Solomon: Mozart

December 5, 2011

Mozart: A Life
Maynard Solomon
(HarperCollins, 1996)
640 p.

These notes originally written 4 February 2006. Mozart died 220 years ago today, on 5 December 1791.

The basic outline of Mozart’s life is well-known: he was a child prodigy who began playing the violin at age 3, began composing at age 5, wrote his first symphony at age 8, and spent much of his childhood giving celebrated performances in the major courts of Europe; as a young man a fractious relationship with his father and with the archbishop of Salzburg drove him to Vienna where he achieved a certain amount of fame, but not enough to stay afloat financially; at age 35, while working on his great Requiem Mass, he fell ill and died; he was buried in an unmarked grave outside Vienna. As a simple sketch, this is fairly accurate.

There are other traditional elements to the Mozart story as well: he wrote music effortlessly, the purity and beauty of his music being the natural expression of his personality; he was misunderstood and neglected by his contemporaries, whose philistinism contributed to his poverty and illness; his sudden death was due to his having been poisoned by a jealous rival composer (this latter theory was popularized by the film Amadeus). On these points, Solomon aims to correct or, at least, complicate the tradition.

For instance, he finds little truth in the poisoning theory, arguing instead that Mozart died from an acute rheumatic fever, from which he had suffered intermittently throughout his life.

By looking carefully at Mozart’s income during his later years — and he traces each florin with a determination that borders on the obsessive — he is able to challenge the callous-neglect theory as well. It is true that in 1790 (the year before his death) Mozart’s income suffered a major decline, but Solomon is able to account for it by other means: an outbreak of war naturally led the aristocracy to be a little more conservative in their spending, Mozart’s major patron, the Emporer, passed away, and Mozart himself wrote almost no new music in the latter half of that year, all of which neatly accounts for a depressed income without needing to invoke the romance of a genius struggling against his benighted times. On the contrary, argues Solomon, Mozart was well-beloved by his countrymen, and his sudden passing was mourned throughout Europe. Interestingly, the tradition that he was buried in a common grave is true, but the tradition neglects to add that in Vienna at the time about 70% of burials were of this sort, and it was considered unremarkable by their standards. I admit this seems incredible, but it is apparently so.

Finally, to learn that Mozart went for six months without writing anything of consequence challenges the tradition that the music flowed from him as readily as water from a well. This is a difficult one to handle, because although he professed that he laboured hard over each piece, by any common standard he really was staggeringly prolific, and he really could write astonishingly quickly, and the beauty and clarity of his inspirations really does leave one with the impression that he sang as easily as the birds and the angels. What, then, are we to make of this anomalous period of silence? Here Solomon digs deep into the surviving letters, arguing that, owing largely to the death of his father and the unresolved tensions in their relationship, Mozart experienced a period of depression, confusion, and interior struggle in which he was unable to work creatively. This portrait is necessarily quite speculative, but Solomon is not reckless, and in the end his is a plausible and admirably serious attempt to understand his subject from the inside.

In fact this psychological probing is a recurring element of the book: Mozart’s relationship with his father, his love life, his Masonic involvement, his enduring joy in scatological humour, and, yes, even his music all take extended sessions on the couch. I don’t mind this, and it can even be enlightening — most of the time. I have written before about the peril of penning commentary on the meaning of music, and Solomon doesn’t always skirt the temptation. For instance, writing about the opening bars of the String Quartet in C major, K 465, he says:

Without knowing precisely where we are, we know that we are in an alien universe. Laocoon is in the grip of the writhing serpents. Reality has been defamiliarized, the uncanny has supplanted the commonplace.

I don’t know about you, but my eyes become defocusized and roll backward if I read too much of this sort of thing. I get the impression, too, that Solomon has a rather different view of Mozart’s music than most. That impression was strengthened when I came upon this passage:

Mozart is one of those rare creative beings who comes to disturb the sleep of the world. He was put on earth, it seems, not merely to provide an anodyne to sorrow and an antidote to loss, but to trouble our rest, to remind us that all is not well, that neither the center nor the perimeter can hold, that things are not what they seem to be, that masquerade and reality may well be interchangeable, that love is frail, life transient, faith unstable… Mozart’s universe is itself uncertain, a maze of doorways to the unknown and the unexpected. Everywhere there are dislocations, fissures, tears, and weak spots; cynicism and disillusionment now permeate his resolutions, corrupt his happy endings.

In other words, Mozart is a spiritual progenitor of Nietzsche and Kafka. It hardly needs saying that this is the opposite of what is normally said about Mozart: a casual sampling of historical commentary will turn up many ‘divine child’ and ‘sweet beauty’ references, but few dark intimations of his destructive power. Of course, it is possible that Solomon finds these things in Mozart’s music, and I won’t presume to rule them impermissible, but in the end I suspect that this image is just as fanciful and romantic as the conventional one, salted according to taste.

Despite those criticisms, however, this is an excellent biography. It is thorough, takes its subject seriously, makes an honest and competent effort to understand Mozart as a complete and complex human being, and is well written and engaging.

2 Responses to “Solomon: Mozart”

  1. Cheryl Jones Says:

    A shame that such talent died so early.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Oh, certainly! It’s the sort of thing one never quite gets over.

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