Mozart: A Life, by Maynard Solomon
Published online: 1 October 1995
- PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40374277
Mozart: A Life, by Maynard Solomon. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995. xvi + 640 pp. ISBN 0-06-019046-9.
About two-thirds of the way through his massive, richly detailed new Mozart biography, Maynard Solomon quotes from a Danish tenor's recollection of an afternoon he spent with the Mozarts in August, 1788:
Then I had the happiest hour of music that has ever fallen to my lot. This small man and great master twice extemporized on a pedal pianoforte, so wonderfully! that I quite lost myself. He intertwined the most difficult passages with the most lovely themes. His wife cut quill-pens for the copyist, a pupil [Hummel?] composed, a little boy aged four [Karl Thomas] walked about in the garden and sang recitatives—in short, everything that surrounded this splendid man was musical! . . . [A]s the Operetta has closed down, he has nothing [more] to do with the theater. (p. 433)
What is striking about this description (by Joachim Daniel Preisler) is its idyllic picture of a time in Mozart's life when one would have thought such carefree enjoyment nearly impossible. Already he had begun posting those embarrassing letters to Michael Puchberg begging for loans. In June he had movedone assumes for financial reasonsto his eleventh apartment, this one outside the city. Times were hard in the Vienna of 1788. Emperor Joseph II was away most of the year, fighting an unpopular war against the Turks. The Kärntnertor-Theater, as Preisler notes (the "Operetta"), was shut down because of the war. Inflation was rampant; crops were poor. The tense political situation in France had rich people holding onto their wallets instead of underwriting musical events. Mozart's income, which had fluctuated even in the best of times, suffered a downward turn from which it did not recover until a few months before his death. Ironically, he then found himself with a hit on his hands in The Magic Flute and, Solomon surmises, a number of promising offers for the future.1 But in Preisler's charming diary entry there are no signs of worry, only a family enjoying itself on a pleasant afternoon.
Solomon's biography is full of such vignettes. One of the many strengths of his book is this very density of information. Perhaps no study of the composer since Otto Jahn's a century agocertainly none in Englishhas provided us with so much factual detail. There is, to be sure, a mountain of it for biographers to wade through: seven volumes of family letters, scores of memoirs and reminiscences by contemporaries, and, on top of all this, a shelfload of biographies dating back to 1793. Readers of Solomon's work should understand that his title is seriously meant: this is "A Life," not a life-and-works. Sensibly organized, it devotes about the same amount of space to the composer's early years as to his final decade in Vienna. Analyses of music, thematic rather than systematic, occur in pinpointed discussions placed strategically throughout the book. There are four such chapters, and they deal, respectively, with music from the early 1770s (Chapter 8, "A Composer's Voice"), the late 1770s (Chapter 12, "Trouble in Paradise"), and the 1780s (Chapter 24, "Fearful Symmetries," and Chapter 32, "The Power of Music").
These chapters yield plentiful insights and provide some of the book's most exciting reading. In "A Composer's Voice" Solomon finds elements of Mozart's distinctive style2 in works dating from the 1770s: in the "brusque dramatic theatricality" of the "little" Symphony in G Minor, K. 183, in the "deep inwardness" of the second and last movements of the String Quintet in B-flat major, K. 174, and in the original, "'learned' finale"later replaced by a rondoof the Piano Concerto in D Major, K. 175 (p. 122). Solomon reveals for the first time the importance of those informal, occasional pieces known Nachtmusik, Festmusik, or Finalmusik and carrying titles such as serenade, divertimento, cassation, or nocturne. Their loose format, flexible design, and ad hoc instrumentation made them ripe for stylistic experimentation, and that, Solomon argues, is exactly how Mozart used them. In a clever deconstruction Solomon links the traditional (vocal) serenade sung beneath the window of a lover (or a friend, a benefactor, or an employer) to cantabile solo violin parts in Mozart's instrumental serenades and these, in turn, to the violin concertos and to arias such as Susanna's "Deh vieni, non tardar." What ties all these diverse examples together is the element of the pastoral or "serenade style," as Solomon calls it, which was to play an increasingly prominent role in Mozart's music in all genres. If, as Solomon contends, the Salzburg serenades can be said to have marked the serenade style's sunny debut, by the 1780s it spanned the whole range of human emotions, from joyful pleasant choruses in The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni to the profound melancholy of Vitellia's "Non più di fiore" in La clemenza di Tito.
It was Wye J. Allanbrook's pathbreaking book, Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), which opened up the topic of the pastoral in Mozart's operas. Then Michael Beckerman, in an article written for the Mozart-Jahrbuch in 1991 ("Mozart's Pastoral," pp. 93ff.), noted our tendency to neglect such manifestations of Mozart's sweeter, more consonant side in favor of his more explosive, dissonant music. Solomon is evidently embarrassed by the sweetness. Towards the end of his excellent commentary on the early serenades he abruptly reverses field to claim that Mozart disdained such "insipidities" (p. 127). Then, after drawing an elegant parallel to Watteau's 1717 fête galante, "The Embarkation for Cythera"3a superb analogyhe undercuts his point by pushing it too far, into autobiography. The serenades express "the sense of an untested eroticism . . . of landscapes [Mozart himself] wants to inhabit . . . of what he wants to enfold in his arms" (pp.132, 135).
"Trouble in Paradise"4 has as its centerpiece the Andante of the Piano Sonata in A Minor, K. 310/300d, composed in Paris in 1778 during that fateful journey so pivotal to Mozart's development as a man and as a musician. It was pivotal because he had never before traveled without his father (though his mother had been sent along as chaperon); because he could for the first time spend whole days on his own with other musicians, in Mannheim and later in Paris; and because he became conversant with a host of new ideasphilosophical and political as well as musicalwhich proved to be of great use to him later on. However, he failed to find a suitable job; he was jilted by his first love, Aloysia Weber, and, tragically and unexpectedly, his mother died in July, 1778. When one begins reading Solomon's chapter one might assume that "Paradise" refers to the positive aspects of this trip; but no, it is a metaphor for the "serenade style," now invaded by instability and dissonance. Solomon has chosen well: the A-minor sonata is one of the composer's rare minor-key works. Charles Rosen has termed it his "first essay in the tragic vein."5 We still do not know why this remarkable piece was written, when, or for whom. Its most "startling novelty" (p. 191) is its slow movement. Despite a major key (F), triple meter, and a marking of Andante cantabile con espressionethree likely indicators of a pastoral modethe movement's agitated development and uncertain return to F in the recapitulation suggest to Solomon that there is "trouble in paradise" (p. 195).
The eloquent title "Fearful Symmetries" evokes the world of the metaphysical poets, for whom order was hardwon and battle-scarred, forever careening on the edge of chaos. Solomon's thesis is that much of Mozart's mature music is fraught with a similar tension, which creates an unstable, restless beauty that is uniquely his and quite undefinable. Solomon expands here on Edward Lowinsky's brilliant 1956 essay, "On Mozart's Rhythm,"6 which dealt with this "Classical" composer's habitual preference for asymmetry and irregularity in rhythm, phrasing, thematic structure, and harmonic motion. Solomon cites as examples (pp. 365-67) the unrelieved dissonance of the opening to the String Quartet in C Major, K. 465, the incredible melodic leaps in the slow movement of the Piano Concerto in C major, K. 467, and the odd turns taken by the opening idea of the Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364/320d. He explores this dark realm movingly, confessing that he can do no more than offer "metaphoric approximations" for it (p. 379). These suggest to him an identification of asymmetry, dissonance, and tension with death, and their opposites with "death's close neighbor," beauty (p. 374). Music, he feels, constantly "mediates between beauty and death," and Mozart's compositions become progressively more "death-tinged" (p. 365).
"The Power of Music," the last chapter in the book, focuses on the late operas: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and The Magic Flute.7 Surprisingly, Solomon bases much of his discussion on librettos rather than on scores, a decision that leads to some problematic conclusions. For example, he argues that Don Giovanni refuses to repent because he "operates on a higher moral plane than we do" (pp. 505-506). This is more or less how nineteenth-century Romantics viewed Don Giovanniquite logically so, since most of them knew not the Italian opera but a German Singspiel with no recitatives, no final scene, and a tragic ending.8 To interpret Giovanni in such wildly heroic fashion today requires more justification than it receives here. Further, when Solomon criticizes the plot of The Magic Flute for too many moral and dramatic "U-turns" (pp. 506-507) and judges Sarastro to be an "empty figurehead" (p. 515), he is either misunderstanding or ignoring not only the opera's Masonic symbolism, which Mozart took extremely seriously, but its abundant musical riches as well, for this is a summa of the composer's mature style: "learned" counterpoint, technicolor orchestration, the pastoral style in myriad guises, vaudeville turns, passionate lyricism. Solomon contends that the worst problem in these four operas is that they all end badly, i.e., with plots less than firmly resolved. One could argue that this is precisely why they ring so true. Still, one agrees with Solomon that their push toward final resolution arises out of Mozart's yearning to put the world back together again no matter what, staving off the powers of death with "the beauty of a song" (p. 518).
But Solomon's real interest is in the manthat "strange being, full of contradictions," Alfred Einstein called him a half-century ago.9 While much of his life is exceptionally well documented, there remain a number of significant gaps. We have voluminous information about his years as a child prodigy because Leopold Mozart, who intended to write a biography of his son one day, decreed that every scrap be carefully set aside, even mailing duplicate copies of some letters. Reading through the seven volumes of family correspondence, however, one discovers that for certain periods there are either no letters at all, or letters without responses.10 Correspondence between father and son survives intact only for the years 1777 to 1781during which Mozart traveled to Mannheim and Paris, later broke with the archbishop, then, in March, 1781, moved to Vienna. We have letters he wrote to Leopold from 1781 to June, 1784, but none of his father's replies. The only letter surviving from those he sent Leopold after 1784 is the famous one in which he refers to death as "the true goal of our existence" (April 4, 1787). His letters to Constanze are mostly complete, though we have none of her responses.
Despite such gaps, the letters remain the prime resource for anyone studying Mozart's character and personalityor, equally difficult, trying to figure out his very complicated father. Solomon's book is a Freudian psychobiography in the manner of his highly regarded study of Beethoven,11 and perhaps for this reason awards the composer's father star billing. No other biography of Mozart analyzes him in such depth. We learn for the first time, for example, of his less than model conduct as a young man, embarrassing in one who later came to epitomize ramrod self-discipline. Solomon's research has unearthed the fact that Leopold was expelled from the University of Salzburg in 1739 for poor attendance (!); but instead of appealing this decision, he left the university to accept a job as a violinist in the employ of Count Thunembarking straightway upon the life of a musician and never looking back.
The mentor, guide, and, Solomon agrees, finally the "tormentor" of his Wunderkind son, Leopold is here depicted as having based his teaching on incessant demands for approval. The Mozart "family enterprise" entailed "providing . . . emotional assistance and supplies to its neediest member, Leopold Mozart" (p. 216). His treatment of his son was an exercise in cruel domination driven by his own feelings of inferiority: "Mozart became a screen upon which Leopold Mozart projected his own repudiated impulses" (p. 214). Having failed to rise above the rank of assistant Kapellmeister, he could not tolerate success from his son and therefore set every possible obstacle in his path. Solomon presents us with a portrait of Leopold that is so starkly negative it is nearly two-dimensional.12
Mozart, Solomon feels, bore the emotional scars of this torturous upbringing for the rest of his life. Paraded around Europe as a cherubic boy genius, dressed up like a toy monarch, praised and kissed wherever he went, he inevitably came to have a high opinion of himself. It is Solomon's thesis that this strong self-image was brutally undercut by a lack of real love from his parents, who treated him as a marketable product (pp. 10-11, 65). To his father he was a mythical "eternal child"forever admonished to grow up, yet denied the psychological space in which to do so. Solomon says it was Leopold who foisted this myth upon him and that Wolfgang, as a consequence, established early on a pattern of outward docility masking a deep inner rage and desire for revenge (pp. 12, 18). He developed "a powerful drive to reconstruct reality" (p. 361), which played itself out both in his art and in such "utopian fallacies" as his membership in the Society of Freemasons and his lifelong fascination with riddles, obscene jokes, and the upside-down world of the carnival (pp. 359-361). Solomon suggests that when three-year-old Mozart started teaching himself to play the violin, he was already, at least unconsciously, usurping his father's role (p. 65). The conflict had its roots as early as that, and it only grew worse.
Solomon criticizes Leopold for not raising his children according to Rousseau's novel pedagogical ideas. But was a German father of that generation likely to model himself on a radical theorist like Rousseau? What was the best way to deal with this extraordinary little boy? Barbara Beuys's history of family life in Germany reveals that bringing up children was a much-discussed topic in the eighteenth century.13 The most progressive German theorists urged regular doses of corporal punishment both at home and at school.14 At all times the parent was to maintain tight control and, as soon as possible, to wean the child away from idleness and play into steady employment. One was to demand total obedience, for it was essential to break a child's will before attempting to mold a civilized, morally upright, economically productive adult. Frederick the Great was raised according to this philosophy. Awakened at six, he was expected to get up instantly and without complaint, kneel by his bed and say a brief prayer, don his shoes and stockings, and then, while washing his face and hands (soap was not permitted), to drink his tea and eat his breakfast. All this was to be finished by 6:30.15
It may be both unfair and historically inaccurate, then, to chastise Mozart's father for the way he brought up his two children.16 Judged against the prevailing standard, he actually seems to have leaned closer to Rousseauian nurturing than to the typical North German model of strict domination. As far as we know, he never raised his hand against either Wolfgang or Nannerl, and from all appearances their youth was a happy one.
As the years went on, however, Leopold and his son grew aparthow much so, and when, depends upon one's interpretation of the evidence. Solomon believes the trouble started in early childhood, escalated dramatically during Mozart's 1777-1778 journey to Mannheim and Paris, and spun out of control after that. In the years before Leopold's death in 1787, he argues, it climbed to stratospheric levels, with Mozart torn between a desperate need for his father's approval (which Solomon believes would never have been forthcoming regardless of what he did) and a violent urge to destroy him. Solomon portrays this conflict as permeating every aspect of Mozart's lifehis marriage, his friendships, and most definitely his work as a composer (p. 466).
Mozart's relationships with women, Solomon feels, were inevitably flawed, a pattern of denying his father while searching for a surrogate mother. He was truly in love with his warm and sexy young cousin, "the Bäsle"not just having fun teasing around with herbut idolized, rather than loved the cool and remote Aloysia Weber, who rejected him. In marrying Constanze he chose a middle path between them (p. 257). However, to marry was to reject his father, an open act of defiance (p. 253). Solomon believes the rumors of marital infidelity, and thinks there was an especially torrid affair with the Prague singer Josepha Duschek (pp. 445-449).
Solomon concentrates, then, on the Oedipal struggle between Mozart and his father and its repercussions. Treatments of other major characters, including the composer's wife, are by comparison less detailed. Yet the daily routines of Mozart and Constanze and their friendships and social life are vividly depicted in a chapter called "Portrait of a Composer" (pp. 307-319), which includes a description of the glittering beau monde surrounding them in Vienna (pp. 310-311). Mozart was a man of broad intellectual curiosity, with a sharp wit and a discerning eye for fools and pretenders. Solomon shows us this complex, many-faceted individual while making it poignantly clear that the events of his short lifeabove all, what Solomon feels was the severe abuse heaped upon him by his fathereventually proved so emotionally crippling that he could no longer cope.
In the chapter on Mozart's involvement with Freemasonry, Solomon presents a strong case that Joseph II appropriated the movement to advance his reformist agenda (p. 322). As he points out, nearly everyone in the composer's circle was a member of the order; quite simply, Masonry lay at the center of everything he didmusically, socially, intellectually. Solomon unfortunately demeans it as patriarchal and oppressive, a childish fantasy-world (pp. 331, 481). This seems a regrettable undermining of the composer's deep commitment, movingly audible in the music he wrote for the order and quite stunningly so in The Magic Flute.
When Solomon comes to the composer's final year he sets before us the picture of a man so emotionally exhausted that he returnsunwittinglyto fields of youthful glory (p. 48), reprising his life as a keyboard virtuoso with the Piano Concerto in B-flat Major, K. 595, as a composer of Singspiels with The Magic Flute, of church music, with the Requiem and Ave verum corpus, and of Masonic music with the cantata Laut verkünde unsre Freude, K. 623. Solomon allows this scenario to play out still further: the "eternal child," he proposes, felt impelled in late 1791 to save the family enterprise, as he had always been expected to do as a child. Finally he grew so desperate that he prostituted his artcomposing The Magic Flute for an opera company unworthy of him, writing La clemenza di Tito "to celebrate the supposed benevolence of [an emperor]," and even . . . ghost-[writing] a Requiem . . . an extraordinary act of self-abasement" (p. 489). This is a rhetorical and psychological mouthfulSolomon appears to condemn a whole group of compositions on grounds which are not only unrelated to music but are, to say the least, debatable. And weren't there other factors at work here? Solomon apparently assumes that eighteenth-century composers could write whatever they liked, whenever they liked.17 But, of course, that isn't true.
In focusing so intently on the composer's emotional health, Solomon gives little attention to his long history of medical problems, which have been detailed in Peter J. Davies's Mozart in Person: His Character, His Health (New York, 1989). There is no question that these problems ultimately caused Mozart's death, but the degree to which they may also have accounted for some of his mood-swings warrants discussion as well, particularly his severe depressions in 1790 and 1791. Solomon attributes the bouts of melancholy to psychological causesguilt over his unfaithfulness to Constanze, for example, which Solomon feels nearly led to their divorce in 1789 (pp. 443-454). Yet someone dying of renal failure, his body so swollen he could hardly move, might well experience serious depression; this is not neurotic behavior. Solomon's graphic description of his death quotes from the recollections of Karl Thomas Mozart, then seven years old (p. 493). The account of the death and burial summarizes what we know from the researches of Carl Bär and Volkmar Braunbehrens.18 The manner of the composer's burialportrayed rather accurately, surprisingly enough, in Amadeusaccorded with reformist practices instituted by Joseph II, practices of which Mozart, as a clear-thinking man of the Enlightenment and an active Mason, would surely have approved. Bodies were covered with lime and deposited in large trenches; caskets were reused. The intent of these new measures was to erase distinctions between rich and poor. Mozart was not given a pauper's funeral, but a reformist one.
Solomon's Mozart: A Life is easily the most absorbing and thoroughly documented Mozart biography in many a decade. Neutral it is not. For readers of a Freudian disposition, this is your book. From the rest of us Solomon demands serious engagement as well, simply for the sheer intellectual power he brings to the task and for the consistently high level of argument. His analyses of music, regrettably few, offer so much penetrating insight the reader can only wish there were more than four such chapters. The book includes an excellent index, an appendix detailing Mozart's earnings (though keyed only to the British pound), a list of compositions arranged by Köchel number, and an annotated bibliography broken down into categories. Illustrations are unfortunately of poor qualityan odd lapse by the publisher, HarperCollinsand the ragged paper edges, while attractive to look at, make the pages hard to turn. One hopes that these minor problems will be corrected in subsequent editions, for one expects that there will be many of them.
1See pp. 476-478.
2Solomon rightly points out that what we term "Mozart's style" has never really been defined (pp. 118-121).
3Solomon, pp. 132-135. Michael Levey, in "The Real Theme of Watteau's 'Embarkation for Cythera,'" Burlington Magazine 103 (1961): 180ff., and in summary form in his Rococo to Revolution (New York: Praeger Books, 1966), 58-64, argues convincingly that the couples are in the process, not of arriving, but of leaving the mythical island, and that the painting's title therefore should be "Departure from Cythera." He describes the work, incidentally, as "a miniature Mozart opera." For a not very satisfactory attempt to refute Levey's interpretation, see H. Bauer, "Wo liegt Kythera?" in Wandlungen des Paradiesischen und Ütopischen (Berlin, 1966), pp. 251-278.
4The choice of title is unfortunate, reminding movie buffs of the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch comedy of the same name.
5The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), p. 235. Rosen compares it to the Concerto in D Minor, K. 466; in both works the "tragic style . . . even spills over into the slow movement[s]"indeed this must be so, he argues, since tragedy "[demands] a unified tone." Rosen thus sees the sonata as precursor of the concerto.
6Journal of the American Musicological Society 42:162ff.: reprinted in Paul Henry Lang, ed., The Creative World of Mozart (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963).
7La clemenza di Tito is not discussed.
8Following its Viennese premiere in 1788, the opera was customarily performed as Singspieli.e., in German, with spoken dialogue replacing the recitativesand, after 1798, nearly always without the final scene. One of the last stagings of it as an opera was its final performance in Vienna, in December, 1788. By then, the first Singspiel version had already been written. Such extraordinary rewriting of an opera was accepted practice at the time. Mozart was once scheduled to see Don Giovanni in Singspiel form, but the performance was cancelled; see his letter to Constanze dated 3 October 1790.
9Mozart, His Character, His Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1945), p. 16.
10Wilhelm Bauer, Otto Eric Deutsch, and Joseph Heinz, eds., Mozart: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen, 7 vols. (Kassel, 1962-1975). The English collection of letters edited by Emily Anderson includes all letters written by Mozart himself and a selection of those by others (The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 3rd ed. [New York: W. W. Norton, 1989]).
11Beethoven (New York: Schirmer Books, 1977).
12Solomon explains (p. 16) that the traditional portrait of Leopold handed down from the nineteenth century was uniformly positive and that the first naysayers, whom he finds more persuasive, were Schurig, Erich Hertzmann, and Edward J. Dent. In particular, he seems to have been influenced by Dent (Mozart's Operas).
13Familienleben in Deutschland: Neue Bilder aus der deutschen Vergangenheit (Reinbek bei Hainburg: Rowohlt, 1990). In what follows I exact from her chapter, "Die Aufklärung kommt, die Armut bleibt" (pp. 300-332).
14A pastor preached in 1739 that both God and "sound Reason" teach us to punish regularly, and God created so many bushes . . . in order that we would not lack for instruments of punishment" (Beuys, p. 325). However, teachers in a model orphanage run by August Hermann Francke were enjoined "not to pull hair or strike [a child's] head with objects, and not to hit them at all on Sundays or holidays" (p. 330). Francke was the favorite of Prussian monarchs, who reared children in the same manner as Francke and others reared orphans. Some orphanages were considered so outstanding that wealthy burghers and aristocrats sent their offspring there instead of raising them at home.
15Beuys, op.cit., p. 331.
16Solomon devotes relatively little space to Marianne Mozart's childhood. For more information about her, see Eva Rieger, Nannerl Mozart, Leben einer Künstlerin im 18. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1990).
17In "The Composer's Voice" Solomon asserts that Mozart was denied the chance to find his own "voice" by his father, who maliciously urged instead that he learn to mimic currently popular styles. Einstein, whom Solomon rather disparages on this point, was probably correct in maintaining that "[i]t did not occur to [Mozart] to do something new at all costs. He wanted to do it not differently, but better" (Einstein, p. 122 ). Finding one's own voice came later; Mozart never spoke in such terms, nor did his father.
18Bär, Mozart: Krankheit, Tod, Begräbnis, 2nd ed. (Salzburg, 1972). Braunbehrens, Mozart in Vienna 1781-1791, trans. Timothy Bell (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), pp. 403-423.
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