(Viking)Johnson is a famous historian who has written fourteen books on such figures as Darwin, Socrates, Jesus and Churchill. The most interesting of them all --- at least for us --- is listed at the beginning of this volume. It's entitled Napoleon: A Penguin Life. Napoleon, pacing back and forth there on the ice floes!
Mozart was born on 27 January 1756 and was named Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart, a name almost long enough to set to song. Leopold Mozart, his father, figures prominently in Wolfgang's early life. Shortly after he learned to sit, Leopold had him perched in front of what we now call the fortepiano.
Johnson writes that Leopold "was often seen as a tyrant toward his children, but the fact is, he surrendered his own future as a musician for their sake, and their progress justified his sacrifice." Possibly. But when Wolfgang made the big break and moved away from Salzburg to live with his wife-to-be Constanze, Leopold apparently saw his ship of gold drifting out of the harbor. When Wolfgang asked his blessing on their union, Leopold wrote to tell him that she was "beneath" him.
Wolfgang was one of those who define the word "genius." He composed his first piano piece at age five. It is listed in Köchel's catalogue as 1a - 1f. (All of Mozart's works were numbered by Ludwig von Köchel in the 19th Century. Köchel lists the first composition as "Andante, Allegro, Minuet for Piano.")
By the time Wolfgang was twenty-one he had composed over 250 sonatas, missas, arias, divertimentos, offertories, serenades and concerti (for piano, violin, bassoon, voice) ... plus various symphonies, string quintets and quartets. In his short life, he composed over 600 works, and, apparently, even as he was dying, was working on the Mass K. 625.
Johnson tells us that the musicians who performed Mozart's music were delighted by his complex understanding of technique for all instruments including flute, piccolo, oboe, horns, bassoon, and the new clarinet. Mozart, it was said, could change his written music almost instantly before a concert to take into account the instruments that might be missing. And the urge to compose could strike him at any moment.
We have a wonderful picture of Mozart in Vienna in 1784, in the middle of his daily wig- and hair-dressing, suddenly getting a new musical idea and hurrying out of his chair into another room with a piano, forgetting the barber was hard at work and dragging the conscientious fellow with him, still clinging on to his pigtail.
Johnson assures us that Mozart was no stick-in-the-mud, that he had an earthy sense of humor. One letter he wrote to his cousin Maria Anna Thekla Mozart is so crude that we would rather not quote it here ... but in a later missive to her he showed himself not only to be earthy, but almost dada: "I hope that you too have got shot the note dote which I wrote." Johnson reports that this is "almost impossible to translate."
As Johnson emphasizes, Leopold was key to his son's success, taking the boy on long journeys to many parts of Europe to perform and --- essentially --- raise money for him and the family. But by the time young Mozart had married and settled in Vienna, it was obvious that he had different ideas about raising a family than his father. When he and Constanze wanted to go on tour though Germany, perhaps to spend some time in England, he asked his father if they could park young Karl and Johann with him for the duration. Leopold wrote to his sister,
They could travel in peace, --- could die, --- could stay in England, --- then I could run after them with the children etc: as for the payment he's offering me for the children, for servants and the children etc: --- Basta! My excuse is forceful and instructive, if he cares to profit from it.
If Leopold had been more willing to be a baby-sitter, the young Mozart might have ended up in London and possibly would not have died of what the Austrian doctors called hitziges Friesel Fieber ( a "soldier's diesase"). Many have suggested that Antonio Salieri --- an older, more dour, rather heavy-handed composer of Vienna --- might have had a hand in Wolfgang's last illness. Johnson calls that "a gross libel on that hardworking and perfectly innocent man." Yet in his last days, Mozart told Constanze repeatedly, "I am sure I have been poisoned." It's no secret that Salieri was jealous. The music biz, then and now, is wracked with small mindedness and suspicion, and we will never be sure that this "hardworking" man was as angelic as Johnson wants us to believe.
§ § §
All still use the Köchel numbering system for Mozart's music, but since it is now more than 150 years old, there have been numerous corrections. And, the changes to Köchel's system are often confusing. For instance, the last entry is not the D-minor Requiem from Mozart's last year, but #626b, "Finger Exercises for Piano in C."
Still, we have to wonder at 626 distinct works completed in less than thirty-six years. Mozart's output was prodigious, on a par with Schubert's or Purcell's. It seems, at times, to be one of the penalties of high art: that these prodigious talented beings should have been so early forced to the grave, their brains teeming with countless works that were perforce buried with them.
My only complaint with this biography is that it has the feel of being stuffed together in a rush. There is a rote listing of the various Köchel numbers, with little hint of the varied richness, especially in Mozart's rarest works.
A few years ago, BBC3 devoted a week to Mozart's complete works, and one of the surprises came in hearing some for the first time, especially the religious offerings (Mozart, Johnson tells us, was a faithful Catholic throughout his life). The ones that especially entranced us were the Missa in C, "Trinitatis" (K167), the "Coronation Mass" in C (K317), the Great Mass in C minor (K427) and the Missa Solemnis in C (K337).
The only other complaint we have with this book --- besides its plodding nature --- is, alas, not the author's fault. It is our dissatisfaction with the naming, being called Köchel. We would have preferred the one that has been used over the years for Mozart's companion and teacher, Franz Josef Haydn. For all of Haydn's works bear the name of our favorite city in New Jersey, Hoboken (Anthony van Hoboken was the cataloguer.)
Mozart, we would have hoped, could have found someone with an equally poetic moniker.
Henrik von Passaic, say.
Or Friedrick Piscataway.
Maybe Hans Parsippany.
Best of all: Helmut Hackensack.--- L. W. Milam