: ‘Look here, a concert is quite out of the question. Oh, I assure you, I lost my temper yesterday on your account. The patricians told me that their funds were very low and that you were not the type of virtuoso to whom they could offer a souverain d’or.’ I smiled and said ‘I quite agree.’

At luncheon there is no mention of the concert. ‘After lunch I played two concertos, improvised something and then played the violin in one of Hafeneder’s trios. I would gladly have done some more fiddling, but I was accompanied so badly that it gave me the colic.’ His well-to-do hosts take him to the theatre. Returned, he plays again before supper, where, between offerings of snuff, which he reciprocates, he is teased about his cross. By some neo-editorial mistake, which Mozart would have delighted to pounce on, the footnote numbers have been jiggled in the turning of a page and the cross seems to be glozed in the new edition as a ‘local term for the large hall in the Augsburg Rathaus’ – in fact, the site of the proposed concert. Application to the previous edition makes it clear that Mozart was wearing the Order of the Golden Spur, given him seven years before by Pope Clement XIV. The supper party speculates that the cross is not gold but copper. ‘Burning with anger’, Mozart declares it to be tin. Perhaps thanks to his threat to quit Augsburg at once, Mozart received and reported in the next few days a quasi-apology, some courtesy from some powerful citizens, a further suggestion for a concert (which he eventually gave) and, after further playing of music, two ducats, delivered much in the manner of a modern tip but without the supposed tax advantage.

The invaluable gift of mounting vivid detail on a coherent strategic skeleton makes Mozart an incomparable creator of operas. ‘You know my greatest desire is – to write operas,’ he tells his father in 1778. ‘Do not forget,’ he adds in a later passage in the same letter, ‘how much I desire to write operas.’ The gift of vividness was transmitted to him by Leopold Mozart, perhaps partly through heredity but also and visibly by expectation and example, as part of Mozart’s musical, social and general aesthetic training. The translated text begins with Leopold Mozart’s letter to his landlord and banker: ‘You have been thinking, haven’t you, that we are already in Vienna? But we are still in Linz.’ He is precisely imagining his correspondent’s thoughts in the manner that it was vital for Mozart, as composer and performer, to imagine with precision his audience’s response. The letters exchanged by the Mozart family have the purpose of many 18th-century letters: to sustain intimacy and to create the intimacy of shared experience even through separations.

Emily Anderson’s masterly rendering into English of the Mozarts’ German and, when it occurs at length, Italian was first issued in 1938 in three volumes. In 1966, by which time Emily Anderson was dead, a second edition gave evidence of the simultaneous waxing and waning that is the work’s publishing history. Revised and augmented, it became the most complete version available in any language of all Mozart’s surviving letters and of those by his immediate family written to or largely about him. Yet although it had grown it shrank from three volumes to two.

The new (third) edition shrinks further: to a single volume. The paper has lost weight and the page size is diminished. Yet the pages begin and end on the same words of the text as in the previous edition. Revision seems confined to the prefatory editorial pages and the indices that follow the text, the footnotes at the ends of the pages and the margins of the pages. Into those margins the new version of the work introduces asterisks and square brackets. These respectively indicate, though they do not correct, omissions and ‘substantially paraphrased passages’ in the text alongside. As the eccentric result, the text flows down some pages between banks that look littered with fragments of barbed wire. The prefatory editorial matter has increased from 35 pages in the two-volume edition to 46 in the new single volume. The illustrations occur no longer one-by-one but in clumps. They have lost the numbers they bore in the list in the previous edition. A footnote in the new edition, however, still bids you ‘See illustration no 10.’ That is now a nonsense instruction.

An editorial amendment that would have been helpful is not made. When the text opens, the Mozart children, accompanied by both parents, are making the second of their journeys. So much the editorial explanation that precedes each chunk of letters makes clear both in the previous and in the new version. The new version might have usefully added that Nannerl Mozart was 11 and Wolfgang (whom his father writes of as ‘Woferl’) six, rather than leave the reader to find out from other sources. Indeed, it would have been useful and easy to insert a brief preliminary table of the dates of birth, marriage and death of the main Mozarts. It should have replaced the table of monetary values, said anyway to be ‘only approximate’. The tip Mozart was given in Augsburg is not much clarified by the information that the ducat was in 1938 worth about nine shillings or (as the new volume adds in brackets) in 1985 about 13½ United States dollars. Size would have been more to the point than value, given that Mozart was at six beset by sores, presently diagnosed as Viennese scarlet-fever spots and ascribed to the change of air. As though tragically prescient of his son’s life-long lack of money and health, Leopold Mozart called them ‘as large as a kreuzer’.

Editorially, the new volume is a bit of a botch, seemingly more anxious to put down markers, civil-service fashion, than to help readers. It should help the editors of a future-definitive edition. With this one you have, as with Mozart’s own untidy manuscripts, to read through the ink splutters. The reward is a powerful glimpse of Mozart’s greatness and Emily Anderson’s careful and sensitive work.

Attempting, perhaps, a pre-emptive strike on criticism, the publisher’s preface to the new volume remarks that it ‘has from time to time been pointed out’ that Miss Anderson, as it calls her, ‘does not always reflect the quicksilver changes of mood and of tempo in Mozart’s own literary style and provides it with a fluent literacy that is wanting in the original’. Sensible readers will remember how many 18th-century letters, in whatever language, by deeply literate people are wayward in orthography and punctuation. The publisher has had the sense to reprint but not, it appears, to read Emily Anderson’s own introduction to her translation. After speaking of the hurry, spontaneity and slang of Mozart’s letter-writing style, for which she has sought equivalents while avoiding transient fashions, she remarks that his ‘liveliness and haste are reflected too in his punctuation. Very often whole letters are a series of sentences strung together by dashes. As a slavish adherence in this respect to the originals would have produced pages wearisome to the eye of the reader, the letters have been punctuated more normally and the dashes retained only where the sense demands it.’

The dust-up in Augsburg, which figured to him as paternal territory (‘I should never in my life have believed that in Augsburg, my father’s native town, his son would have been so insulted’) was the precursor of those acts by Mozart, notably his break with his ecclesiastical employer in Salzburg, his relation to the Weber family and his marriage to one of it, which Leopold Mozart read as rebellions against himself, God or the social order. They prompted him to circumspect yet sometimes sly cautions. Mozart’s rebellions are to be read, I do not doubt, in the nonsense fantasies about shitting and pissing that occur in his letters (and, as Emily Anderson, who translated the pasages unexpurgated, was right to point out, not only his letters to his cousin Maria Anna Theckla Mozart). The psychoanalytic significance of the passages only begins with money, about which so many of Leopold Mozart’s cautions and precepts circle. They serve also the social purpose of the letters by reconstituting the intimacy and, which is important, the equality of people who were once small children together – so far as Mozart’s precocious and cherubic gift left him time ever to be a child. In full and beautiful form his rebellions are to be heard in the response of his imagination to the libretti he selected or accepted as skeletons for operas: the all but open revolutionary import of Le Nozze di Figaro and the reactionary, counter-Reformation import of Don Giovanni, where the rebel-hero incurs supernatural punishment but bravely and honestly refuses to repent even when bullied by the threat of hell.

The psychological centre of the letters is Mozart’s relationship with the father who was also tutor, worldly instructor, religious preceptor, agent and manager. Virtually from the outset Mozart knew, and knew from his father’s tutoring, that he was to prove himself a biddable and obedient pupil and to incur both triumph and guilt by excelling his father in their common profession. Mozart transcended the psychologically agonising trap by the creation of great music. His move into transcendence is documented by the inspired and workmanlike letters they exchanged in 1780 during the composition and mounting of Idomeneo. Mozart is in Munich, where mutes for trumpets and horns are not to be had. He asks his father to send one of each (for copying) from Salzburg by the mail coach. At the same time he negotiates through his father with the librettist, the ecclesiastic Varesco, who is also in Salzburg. Suggesting that the utterance of the subterranean voice in the libretto for Idomeneo would be rendered more effective if it were shortened, Mozart asks his father to perform the imaginative act whose importance he had learned from his father’s example: ‘Picture to yourself the theatre, and remember that the voice must be terrifying – must penetrate – that the audience must believe that it really exists.’ The audience’s belief will crumble away if the voice goes on too long, and he suggests an amendment to another text, also a father-and-son story: ‘If the speech of the Ghost in Hamlet were not so long, it would be far more effective.’

Sigmund Freud, the explicator of father-and-son stories, expressed his own sentiments of social rebellion by singing (‘possibly another person would not have recognised the tune’) Figaro’s Se vuol ballare, signor Contino to himself as he waited on a railway station in Vienna. Freud, our era’s peer to Aristotle in analytic imagination and an informed Classicist, agreed with Aristotle’s Poetics in placing Sophocles’s Oedipus the King at the centre and summit of Greek tragedy. Yet Greek mythology provides another father-and-son story, and one where it is the father who is trapped between his duty to a god and his duty to and love for his son, though it is the son who is to pay. On his way home from the Trojan War, Idomeneus, King of Crete, escapes drowning when his ship is wrecked: by vowing to sacrifice the first live being he meets on dry land. He meets his now grown-up (the Trojan War did last) son. In mythology Idomeneus either carries out the sacrifice or tries to do so, and as a result the people depose and exile him.

That ending Mozart’s librettist, Varesco, softened in a secondary elaboration (which seems to have been original to him, though he was writing an Italian adaptation of a French libretto made into an opera early in the 18th century). The operatic Idomeneo abdicates in favour of his son. The concept of an authoritative father who wills his own supercession by his son made it possible, I believe, for Mozart both to negotiate through his tutor-manager-father and to create his first transcendent opera. Buyers of recordings and opera audiences in many civilised cities nowadays have the opportunity to know Idomeneo as closely as they know Figaro. Had turn-of-the-century Vienna yet made that enlargement of taste, Freud might have identified and named the Idomeneus Complex.