German Trash

Misha Donat

  • 1791: Mozart’s Last Year by H.C. Robbins Landon
    Thames and Hudson, 240 pp, £12.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 500 01411 6
  • Mozart: The Golden Years 1781-1791 by H.C. Robbins Landon
    Thames and Hudson, 272 pp, £14.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 500 01466 3

The first thing that strikes the reader of Professor Landon’s many books is how very likeable they are. His enthusiasm and energy have remained undimmed over the years, and his disarmingly unpretentious style of writing brings the world of late 18th-century Austria vividly to life. The preface to 1791 begins with a description of how the author first fell under the spell of Mozart’s music at the age of 13, and ends with a sentiment with which few would want to take issue: ‘The Mozartian legacy ... is as good an excuse for mankind’s existence as we shall ever encounter and is perhaps, after all, a still small hope for our ultimate survival.’

It is sad to see that the same preface finds it necessary to explain Mozart’s popularity at the expense of his greatest contemporary, Haydn. Haydn, we are told, does not invite us ‘to share in his problems because he has reduced these problems to a brilliant intellectual tour de force. His great quartets, symphonies and religious music unfold before us like a pageant which we watch with fascination but which does not necessarily require our personal participation, our immediate emotional involvement.’ This, said of the composer of such heart-warming works as The Creation and The Seasons, the ‘London’ symphonies, the ‘Nelson’ Mass and the string quartets Op. 76, is hard to swallow; and coming from a scholar who has done more than anyone else in our time to promote the cause of Haydn’s music, it is strange indeed.

Robbins Landon’s avowed intention in both these books is to make some of the fruits of recent Mozart research available to the general reader. Although they adopt a rather different approach (1791 is essentially a chronicle of the events of that year, leading up to the composer’s premature death on 5 December, while its more lavishly-illustrated successor ranges considerably wider, and includes some discussion of the music), the two books are intended to be complementary. For this reason, the main events of Mozart’s last year – the composition of La Clemenza di Tito and The Magic Flute, the circumstances surrounding the commissioning of the Requiem, and the nature of the composer’s final illness – are glossed over in the later book. This means that neither volume contains any musical comment on Mozart’s last two operas, whereas in the second volume the three great collaborations with Da Ponte earn an analytical chapter to themselves.

Landon’s chronicle of Mozart’s last year actually begins in the previous autumn, with the composer’s attempt to bring himself to the notice of the new emperor by appearing in Frankfurt at the time of his coronation. ‘Laying siege to Leopold II,’ notes Professor Landon wrily, ‘was a dubious operation for a composer,’ and the venture was certainly not a success. Back in Vienna, Mozart spent the first three months of 1791 trying to improve his desperate financial situation by writing dance music. (‘Too much for what I did, not enough for what I could do,’ he scribbled on a receipt for a set of dances.) It was, as Landon says, an appalling waste of Mozart’s genius.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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