Mozart’s Rascal

Roger Parker

  • Mozart in Vienna 1781-1791 by Volkmar Braunbehrens
    Deutsch, 481 pp, £17.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 233 98559 X
  • The Mozart Compendium edited by H.C. Robbins Landon
    Thames and Hudson, 452 pp, £24.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 500 01481 7
  • Mozart and Vienna by H.C. Robbins Landon
    Thames and Hudson, 208 pp, £16.95, February 1991, ISBN 0 500 01506 6
  • Mozart’s Thematic Catalogue: A Facsimile introduced and transcribed by Albi Rosenthal and Alan Tyson
    British Library, 57 pp, £25.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 7123 0202 6
  • The Compleat Mozart: A Guide to the Musical Works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart edited by Neal Zaslaw and William Cowdery
    Norton, 351 pp, £19.95, April 1991, ISBN 0 393 02886 0

Scholarly biographies of composers, once a sure way forward in terms of professional advancement, often the culmination of a distinguished career, are now unfashionable in the academy. For musicologists, virtually all of whom are still preoccupied with formalistic concerns, the genre is redolent of earlier, less severe periods: of fat, comfortable books in which the documents of a musician’s life would be lovingly assembled, often with the stated purpose of bringing us closer to ‘the music’, but rarely offering concrete ways in which such a conjunction might be attempted. Perhaps contemporary neglect of the genre also raises larger issues. We have now become rather wary of narrative histories of music, whether of periods or genres, and so it is probably inevitable that the stories once embedded in these grand designs – among which ‘lives of the great composers’ have always figured prominently – are also in decline. Whatever the case, the business of musical biography has recently, and with a few notable exceptions, been continued mostly in books intended for the general reader. These are rarely critical, and even more rarely sustain a level comparable with the best of literary biography.

Mozart has probably suffered more than most from this attention, since the romantic myths that rose around him during the 19th century have proved extraordinarily tenacious. So cliché’d is the sad tale of his last years that we can, aping Humbert Humbert’s laconic account of his mother’s demise – ‘(picnic, lightning)’ – get by with a telegram: isolated artist – writing for posterity – bohemian life – society misunderstands, ignores – faithless, feckless wife – dies young, in poverty – the Unmarked Grave. And this picture has of late been injected with new life and massively disseminated by the success of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, whose veneer of shocking realism and occasional flights of pure fancy hardly conceal its basic reinscription of the romantic image. It was time for scholars to hit back, and Amadeus was cited by H.C. Robbins Landon as a main reason for his 1791, Mozart’s Last Year(1988), a book soon followed by his volume on Mozart’s ‘Golden Years’ in Vienna and by the Mozart Compendium. Landon’s efforts are now joined in this country by Braunbehrens’s book about Mozart’s last ten years, which first appeared in German in 1986.

Between Landon and Braunbehrens, and with, in the latter case, help, which is often unacknowledged, from recent German and Anglo-American scholarship, the record of Mozart’s later career has probably been put about as straight as it will get. There remain a few mysteries, as the documentation of these years is – considering Mozart’s growing reputation during the period – surprisingly sparse. Few of his letters survive, fewer still that were written to him; many were undoubtedly hastened to oblivion by his widow and her second husband; the evidence that remains thus constantly threatens to present a distorted picture. However, of the basic facts there can now be little doubt.

After his move from Salzburg to Vienna in 1781, and after his acrimonious departure from the service of Colloredo, Archbishop of Salzburg, the 25-year-old Mozart fashioned for himself a highly successful career as what we would now call a ‘freelance’ musician. He received money from private piano pupils, from opera commissions, from selling music to publishers and, most of all, from a glittering career as composer-pianist, playing and sometimes organising concerts in which he would star as the soloist in his own piano concertos. By 1785, he was living in a spacious apartment in the centre of Vienna, doing very well indeed.

The second half of the 1780s saw a significant decline in his fortunes. The Turkish wars caused many of Mozart’s aristocratic patrons to withdraw from Vienna, and his concert career seems virtually to have collapsed. Although a series of opera commissions (Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte, La Clemenza di Tito, and The Magic Flute all come from his last six years) brought in considerable sums, and although he netted a modest court appointment and continued to profit from sales to publishers, his income decreased, perhaps sharply: he was obliged to move into less luxurious accommodation and, increasingly, to borrow from friends. However, by 1791 he was again in the ascendant: the success of The Magic Flute was impressive, he was paying off debts, sending his son to an expensive boarding-school, considering lucrative offers from impresarios in other capital cities. His fatal illness, probably a kind of rheumatic fever, was sudden and unexpected. He was buried in a communal grave, unattended by mourners not because he died in obscurity – far from it, his international reputation was steadily growing – but in accordance with Joseph II’s draconian brand of rationalism: as well as banning corsets, bell-ringing in thunderstorms and the making of honey cakes, the Emperor had strictly enlightened views on how to economise on and sanitise burial of Vienna’s dead.

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