It never ceases to amaze me that musicologists and biographers are still adding to the already very long list – longer than Don Giovanni’s list of conquests – of Mozart biographies. Historian Paul Johnson, known for his books on such diverse figures as Darwin, Socrates, Napoleon and Churchill, has now contributed to this crowded field with Mozart – A Life.
Not really a biography in the conventional sense – the book only runs to 164 pages long, including the index – but more of a musing on various aspects of the composer’s life and music by an intelligent writer who has knowledge of music. There are five chapters in the book - The “Miracle” Prodigy (Mozart’s childhood), Master of Instruments (his affinity for and ability on various instruments), A Married Composing Machine (Mozart’s married life in Vienna), Mozart’s Operatic Magic (a discussion of the major operas), and A Good Life Fully Lived (his last years) – each dealing with one aspect, or one period, in the composer’s short life.
Johnson gives Leopold Mozart a great deal of credit for Wolfgang’s proficiency in music. While acknowledging that Mozart junior would have (probably) become a great composer with or without his father, Johnson writes that it is Leopold’s doing that music becomes second nature to Wolfgang, that the boy “played and composed as he breathed,” which explains “why he was able to produce so much without sacrifice of quality.” While it is true that Leopold copied and corrected his son’s earliest compositions, it is difficult to ascertain how much influence he really had on his son. Certainly, Mozart’s amazing proficiency on the clavier, organ, violin and viola can be credited to his father’s dedication and effective teaching.
The writer devotes quite a number of pages, including an appendix, about the Mozart’s visit to London. Johnson speculates as to what Mozart’s life, and English musical life, might have been like had the family decided to remain in London. Mozart liked England, and professional prospects looked promising. Mozart even apparently mastered English enough to speak it fluently “and with a good accent”. Mozart was certainly appreciated by the English public, and they even had a firm contract for them to remain in London, an offer that Leopold turned down. Johnson opined that as a devout Catholic, Leopold would not have felt comfortable with the anti-Catholic sentiments of English society.
Throughout the book, Johnson also brings us to the question of Mozart’s own Catholic faith. Mozart was a practicing and faithful Catholic, but he was also a Freemason. Like many biographers before him, Johnson speculates upon any possible conflict between Catholicism and Freemasonry. The Catholic Church has, at various times, certainly condemned Freemasonry. But according to Johnson, in “Austria, Germany, and England the two institutions existed happily side by side at this epoch.” Mozart certainly tried to avoid the conflict between the two important aspects of his life. Johnson adds that for Mozart, “Masonry was an intellectual conviction, entirely of this world. Catholicism was a supernatural conviction, looking towards the next.” Speculation on the part of the biographer, perhaps, but Mozart could surely not have been the only Catholic who was also a Freemason in Vienna at the time. Being a Freemason certainly afforded Mozart the connections he so badly needed at various times of his life. Moreover, according to Johnson, Freemasonry appealed to Mozart’s attraction towards secret and reticence.
There is also quite an extensive discussion of Mozart’s stunning proficiency in various instruments. Other than being extremely proficient in his own instruments, Mozart was quick in absorbing the technique of new instruments he came in contact with, incorporating them into his compositions and, in many instances, writing concerti and chamber works for them that became standard pieces for those particular instruments. There are discussions of various works of Mozart’s involving different instruments. Description of various concerti, symphonies, quartets, and other chamber works are (deliberately, I suspect) quite general, and readable, so that casual readers would not be bogged down by details.
Johnson does have an interesting thought about the last three symphonies of Mozart, suggesting that there is a religious underpinning to the key and the mood of the three great works. The writer suggests that these last three symphonies suggest the Rosary, and that “the E-flat stands for the Joyful Mysteries, the G Minor for the Sorrowful, and the C Major for the Glorious.” No doubt this is an interesting suggestion – I would certainly try to look for such elements when I hear these three works – but that is probably what it would remain, a suggestion.
For me, there is not much new information in Johnson’s writings of Mozart’s last years in Vienna. H. C. Robbins Landon, in his various books on the subject, has already quite satisfactorily dispel the myths of Mozart’s death, as well as rehabilitating Constanze Mozart’s reputation from revisionist historians. Nevertheless, this well written and easily readable (but not unintelligent) book should appeal to those with some knowledge of the composer’s life and work already, and would like to further his or her understanding of Mozart’s life and work.
The genius of Mozart is one of the miracles of modern times, whose explanation calls for theology rather than musicology. To try to explain it is to try to contemplate how Christ fed the multitudes with five loaves and two fish. While it is true that no writer, no matter how eloquent, could adequately account for the drama, the joy, the pathos, the sadness - but never heartbreak, not in Mozart - and above all, the heavenly beauty that is behind the millions of notes written by this extraordinary man. One can only be thankful for this extraordinary creature that was in our midst, and gave us works that enrich, ennoble, and elevate our lives. And we can be thankful for the fact that this masterpiece of God will continue to fascinate historians, musicians, and music lovers.