Recognising Mozart

Peter Gay

  • Mozart the Dramatist: The Value of his Operas to Him, to his Age and to Us by Brigid Brophy
    Libris, 322 pp, £17.50, June 1988, ISBN 1 870352 35 1
  • 1791: Mozart’s Last Year by H.C. Robbins Landon
    Thames and Hudson, 240 pp, £12.95, March 1988, ISBN 0 500 01411 6
  • Mozart: Studies of the Autograph Scores by Alan Tyson
    Harvard, 381 pp, £27.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 674 58830 4

The literature on Mozart is almost as diverse, though surely not quite so glorious, as Mozart’s own output. These three books are a case in point: a freewheeling analysis of Mozart the opera composer in the Enlightenment, a thoroughly documented survey of Mozart’s last year, and a technical study of Mozart’s manuscripts. Together, they give us a sense that we are closing in on the real Mozart, stripping away as they do myth after myth and replacing impressionistic conjectures by precise information. It is good news, if hardly astonishing, that Mozart’s stature is in no way diminished by such microscopic examination.

Brigid Brophy’s Mozart the Dramatist, originally published in 1964, is no doubt the bravest among this trio, the text most open to wholesale challenge. Yet, while this reissue comes to us virtually unrevised, it remains as welcome as it was a quarter of a century ago – in some ways even more welcome. For the book is drenched in psychoanalysis, and since its first appearance analysis has been put even more on the defensive by a mixture of gossip about Freud’s private life and of vehement, and often malicious or uninformed, scepticism about his ideas. Defying this sullen anti-psychoanalytic atmosphere, Brophy has left her first formulations – ‘Freud pointed out ...’, ‘Freud has demonstrated ...’, wholly untouched. To be sure, there was little else she could do: the essential orientation of her book is, after all, psychoanalytic. At the same time, her unapologetic, sovereign disregard of the anti-Freudian mafia is refreshing. ‘The Enlightenment,’ she writes, summarising her psychoanalytic conclusions, ‘was above all a self-recognition and a self-assertion on the part of the Ego’; it was a series of revolutionary acts that led to ‘the emancipation of pleasure’. This message sounds a most reassuring note to me: it sustains the argument I first advanced in the late Fifties and Sixties in my studies of the Enlightenment. The Philosophes headed an intellectual movement which, I argued, sought to lift the guilt from eroticism and from the pursuit of pleasure. It is good to have this view corroborated in this vigorous polemic.

As Brophy’s title makes plain, her exploration of Mozart’s operas from this perspective concentrates on Mozart the dramatist far more than on Mozart the composer. Unlike Wolfgang Hildesheimer, whose brilliant biographical study of Mozart is absent from Brophy’s revised bibliography, she writes less as a professional musicologist than as a philosophical theatre critic. This is regrettable in some ways, for her self-limitation deprives her of arguments that would have further buttressed her case. However, Brophy’s sensitiveness to Mozart’s music remains fortunately active throughout, particularly in some wonderful observations on the musical dialogue between the Countess and Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro.

Other of Brophy’s opinions, never proffered less than audaciously, are somewhat more debatable. It is awesome to watch her braving the vast tribe of dogmatic Mozart lovers, each with unshakable theories. One such opinion, which occupies two long chapters in the heart of her book, concerns her claim to have solved the mystery of the Magic Flute. Most of those familiar with that opera have worried over the clumsy, indeed self-contradictory plot. Pamina’s mother, the Queen of the Night, starts out as a heroine who supplies Tamino with his indispensable weapon, the magic flute, and laments the kidnapping of her daughter by the wicked Sarastro. But in a sudden reversal, Sarastro becomes a sage, a fount of Masonic wisdom, while Pamina’s mother is turned into the villain of the piece. Brophy’s confidently proposed solution, at once ingenious and intricate, draws on a possible modern source for the libretto, on the condensation of ancient myths, and on Masonic initiation ceremonies. In developing this explanation, Brophy manages to present Mozart as a feminist before his time: no doubt to many today a most pleasing but not wholly persuasive portrait. Still, the internal contradictions of Mozart’s Magic Flute have never been explored more seriously and more energetically than they are here.

There is one of Brophy’s characterisations that I find difficult to accept without amendment: her perception of Don Giovanni as a reactionary counterpoint to the radical Marriage of Figaro. She sees Mozart – rightly, I think – as a profoundly ambivalent figure, at once a rebel against, and an obedient son to, his father, at once a loyal Freemason and a Roman Catholic. And she sees Don Giovanni, just as rightly, as an Oedipal drama. ‘Don Giovanni is established in the very opening scene as, like the Enlightenment itself, a father-murderer.’ This conception, though, does not keep her from arguing that ‘Don Giovanni is pro-Christianity and anti-Enlightenment,’ a ‘thoroughgoing Catholic opera’. One can see why Brophy takes this stand: while Mozart ‘cannot help shewing an emotional sympathy with Don Giovanni’, he does allow the Don, seducer extraordinaire, to be condemned to hell for his sins. But this, it seems to me, is too severe and one-sided a reading of what may be the greatest scene in all opera – the scene in which the statue comes to supper with the Don and invites him to accompany him to the nether world. Chilled to the bone by the touch of the statue’s hand, the Don is vanquished by supernatural intervention, and in the closing sextet there is much smug rejoicing over his fate and the re-establishment of order. But in the course of that banquet scene, the Don rises to heroic heights. He is no longer just the heartless sensualist; he is defying the father. He will not repent; he will not listen to the statue’s stern paternal voice demanding that he feel guilty for his atheism and his sexual irresponsibility. In that scene, the father still wins – though, one feels, in an unequal, unfair combat. It is as though the French Revolution, though implicit in The Marriage of Figaro, is in Don Giovanni still unthinkable. But the Don’s unmitigated heroism, perhaps most memorably embodied in that antique Glyndebourne recording with John Brownlee as the Don, remains a moving and impressive protest against the authority of the old over the young. Surely a Catholic opera would have shown Don Giovanni less courageous, more cringing and repentant.

I offer such reservations, not as a severe criticism of these immensely enjoyable and fertile reflections on Mozart and the Enlightenment, but as evidence of just how stimulating the book proved to me, even on second reading. Nor would it be right to overlook its central animus, no less relevant today than it was when it first appeared: the book is an assault on the 20th century in the name of the 18th. ‘Our century,’ Mozart the Dramatist opens in 1988 as it did in 1964, ‘which will surely be the most execrated in history (always provided it allows history to continue so that there is someone to execrate it), has this to its credit: it is recognising Mozart.’[*] It is possible to find other candidates for supreme execration, but it is hard, even for a professional historian, to quarrel seriously with Brophy’s assessment.

Robbins Landon’s meticulous examination of Mozart’s last year is inevitably far more prosaic than Brophy’s robust, even hot-tempered generalisations – inevitably so, not just because his aim is far more modest than Brophy’s, but also because as a celebrated life-long chronicler of Haydn, he seems unable to synthesise his documentation rather than present it. His extensive quotations of financial accounts or from unedited reports of Mozart’s hairdresser read a little like free association in print, as though he finds it hard to shed the procedures that proved so invaluable in his great Haydn chronicles. Thus, a little apologetically, he reprints the complete catalogue of Mozart’s clothing as compiled after his death and argues (not unreasonably, by the way), that this ‘dry list’ permits some secure inferences about Mozart’s social status and sartorial habits. Still, there are too many undigested lumps of information clogging his pages.

Robbins Landon’s account covers much-travelled ground, and he finesses the problem of The Magic Flute by treating it as a Masonic opera complete with concealed number mysticism and some delightful individual touches: ‘There was something in it for everybody; connoisseur and shopkeeper left deeply satisfied.’ This solution may not content the experts: still, his book remains exceedingly useful on the economic and cultural background of Mozart’s life in Vienna, on Mozart’s income and his social situation.[†] It takes us through Mozart’s financial plight, regrets the necessity that compelled him to compose dance music just to make a little extra money – ‘a shocking, even a criminal, waste of music’s greatest genius’ – records his futile and short-lived campaign to secure the post of Kapellmeister at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, disentangles his complicated relation with fellow Freemasons (mainly as a borrower), and authoritatively rehearses the often badly told story of the mysterious caller commissioning Mozart to write a requiem. (Here again the chronicler wins out over the biographer: Robbins Landon reprints virtually without cuts or comment the decisive document – taking some six pages – retailing the origins of this commission that the eminent Mozart scholar Otto Erich Deutsch unearthed in 1963.)

At the same time, though, Robbins Landon, formidably well-informed, punctures some of the legends that have gathered around Mozart. He leaves little doubt that Mozart in 1791 was far from being a pauper. And he leaves no doubt whatever that Salieri did not poison Mozart. That much for Amadeus! What is more, in some convincing pages he tries to rescue Mozart from the gossips who have been maligning him for many years as a collector of mistresses. But he reserves his most impassioned chapter, the last, to a vindication of Mozart’s wife, Constanze. Robbins Landon describes her as ‘perhaps the most unpopular woman in music history’, who has for a hundred years ‘been subjected to an increasingly slanderous series of attacks’. Like a deeply engaged defence attorney, he marshals the evidence on her behalf, largely from eye-witnesses who were impressed with her breeding, her looks and her character. In the end, he manages to win over the reader, more or less, with his insistence that tales of Constanze’s sleeping around are nothing better than a ‘wicked defamation’. The evidence is inconclusive, and Robbins Landon does some harm to his cause, strong enough without such embellishments, by ending his book on this pious note: ‘Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.’

In sharp contrast, Alan Tyson is quite simply the calm, supremely competent expert. His treatise, which explicates how to read Mozart’s manuscripts by mastering such tricky matters as watermarks, paper quality and handwriting, is a surprise. One might think such a work excessively dry, even boring. Nothing of the sort: it is a model of lucidity, and indeed fascination. In the opening two chapters, Tyson invites the reader into the mysteries of how watermarks are made, how they are to be read and what they tell the alert student. It turns out that, studied with the precise techniques Tyson has mastered and knows how to impart, Mozart’s manuscripts, whether whole works or small fragments, invite re-dating for a number of his compositions. ‘Does it matter,’ Tyson asks, whether, for example, Mozart’s violin concerto in B-flat (K. 207) had been ‘written two years earlier than the other four’? Indeed it does: ‘In my view, it should matter a great deal. Mozart at 19 was not the same as Mozart at 17.’

Another discovery: the almost universal view that Mozart jotted down with miraculous fluency the music he had already finished composing in his head has only limited validity: ‘Maybe he worked like that often, but clearly not always.’ In fact, Tyson shows, ‘some of the most admired compositions of his later years were written in stages, over quite a long time-span.’ Tyson points out in more than one of his papers that this held especially true for Mozart’s string quartets, ‘composed with much effort’, slowly and uncertainly. In fact, the six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn took him some two and a half years to write and re-write; one of them, the ‘Hunt’ quartet, seems to have occupied him for more than a year. And other among Mozart’s compositions, too, like some of his piano concertos, cost him a great deal of time and thought. Tyson extends this kind of careful reading to some of Mozart’s operas as well. No doubt we are, as I said at the beginning, closing in on the real Mozart. As the great German art historian Aby Warburg used to say, le bon Dieu est dans le détail.

[*] She means, of course, Mozart’s operas, which have for half a century or more received more or less faithful performances – his orchestral music or, for that matter, his chamber music have never lost their power over their audiences.

[†] Not all his material is wholly unexplored: one long passage, which Robbins Landon attributes to a report in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung of October 1800, had already been quoted in Eduard Hanslick’s Geschichte des Concertwesens in Wien (1869-70), and attributed there to a correspondent to the Leipziger Musikzeitung.