Obscene Child

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Biography by Piero Melograni, translated by Lydia Cochrane
    Chicago, 300 pp, £19.00, December 2006, ISBN 0 226 51956 2
  • Mozart: The First Biography by Franz Niemetschek, translated by Helen Mautner
    Berghahn, 77 pp, £17.50, November 2006, ISBN 1 84545 231 3
  • Mozart’s Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music by Jane Glover
    Pan, 406 pp, £7.99, April 2006, ISBN 0 330 41858 0

As Saul Bellow once wrote, we have a problem talking about Mozart. It is the fear of having to contemplate transcendence and being embarrassed by something for which we have no vocabulary. To make matters worse, Mozart composed sublime music but, in contrast to Beethoven, had the wrong personality for sublimity, being prone to clowning and lavatory humour. Think of the babyish and buffoonish Amadeus of Peter Shaffer’s play. Or the impetuous, tousle-haired and disconcertingly North American figure in the Milos Forman film, stalked through the Vienna night by Antonio Salieri to the sound of the Dies irae from the Requiem. Franz Niemetschek, Mozart’s contemporary, whose biography (not the first, pace Berghahn, but the second) was published in 1798, concedes Mozart’s propensity for jokes but presents him as a gentle soul who, as Cliff Eisen remarks in his introduction, is almost a candidate for sainthood. ‘Who can unravel all the countless felicities, the fathomless beauties of his art?’ Niemetschek asks: ‘Who can describe in words his new, original, sublime and sonorous music. Listen with an open mind, and you will feel this more keenly than can be expressed in words.’

Such passages were easier to write at the end of the 18th century than at the beginning of the 21st, especially when the author was a Prague professor of philosophy undoubtedly well schooled in rhetoric. Both Piero Melograni and Jane Glover sidestep the issue of transcendence. Melograni, like Niemetschek, is an academic: an Italian political scientist whose best-known scholarly work is Lenin and the Myth of World Revolution. Not surprisingly, the music itself (as opposed to its commissioning, performance and reception) is almost absent from his account of Mozart’s life. But at least – unlike Lenin, who told Maxim Gorky that he couldn’t ‘listen to music too often, it affects the nerves, makes you want to say kind, silly things’ – he shows no discomfort in its presence. In the liveliest of these books, the conductor Jane Glover focuses mainly on family relationships, with the exception of an interesting chapter on Mozart’s singers and how he tailored the music to fit their gifts and capacities.

Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s father, is a key figure in every account of Mozart’s life. Leopold was the creator and artistic and business manager of the child prodigy, and he continued to shower his son with advice and criticism even after Wolfgang’s emancipatory departure for Vienna and marriage to Constanze Weber in his mid-twenties. In his 1995 biography, Maynard Solomon gives perhaps the strongest version of the case against Leopold, depicting him as a control freak who tried to maintain his domination of Wolfgang by treating him as an eternal child. Glover, too, is definitely on the anti-Leopold side; she notes his habitual lying, his ‘essential meanness of spirit’ in his dealings with his wife and daughter, and describes him as ‘tyrannical and paranoiac’, not to mention ‘hysterical, self-pitying, often irrational, melodramatic, verbose and manipulative’. Melograni, too, notes that Leopold was a past master at instilling guilt in his formerly model son (whose motto as a child, as he later reminded his father, was ‘Next to God comes Papa’) and, thanks to his ‘anxious disposition’ and tendency to discourage Wolfgang from innovation, was increasingly an impediment to his musical development. As to how Wolfgang felt about his father, perhaps Shaffer and Peter Hall captured his ambivalence in the two contrasting backdrops used in the first American production of Amadeus, one showing a huge, lowering Leopold-as-Commendatore; the other a transformed Leopold-as-Sarastro, emblematic of wisdom and love.

Maria Anna, Wolfgang’s elder sister, known as Nannerl, is another puzzle. Did she harbour lifelong resentment because Wolfgang first outshone her as a prodigy and then, as an adult, lost interest in her? Or was she, as Glover suggests, basically a proud and loving sister, despite fading from the picture after Wolfgang settled in Vienna and both siblings began their married lives? Melograni believes Nannerl was ‘jealous of her brother’ for his greater success as a child prodigy and latterly was also ‘angry at him’. Glover does not gloss over Nannerl’s faults – she was highly-strung, inclined to shout at servants and succumb to illness at times of crisis, an obsessional keeper of lists, and lacked her brother’s liveliness and humour – but presents a more sympathetic portrait, especially when she writes about the problems Nannerl faced after her marriage (in 1784, at the late age of 33), when she found herself banished to cold and dreary St Gilgen, living with an older widower whose children were hostile and out of control.

Constanze has generally had a poor press, starting with Mozart himself, who described her in a letter to his father before their marriage as ‘far from beautiful’, possessing ‘no wit, but . . . enough common sense to enable her to fulfil her duties as a wife and mother’. She was Mozart’s second choice among the lively Weber sisters; his first and apparently stronger passion was for Aloysia, a gifted and subsequently very successful singer two years older than Constanze. Constanze has been portrayed as part of a Weber family plot to trap Mozart into marriage, an enabler of his financial irresponsibility and an inconstant wife. In Amadeus, Peter Shaffer presents her as foolish, wanton, childish, and tending to encourage Wolfgang’s crudest and most puerile tendencies. Melograni is less harsh, but like Shaffer he has doubts about the paternity of Constanze’s last child, baptised as Franz Xaver Wolfgang in 1791, whose namesake Franz Xaver Süssmayr, a pupil of Mozart’s, accompanied Constanze to the spa at Baden in 1791 during the pregnancy. Melograni, noting the permissive climate of Vienna in the 1780s and 1790s, considers it likely that Wolfgang as well as Constanze was unfaithful around this time.

Niemetschek, for whose biography Constanze was a major source, is in the pro-Constanze camp. So, more judiciously, is Glover, who gives a generally positive picture not only of her but of the whole Weber clan, which she sees as having been a substitute family for Mozart as his ties with Leopold and Nannerl weakened. Her book is touchingly framed by descriptions of the main women in Mozart’s life, Nannerl and Constanze, both living in Salzburg in the 1820s (along with Sophia, another of Constanze’s sisters, who was also close to Mozart and present at his deathbed), cherishing his legacy and supporting each other. Their own Mozart was long gone, but in his place another Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had appeared, a musician of modest attainments whose mentors and protectors after the first Wolfgang’s death had included Salieri. The new Wolfgang was Constanze’s son Franz Xaver, who had decided to rename himself and implicitly claim Mozart as his father; Glover tells us that he became a supportive presence in his mother’s life and also in Nannerl’s, though he didn’t meet her until he was 30.

By general consensus, Mozart was a poor manager of money and an unsuccessful promoter of his own career. The lack of success can of course be exaggerated: the adult Mozart had good financial years as well as bad ones, and by the time of his death, though he ranked lower than Salieri in Vienna, was renowned throughout Europe, even rating an obituary in the Times, which recorded the death of ‘Wolfgang Mozart, the celebrated German composer’. The problem was that he could not, or to some extent would not, get a steady job of the type most late 18th-century composers lived on – namely, with an aristocratic patron. ‘I am simply furious that this unique Mozart has not yet been engaged by an imperial or royal court,’ Haydn, his good friend and supporter, wrote to a person of influence in Prague in 1787. He added that it was not enough for a composer to write great music: ‘He must also have recompense.’ Mozart could not abide his father’s patron and employer in Salzburg, Archbishop Colloredo, and he failed to win the full support of Vienna’s major patron, Emperor Josef, who favoured Salieri, a mere six years older than Mozart, and made him court composer and director of Italian opera in 1774.

Although Josef II’s mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, had been an early patron, she dealt a crushing blow to Mozart’s adult prospects when in 1771 she wrote to another son, Archduke Ferdinand, who had suggested giving Wolfgang a job in Milan, advising him against employing such ‘useless people’ as the Mozarts: ‘If they are in your service, it degrades that service when these people go about the world like beggars.’ That would suggest a reaction against Leopold, but Wolfgang himself was capable of considerable rudeness to employers or potential patrons he thought had treated him rudely: he was ‘profoundly proud’, in the words of Archbishop Colloredo; and even Niemetschek, while staunchly insisting that it was his ‘unworldly nature’, as well as the jealousy of competitors, that prevented Mozart from getting a steady job, conceded that he ‘possibly went too far’ in showing his lack of respect for people, even ‘of the highest rank’, whom he considered unmusical.

The discussion of Mozart’s failure to secure a patron was raised to a higher level of sociological abstraction by Norbert Elias, one of many distinguished non-musicologists who have been tempted to write about him. In Elias’s late work Mozart: Zur Soziologie eines Genies (1991), Mozart becomes the first bourgeois composer, trying to escape from the web of aristocratic and court patronage but for historical reasons unable fully to achieve this. Melograni is sympathetic to this argument, though he avoids any suggestion of an intentional choice in favour of the bourgeois market on Mozart’s part, and provides some useful detail on the problems a composer would encounter if he tried to earn a living in that market. This was an age before copyright and royalties (revolutionary France provided the first official recognition of authors’ rights in 1791, the year of Mozart’s death; Britain’s Dramatic Copyright Act, which included operas within its scope, was not passed until 1833), and composers were paid for the first performance alone. This is why opera composers in Vienna (though not, interestingly, Mozart in his mature years) tended to write so many new works.

Once the notion of the bourgeois is introduced into the discussion of a late 18th-century life, England immediately comes to mind. ‘Had he gone to England,’ Niemetschek writes of his hero, ‘his fame would have shone beside Handel’s immortal name.’ The historical might-have-been of Mozart, unappreciated in imperial Vienna, going on to conquer bourgeois London, is not without historical plausibility. Leopold had had great success in England in 1764-65 with his two child prodigies, until an ill-judged ‘bourgeois’ initiative (having the children perform in the Swan and Harp Tavern on Cornhill) reportedly alienated his aristocratic patrons. As a teenager in Italy, Wolfgang had formed a close friendship with an English violinist of his own age, Thomas Linley; and after his marriage, he and Constanze thought seriously about going to England on several occasions. In 1787, a group of their friends – including Nancy Storace, a young Italian/English singer who was the first Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro – set off for London, with the intention of making contracts there for Mozart as well as themselves. Wolfgang and Constanze were short of money and also had a small boy and a newborn baby to look after, but it occurred to them that Leopold, who was already looking after Nannerl’s first-born in Salzburg, might become their childminder as well. Leopold, however, resentful of Wolfgang’s independence since his move to Vienna, critical of his spendthrift ways, and unpersuaded of the seriousness of purpose of the lively Storace group that visited him in Salzburg en route to London, erupted with fury at this ‘brilliant idea’: as he wrote to Nannerl, her brother and his wife ‘could go off and travel – they might even die – or remain in England – and I should have to run after them with the children’. The issue came up again in 1790, when the London impresario Johann Peter Salomon came to Vienna and, after persuading Haydn to accept a London contract (hence, the ‘London’ Symphonies), probably made a similar offer to Mozart, who, for financial and childcare reasons, declined.

‘Genius’ is an epithet almost universally applied to Mozart, even by those who, like Elias, would prefer to ‘avoid this Romantic concept’. The essence of his genius, in Elias’s view, was the spontaneous, unforced quality of his way of composing, the fact that ‘musical inventions flowed from him as dreams emanate from a sleeping person.’ The idea that Mozart’s achievements had nothing to do with self-discipline, hard work, knowledge or intellect is deeply embedded in the popular image of his genius, but Melograni and Glover will have none of it, pointing out how hard Mozart worked on his music, even as a child, and suggesting that the ‘eternal child’ view was put about by Leopold and other family members to emphasise Wolfgang’s need for and dependence on them. Niemetschek agrees about the hard work, offering on the basis of first-hand observation his own explanation of Mozart’s composition practices and why they seemed effortless to many:

In his mind the work was already complete before he sat down at his desk. When he received the libretto for a vocal composition, he went around for some time, concentrating on it until his imagination was fired. Then he proceeded to work out his ideas at the piano; and only then did he sit down and write. That is why he found the writing itself so easy. While at work on it he would often joke and chatter.

The ‘eternal child’ image has another dimension, epitomised by the ‘unforgettable giggle – piercing and infantile’ which, according to Shaffer’s stage directions, was to accompany Mozart’s buffoonery and dirty jokes in Amadeus. In Shaffer’s play, it is the contrast between the musical genius and the dirty-minded adolescent that drives Mozart’s rival crazy. Listening to the adagio from Mozart’s woodwind serenade, Shaffer’s Salieri is transported and appalled: ‘It seemed to me that I had heard a voice of God – and that it issued from a creature whose own voice I had also heard – and it was the voice of an obscene child!’

It was the Shaffer play that sent people off to read the coarsely flirtatious ‘Basel’ letters – written by Mozart to a cousin when he was in his early twenties, and full of shitting as well as fucking – and to wonder how the man who had written that music could have written them. (Stefan Zweig, publishing the letters in an expurgated private edition in 1931, sent a copy to Freud with the remark that Mozart’s ‘erotic nature . . . more so than that of any other important man, has elements of infantilism and coprolalia.’) The entire Mozart family was preoccupied with bodily functions and wrote about them freely in their letters to each other, Glover points out, though whether this was an eccentricity or the norm among respectable Salzburg burghers remains unclear.

Shaffer’s play had a precursor in Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri, ‘a little tragedy in verse’, published in 1830, as well as the chamber opera on Pushkin’s text composed sixty years later by Rimsky-Korsakov. Pushkin’s version has none of the scatological element of Shaffer’s, but its starting point, too, was the contemporary rumour of a deadly rivalry between the two composers that finally drove the intensely jealous Salieri to poison his rival. (Shaffer stops short of fingering Salieri as a murderer in the play, though it is strongly implied in Forman’s film, for which he wrote the screenplay.) Pushkin, who picked up the rumours of poisoning from the German press, saw an analogy with the famous feud in 18th-century Paris between the German-Bohemian composer Christoph Willibald Gluck and his Italian rival Niccolò Piccinni. In Pushkin’s ‘little tragedy’ (a mere ten pages), what drives Salieri wild with jealousy is simply Mozart’s genius, a less plausible motive for murder than Shaffer’s but in its way an even scarier one. Salieri comes to believe that this genius represents a threat to the well-being and self-respect of the musical world; thus, despite his friendly relations with Mozart (which seem to be historically accurate, though Mozart envied Salieri’s success), the man must be killed.

Constanze is partly to blame for the poisoning story, and told it to Niemetschek among others. In the Constanze/Niemetschek version (as well as in the Forman film), Mozart’s forebodings of death and fear of poisoning were associated with the commission of a requiem mass by a mysterious anonymous patron. As his health declined and the unfinished commission (for which he was yet to be paid) weighed on him, Mozart ‘began to speak of death, and declared that he was writing the requiem for himself’. He told Constanze that he could not rid himself of the idea that he had been poisoned. Unable to convince him ‘that his melancholy imaginings were without foundation’, Constanze called the doctor and took the score of the requiem away, but ‘on the day of his death he asked for the score to be brought to his bedside. “Did I not say before that I was writing this requiem for myself?”’ Just after his death, Niemetschek relates, a ‘mysterious messenger’ came and took away the unfinished requiem.

The real story of the commissioning of the requiem is equally strange. An amateur composer, Count Franz Xaver Walsegg-Stuppach, whose wife had just died, commissioned Mozart through an intermediary to write a requiem on the understanding that it would be presented as Walsegg’s own work, thus introducing the element of secrecy that subsequently appeared so sinister. Mozart was unable to finish the work, which was completed after his death by Süssmayr and other pupils so that Constanze could receive the full payment. Thus, the work is only partly Mozart’s; and while Glover judges it a ‘veritable masterpiece’, Melograni, speaking about a musical matter with uncharacteristic decisiveness, describes it as ‘a substantially false product’, which ‘it might be appropriate to cancel . . . from the Köchel catalogue.’ This judgment is based not only on the pupils’ substantial contributions but also – more oddly – on Melograni’s assumption that, since the putative composer was an amateur, Wolfgang and his pupils did their best to write music that was appropriately banal and technically clumsy.

Another story was that the Freemasons had done Mozart in because he had revealed their secrets in The Magic Flute. A note of true melodrama was added by the sensational death of Mozart’s friend Franz Hofdemel, whose wife Magdalena was a student and possibly a lover of Mozart’s: Hofdemel attacked his pregnant wife with a razor and then killed himself on the day of Mozart’s funeral.

Of the two new books, Glover’s is the better written and Melograni’s the more comprehensive and pedestrian. The Niemetschek volume – not much use to scholars, with its perfunctory introduction, minimal annotation and lack of an index – is a charming curiosity which reproduces a nice selection of Mozart family portraits. While Niemetschek was a devoted admirer of Mozart and Glover writes with great empathy for all her subjects, Melograni seems to have come to the topic by accident: he was asked to write a book on Mozart for adolescents, but turned it into a book for adults after he decided that such matters as the Hofdemel suicide and the doubts about the paternity of Constanze’s son were inappropriate for the young. He writes quaintly that ‘in an era when parental authority is already weak’, he preferred ‘not to weaken it further’ by displaying the troubled relationship of Leopold and Wolfgang to adolescents.

Melograni tells us that he was infatuated with Mozart’s music when young, though he later ‘felt that it had become too much of a consumer product, with too many performances, too much exploitation, and so commercialised that one hears Mozart at every turn’. This is an unexpected attitude for a Mozart biographer to take, but it’s hard not to sympathise to some degree. It is certainly possible to hear Eine kleine Nachtmusik once too often; and there was something distasteful about the huge extravaganza Salzburg turned on for the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth in 2006, given that he disliked the city of his birth as strongly as, in his lifetime, Salzburg disliked him.

But beyond the commercialisation, there is still the music. However shamefacedly, we should at least acknowledge the problem of transcendence. Most musicians and listeners have heard something extraordinary or – as Niemetschek could say without blushing – sublime in Mozart (I offer as an example K.428 in E flat major, one of Mozart’s ‘Haydn’ Quartets, particularly the opening unison broken by a completely unexpected and spooky interjection from the second violin). There seems to be nothing we can do with this perception of sublimity, not even express it properly. But it explains why Salieri’s reaction to Mozart’s music, as imagined by Pushkin and Shaffer, might make sense to us: it’s not just that we understand jealousy but also that we recognise Salieri’s response to the music, his sense that God was speaking through a human instrument. Perhaps Pushkin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shaffer and Milos Forman had the right idea about how to portray Mozart: do it in fiction, and put the inadmissible sense of sublimity in the mouth of a character. Then nobody need be embarrassed, and if the character insists on destroying the genius he recognises, no matter: it’s a fiction, after all.