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the life of mozart

16 june 2021

A new granddaughter who visits pretty often inspired me to break out some of the old Mozart CDs on our shelves, on the theory that babies grok Mozart. I also acquired the classic DVD Baby Mozart, which sets mesmerizing videos to his music; I actually learned about Baby Mozart in a novel, A.B. Yehoshua's Friendly Fire, where it works wonders with a fractious kid. I suspect I'm getting all this Mozart mainly for myself, but some theories you gotta pursue.

And of course I listen to opera constantly. I wanted to know something more definitive about the composer than my memories of Amadeus, which of course is not highly dependent on fact in the first place. The chance to read John Rosselli's 1997 contribution to the excellent Cambridge Musical Lives series was another that I had to grab.

Rosselli judiciously speculates little about areas of Mozart's life for which there is little evidence, and that's a lot of areas. Nor does he insist on strong connections between biographical facts and the emotions expressed and evoked by Mozart's music. "It is idle to think that a composer writes a melancholy tune because an event in his life has just then saddened him," Rosselli remarks, while also noting that "the creative imagination [does not] work out of touch with the artist's inner life" (74). We just don't know very much about such connections. Mozart's letters seem to have been newsy, business-oriented, or full of scatological humor. He sounds like he would have been at home on Reddit, but we don't glean much about the personal sources of his piano concertos from his correspondence.

Mozart seems to have been a more ordinary guy than legend would have it. There's every indication that he was happily married. He was in debt quite often, but so are a lot of ordinary people. One of Rosselli's few speculations is that Mozart may have had a gambling problem, though there is zero direct evidence for that; the pattern would fit, though. Mozart was well-paid, well-respected by his peers, moved house a lot, overspent, scrambled for jobs. The cause of his death at 35 is unknown, because he was never chronically ill. It sounds to me like appendicitis: acute and rapidly complicating. But that's speculation too. He was not buried in a pauper's grave, though his bones are long lost; an imperial edict mandated that people who died in Vienna in 1791 had to be interred in common pits and covered with quicklime: some early-modern sanitary measure that was briefly faddish.

Connections between art and life are more abstract anyway, in Rosselli's view. Mozart basically invented the piano concerto, says Rosselli (Haydn, a generation older, followed his younger colleague's lead). The interplay between soloist and orchestra in Mozart's piano concertos poses a basic question, for Rosselli, about the relation of the individual to society. This seems a facile point but the way it works out in the music is not easy at all. The conventions of the classical concerto mean that the orchestra always wins in the end. Everybody reunites in a spirited final movement; but the uneasiness we hear early on still lingers. The individual expression of the soloist, no matter how daringly expressed, always gets folded back into the order of society, however unwillingly. Rosselli's is an interesting and affecting way to listen to concertos. And it presents Mozart on the verge of a romanticism he did not live to see – a cusp that produced music under greater tension than first impressions might suggest.

Rosselli also cautions against ignoring Mozart's religious music. He wrote a lot of it, and of course got paid for it, and those two extraneous details plus two centuries of secularization persuade us that he didn't really have a lot spiritually invested in the Mass. But here the available evidence shows Mozart as a fairly conventional Catholic. He was also a fairly conventional Freemason – no huge contradiction at the time – more interested in the fraternity and ethical framework of Freemasonry than in its more occult reaches. In fact, at most turns, Mozart seems less the ethereal genius of some of his legend than just another artist trying to get along. One of the last things he did was take his seven-year-old son Karl to see a show, as any dad might do. The show was The Magic Flute.

Mozart did chafe at patronage and court life, and seems to have craved the career that was unavailable under anciens regimes but that some of his musical descendants got to lead in the 19th century: independence gained through direct marketing of his creations to the public. He may even have been on his way there via his increasing success in the opera world in the early 1790s. But no sooner did he begin to live his ideal creative life than he was dead.

Like me, Rosselli sees opera as central to Mozart's achievement. Back when he was a preteen fortepiano prodigy touring the continent, the composer dreamt of hitting it big with operas, in Italy or in Paris by preference but on the less-appreciative German-language scene if necessary. He would eventually see his greatest success in Vienna and in Prague.

Rosselli doesn't make offbeat assessments of Mozart's operas. Some early and incomplete ones were comparative apprenticework; the late Clemenza di Tito (which I've seen once, almost at random; the only opera I've seen in Paris' Palais Garnier) is grand, but a bit boring.

That leaves six. I've seen the four major operas on stage and listened to them continually for a while; the lesser two, only on video. There is little one can say to add or detract. Rosselli finds Don Giovanni a bit long and some individual sequences overdrawn. Perhaps true, but they're all a bit long. The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute are perfect, though, and Rosselli argues for equal perfection in Così fan tutte, which is certainly lovely but has had its ups and downs over the years, because of its dubious political correctness in the eyes of Victorians and postmoderns alike.

The Abduction from the Seraglio isn't a model of wokeness either, though it has its energies. It's the one that Emperor Joseph II said had "too many notes," which apparently refers to its difficult bel canto passages rather than its length. Rosselli has mixed opinions about Abduction but considers Idomeneo to be Mozart's "masterpiece" in the old sense, the opera that confirmed his ability to write opera and includes some of his most daring and passionate music. The only video of Idomeneo I've seen was so dull I mostly treated it as background while I did other things, but perhaps I should listen to it again and in other versions.

Rosselli, John. The Life of Mozart. 1997. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. [Musical Lives] ML 410 .M9R847