Music Lessons

Nicholas Spice

  • Mozart by Maynard Solomon
    Hutchinson, 640 pp, £25.00, May 1995, ISBN 0 09 174704 X

I notice that I often hold back from Mozart’s music. When I listen to the opening of Haydn’s Creation – the ‘Representation of Chaos’ – I do not inhibit my feelings. Yet the opening of Mozart’s Dissonance String Quartet (K.465, in C), which, as Maynard Solomon intimates, may partly have inspired Haydn’s vision of loss, leaves me comparatively unmoved. And it is the same with the String Quintet in G minor (K.516) and the Fantasy in C minor (K.475) and the B minor Adagio (K.540). In the face of these pieces I am like Coleridge gazing at the stars and the crescent moon in the western sky: ‘I see them all so excellently fairy/ I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!’

I fend off Mozart’s music because I have difficulty determining where it ends and I begin. I distrust my assumptions about it. My access to it seems too easy. When Mozart wrote it, his music was often thought to be abstruse. ‘Mozart’s music is certainly too difficult to be sung,’ wrote the Emperor Joseph II; ‘Let it be something short, easy and popular,’ urged Mozart’s father, who, on another occasion, warned his son against ‘harmonic progressions, which the majority of people cannot fathom’; when the flautist Becke heard the first act of Idomeneo, he wrote of a beauty that was ‘new and strange’. I wish I could hear the beauty of Mozart’s music as new and strange, but it often seems to be hidden from me by a veil of familiarity which I lack the musical insight to penetrate. In the world I have lived in, Mozart’s music has been taken for granted, smoothed out through constant repetition, skilfully packaged as a cultural commodity, casually churned out at ‘Mostly Mozart’ marathons in New York and London, reduced to background music for the annual passeggiata of the Euronouveaux riches at the Salzburg Festival. Performances of Mozart are now rites rather than occasions for discovery. It is incumbent on us to say we love Mozart.

The affirmative consensus on Mozart bullies me into an affection for him that I haven’t done enough to earn. Then, when I listen to his music, I am assailed by the disconcerting thought that the music itself is beckoning me into a too sudden intimacy. There is a sensuousness in Mozart’s music which I feel most directly when I try and play it on the piano. The music is extremely tactile, its touchingness embodied in touch, its feelings felt in the fingers. The passage work in the recapitulation of the first movement of the A minor Piano Sonata (K.410), for example, describes an expressive contour which the hand that plays it brings into being, as though the hand were singing, as though the exquisite dissolutions of the harmonic movement were enacted through the pressure of the fingertips. ‘Perhaps no composer used the seductive physical power of music with the intensity and the range of Mozart,’ says Charles Rosen in The Classical Style. Glenn Gould thought Mozart’s music was ‘hedonist’.

The immediacy of Mozart’s music can be spooky. That simple four-note figure repeated twice, the viola motif in the slow movement of the G minor String Quintet, reaches out at us from the music, like Keats’s hand in the fragment ‘This Living Hand’ (‘see here it is – I hold it towards you’). We experience this music – ‘now warm and capable of earnest grasping’ – like a vivid dream which is so clear in our heads that we think we can put it into words. But we bore people when we tell them our dreams, and we bore ourselves when we talk about Mozart’s music.

For the biographer of Mozart, Mozart’s music is a trap, its eloquence apparently so human, the presentness of its voice readily conjuring up the idea of personhood, of someone speaking or feeling within or behind the notes. Mozart’s music lures us into thinking we know Mozart’s music and that in knowing it we know Mozart. Maynard Solomon takes the lure without hesitating. His talk about Mozart’s music is loose and incautious and tells us a lot about why he interprets Mozart’s life in the way that he does.

Solomon’s reading of Mozart’s music is governed by a single idea: the subversion of paradise by reality and death – et in arcadia ego. In his early output, Mozart explores the possibilities of the serenade, a genre whose ‘predominant character is pastoral’. ‘Exuberant, festive brilliance’ is balanced in this music by ‘inwardness’; ‘occasional darkenings’ and ‘thoughtful pathos’ mingle with ‘expected qualities of grace and tenderness’. By his early twenties, the sky above the fête-champêtre has a tendency to cloud over, there are storms, the mandolin gets rained on. ‘Oceanic, comforting and rapturous’ states are temporarily disturbed by ‘piercing dissonances’, or overcast with ‘brooding intensity’ and the threat of ‘chaos and disruption’. In the mature works a ‘specifically Mozartian array of beauties emerges – deathtinged, melancholy, painful, containing a mixture of resignation and affirmation’. In the G minor String Quintet (K.516) ‘bliss is subverted’ by ‘yearning and lament’, the Andante of the G major Piano Concerto (K.453) is an ‘extended, strife-ridden quest ... a melancholy but valiant attempt to overcome transience’.

We go to music to seek refuge from the vagueness of language, so it can seem perverse to try and translate what music expresses into words. Moreover, when we do this, we imply that composition is about finding musical equivalents for pre-existing states of mind and feeling. Maynard Solomon sees nothing wrong in this. He writes copiously about what Mozart put into his music and what we can take out of it: how, for example, in his slow movements, Mozart ‘tries to summon up every gradation of emotion’ or ‘seeks to represent currents of nostalgia, elegy and longing’.

From here it is a short distance to the idea that the emotion which Mozart tries to summon up is his own emotion. Solomon is eager to travel that distance. The ‘innocent utopianism’, the ‘faith in perfectibility, beauty and sensual fulfilment’ of the serenades parallels, he says, Mozart’s youthful optimism when he wrote them. Happy at home with his parents and sister, his genius acknowledged by the Salzburg public, the adolescent Mozart writes ‘social’ music which ‘represents his ties to his community and his powerful attachment to feelings associated with pastoral and idyllic states of being’. The A minor Piano Sonata (K.410), written around the time of his mother’s death in Paris in July 1778, when he was 22, reflects ‘the stormy process of Mozart’s attempt to separate from both his mother and his father, and from the combined parent figure that confronted him in fantasy as a monolithic entity’. The operas are ‘dramas of desired transformations’, Mozart’s attempt at ‘making things right’.

None of this brings Mozart’s music any closer to me: it’s either too particular or too general, narrowing down the music’s expressive properties or restating them tautologically. Which is not to say that I can imagine a satisfactory alternative way of accounting for the beauties of Mozart’s work. The strange affective power of the enharmonic shift from A flat major to E major at the opening of Scene 17 in Act Two of Così Fan Tutte, or the final harmonisation of the melody at the end of the Andante of the E flat Symphony (K.543), cannot be glossed. The mystery for me of such moments lies in the fact that Mozart’s imagination could have unlocked these potentialities from within the conventions of 18th-century musical language. Why don’t they just sound peculiar or at best interesting? (I suppose that’s how they did sound to many of Mozart’s contemporaries.) It is as though he had found a way to let everyone dream his own dream.

Psychoanalysts do not respect the manifest content of dreams, and Maynard Solomon’s commitment to psychoanalytic models of personality makes him heavily inclined to interpret Mozart’s music as a symptom of Mozart’s inner life, rather than to see it just as something Mozart did. This makes for dubious music criticism but it does explain Solomon’s belief in a certain view of Mozart’s personality. For Solomon wants us to see Mozart as a human being, a warm, funny, playful, loving, in some respects childish, passionate, intelligent, principled, rational and kind human being, someone who was obliged to fight fierce emotional battles with his father, and who suffered in these battles and internalised their outcomes, while also doing his best to fight them honourably. Understood as a direct product of his personality, Mozart’s music becomes irrefutable evidence of Mozart’s capacity to feel deeply.

So, Solomon’s Mozart is diametrically opposed to Hildesheimer’s Mozart, which appeared in German 18 years ago and provided Peter Shaffer with a congenial source for the elaboration of Amadeus, later to be loudly amplified by Forman’s film. Hildesheimer drew a picture of Mozart as a sort of autist, unable to form satisfactory human relationships (‘Human ties, as we know them, were alien to him’) and incapable of the ordinary range of human feelings: ‘He was relatively quick to get over human disappointments, and we do not know if they ever really touched him deeply at all.’ Solomon is worried that this version of Mozart’s personality is now in the ascendant (thanks mainly to the film Amadeus), and in his own book a thorough and painstaking scholarship is used to try and dislodge it.

Of course, Solomon’s Mozart is a far more sympathetic figure than Hildesheimer’s, but Solomon is also a more attractive advocate of the good Mozart than Hildesheimer is of the dysfunctional. Solomon loves Mozart and writes about him with a certain humility. Hildesheimer’s tone is pompous, schoolmasterly, faintly punitive. He is complacent about his counter-intuitive theory, and clearly enjoys taking us on an instructive tour of its best features: observe Mozart’s reaction to his mother’s death – how rhetorical, how empty! Note with one raised eyebrow the signs of arrested development in Mozart’s scatologically liberated love letters to his cousin Maria Anna Thekla (‘infantilism, without doubt’). Purse your lips at the date of Mozart’s most facetious composition, ‘Ein musikalischer Spass’ – it is the first work to be composed by Mozart after his father’s death.

Hildesheimer is a caricature of the German who discovered irony. Lifelong subscribers to the LRB may remember how 13 years ago he wrote to this paper laboriously taking to task the reviewer of his book Marbot for failing to recognise that it was a spoof. In fact, of course, it was Hildesheimer who had failed to see that the reviewer had written a spoof review. In Mozart he congratulates himself on taking us below the surface of the available evidence, but he goes no further than one layer down and ends up seeming ridiculously literal. As with all biographers of Mozart, Hildesheimer’s case rests on an interpretation of the letters. Like an old hand biting a coin to find out if it is genuine, he tests them for sincerity but fails to ask himself whether sincerity is an appropriate construct to apply to 18th-century letter-writing, or indeed to letter-writing in any age. ‘Mourn with me, my friend! This has been the saddest day of my life – I am writing this at two o’clock in the morning! I have to tell you that my mother, my dear mother, is no more! ... Only think of my anxiety, the tears and sorrows I have had to endure for the last fortnight.’ To Hildesheimer this is hollow stuff, false feeling, emotion ‘kept within the limits of Baroque convention’. But what did Hildesheimer expect? Was Mozart supposed to write outside the limits of Baroque convention? These were the conventions of his time. And he was only 22 and a musician not a writer. One wonders whether Hildesheimer has ever tried to write a letter shortly after witnessing the death of a close relative. Or whether he has any sense of the complexity of the relationship between what we feel and what we are able to write, or between what matters to us and what we are able to feel.

‘But sure as oft as women weep, /It is to be suppos’d they grieve’: the closing lines of Marvell’s poem ‘Mourning’ could stand as the motto of Solomon’s Mozart. The wisdom of his book lies precisely in what is absent from Hildesheimer’s Mozart: namely, a combination of common sense (accepting things at face value unless there are compelling reasons not to) and a properly sophisticated understanding of human nature. So, for example, when Mozart says he is beside himself with grief at the death of his father, Solomon takes him at his word, while pointing out that this event was not likely to have been exactly straightforward for Mozart, given the quite extraordinary intensity of the relationship that had preceded it.

The view of the adult Mozart as retaining some of the characteristics of a delinquent and irresponsible child depends partly on a complementary judgment about Leopold as a reasonable, long-suffering, parent who was sorely tried by his hare-brained son and who spent much nervous energy trying to keep him from the consequences of his own imprudence. Solomon rejects this view out of hand, and I don’t think anyone could sustain it after reading his book.

Alone the story of how Leopold treated his daughter Maria-Anna Mozart (Marianne, or ‘Nannerl’ as she was called by her family) should be enough to tell us what sort of man he was. When Wolfgang left home to pursue a career in Vienna, his sister was left behind to look after dad. Since it was in his interest to keep Marianne where she was, Leopold blocked every serious or half-serious suitor who came her way, including the man she eventually fell in love with (by that time she was 30). A few years later her father married her off to a wealthy old widower with five children. When, within a year of her marriage to this Casaubon, Marianne gave birth to her first child, Leopold simply took it away from her, saying he was going to bring it up himself.

The purloining of little Leopold was big Leopold’s most revealing and characteristic act. Maynard Solomon is surely right to see it as the father’s pathetic, yet typically obdurate, attempt to replace with a surrogate the son he felt he had lost. Within two years of forcibly abducting his grandson, Leopold Mozart died. He left his entire estate to Marianne, although she didn’t need it, and regardless of the fact that a significant part of the basis for that estate had been money Leopold had made touting his wunderkind son around the courts and salons of Europe.

One looks in vain at Wolfgang’s actions and his letters for a reasonable cause for Leopold’s disenchantment with him. It seems that Wolfgang’s unforgivable fault was to have wanted to take control of his own life. Leopold used every weapon in an extensive emotional armoury to prevent this happening. When, in his early twenties, Wolfgang failed to find himself a suitable court position away from Salzburg (probably because Leopold insisted it should be a dual appointment, with a job for him too), Leopold browbeat his son into returning to Salzburg to take up a job Mozart didn’t want on terms Leopold had negotiated behind his back. When Wolfgang still hung fire, his father accused him of owing him money, implied that he was responsible for his mother’s death and threatened him with his own death: ‘I hope that, after your mother had to die so inappropriately in Paris, you will not also have the furtherance of your father’s death on your conscience,’ he wrote.

Three years later, Mozart finally broke free of Salzburg and his father’s dominance, chucking in the job he despised and setting himself up as a freelance musician m Vienna. It was to be the start of his most successful period. But his father tried to prevent it happening, pursuing him with imprecations and predictions of ruin, and even intervening against him with his former employer. Mozart’s response to this assault is entirely direct: ‘God knows how hard it is for me to leave you,’ he writes: ‘I implore you, dearest, most beloved father, for the future to spare me such letters. I entreat you to do so, for they only irritate my mind and disturb my heart and spirit; and I, who must now keep on composing, need a cheerful mind and a calm disposition.’ It was a forlorn entreaty. Mozart asked his father’s permission to marry Constanze Weber but Leopold refused it; and when Mozart went ahead anyway, Leopold declared he would disinherit him. After this, Mozart’s wife and children were frozen out.

Maynard Solomon has been criticised in reviews for giving too much space to the financial details of Mozart’s life, but he is right to make money a central player in this drama. For a start, it’s only thanks to the details of Mozart’s bank balance that the tenacious myths about his poverty and ultimate destitution can be laid to rest. Solomon shows that Mozart did very well for himself in the early years in Vienna (living it up, in fact, with an expensive apartment, flashy clothes, lots of parties) and that he died – after a period of dire financial difficulty – just as things were looking up again. Moreover, by doggedly tracking Mozart’s material fortunes, Solomon keeps in sight the sheer pre-cariousness of life for people of Mozart’s class. The stakes were high: if you didn‘t make money, destitution quickly engulfed you, and with destitution came disease and death. In this context, Mozart’s death is particularly bleak. The tragic apotheosis accorded him by myth and Amadeus (his death the culminating scene in a passion play, with Mozart betrayed, forsaken, unrecognised by his own people) seems trite beside the probable reality. This says to us that Mozart could have died at any time, and that it was quite arbitrary that he died when he did, when things were going rather well.

Mozart knew about death, as people did. His mother had almost died giving birth to him (as his father was kind enough to remind him). Four of his siblings died. When they were children both he and his sister nearly died. Two of his boyhood friends, Thomas Linley and Giuseppe Maria Pallavicini, both of great musical talent, died before they reached 20. At 22, he stood by while his mother died. Four of his children died. Then, when he was not yet 36, Mozart died. An attack of acute rheumatic fever, it’s now generally thought, took him off. It wasn’t pleasant. His son Karl, seven at the time of the death, told later of how, towards the end, Mozart’s body gave off a stench, and how it became so swollen that he became ‘unable to make the smallest movement’. His wife Constanze remembered that just before he died he asked her what the doctor had said. She equivocated, and he said: ‘ “It isn’t true,” and he was very distressed; “I shall die, now when I am able to take care of you and the children. Ah, now I will leave you unprovided for.” Suddenly he vomited – it gushed out of him in an arc – it was brown, and he was dead.’

Mozart rejoiced in his bodily functions. He wrote happily of pissing and shitting and fucking. He accepted the flesh more readily than we do, who keep it at a sanitised distance and know less of its corruption. He wrote his music in a world that was dirty and dangerous. Those of us who are in a position to listen to Mozart hear it in a world that is clean and deludedly safe. Perhaps ultimately this is why we find it hard to receive its full impact.

At any rate, it’s only against the harshness of the material background to Mozart’s life that we can appreciate the insidiousness of Leopold Mozart’s treatment of his son. Leopold Mozart used money repeatedly to control Mozart: predicting his ruin as a way of keeping him in Salzburg, threatening him with his own ruin if Mozart didn’t stay and support him, claiming Mozart owed him money (again), withholding the money that was Mozart’s due. The threats and the blackmail were not empty. They could have meant the difference between life and the arc of brown vomit.

Ironically, the triumph of Solomon’s book is the portrait it gives of Leopold Mozart. Solomon’s subtle insight into this difficult, childish, tyrannical man is all the more believable for being compassionate. It’s not easy to sympathise with Leopold in the face of the anguish he caused his son. Yet Solomon manages to do so. For he sees that Leopold’s need to control his son was an expression of a desperate love for him: he simply couldn’t bear to let Mozart go. To have fathered such a boy had been an incredible, unimaginable twist in the fate of this otherwise average individual, the competent composer who never made it beyond Deputy Kapellmeister because of his awkward personality. Recognising what he had been given in Wolfgang, he threw everything he had into nurturing and developing the boy, and the results were phenomenal: Haydn was to tell Leopold that his son was the ‘greatest composer of the age’: perhaps Leopold even had an inkling that Mozart was the greatest composer of any age. To acknowledge the magnitude of his son’s genius meant to relinquish him, and Leopold didn’t have the magnanimity to do this, so instead he tried to hold on – out of selfishness, anxiety, out of a furious kind of love.

The clarity and detail of Solomon’s portrait of Leopold Mozart are a consequence of the role he has chosen for himself in writing this book. He is the psychotherapist who listens intently to Mozart’s story and, out of sympathy with what he has been through, becomes the good father that Mozart never had. But a patient in therapy only has an internal life; all the colour and eccentricity of external attribute and behaviour belong to the characters who populate his story. This could be why, for all that we know of his inner life, the character of Mozart in Solomon’s book seems oddly hidden, while Leopold, and even the unfortunate Marianne, seem so vivid and believable.

Without acknowledging the part he plays in his own book, Solomon shrewdly notices how Hildesheimer tends to identify with Leopold. He does not speculate on why this should be, but recognises in Hildesheimer’s Mozart a tradition reaching back to Mozart’s death, a tradition in which Leopold Mozart’s desire for his son never to grow up is amplified in the myth of Mozart as an eternal child. The function of this myth, it seems to me, has been to preserve Mozart’s music as a European cultural treasure. Leopold Mozart infantilised his son for his own ends; Western culture has adopted Leopold’s strategy for wider symbolic reasons: the idea of Mozart as an eternal child comes to stand for the unchanging rightness of the culture’s aesthetic values. Mozart as child is Mozart taken out of history, Mozart as figurine in the temple of art.

Every child who attends a music lesson this afternoon is at some deep, if faint, level reenacting the myth of the child Mozart, and every parent who harbours fond hopes of classical music as offering a potential future for their child is somewhere inside rehearsing the sin of Leopold.