- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006


By Julian Rushton

Oxford, $30, 306 pages


Anyone who saw Peter Shaffer’s 1980 play “Amadeus” or the 1984 movie version will have a clear sense of Mozart’s genius. His towering accomplishments in orchestral and instrumental music as well as in religious music and opera were laid out in all their glorious splendor.

So, too, were Mozart’s childish pranks, his financial extravagances, his vain attention to dress, his indulgence in smutty language. Indeed, Mr. Schaffer’s Mozart was something of a weirdo.

Musical scholars have protested about this portrait ever since, and especially about the plot of the play, which turns on the envy of Antonio Salieri, an Italian composer uniquely able to appreciate Mozart’s talent and well-placed to undermine it.

Salieri’s machinations derive wholly from Mr. Schaeffer’s imagination. So, too, does the idea that the 35-year-old Mozart died in obscurity, forgotten by his musical colleagues and patrons in the great courts of Europe.

On the contrary, had Mozart lived longer he would undoubtedly have continued on the path he had been treading since his earliest years, when he and his sister Nannerl toured Europe as keyboard prodigies. From the beginning their father Leopold, himself a professional musician, realized his son’s talents, and raised him to be what he in fact became: The leading composer of his day, recognized then as now, as a musician of prodigious abilities.

But dramatic plotting aside, Mr. Schaffer’s portrait of Mozart is not entirely fabricated. His many extant letters do contain off-color remarks (though they would have been less offensive within the family circle than they now appear). The letters also tell of extravagances and harebrained schemes that often angered his father Leopold, who had put his own musical career on hold in order to promote his son’s.

Moreover, the recollections of those who knew him endorse the picture of him as fun-loving, friendly, open-handed, a good friend to the singers, theater managers and librettists whose work he admired.

Equally, he was sometimes dismissive of those of lesser talent, especially if they stood in his way — a not surprising animosity in a former prodigy who could not doubt his own skills, but had to compete with other musicians for commissions.

Resolving such questions about what Mozart was really like are inevitable this year, the 250th anniversary of his birth. So are questions about his musical genius. The life-and-works genre of biography would seem well adapted to answer them, but that is not what Julian Rushton provides in “Mozart.” Rather, Mr. Rushton focuses on the question of Mozart’s musical genius, answering it in a measured scholarly and critical account of his compositions.

The first of them date from 1764, when Leopold, and his children were wowing London with little Wolfgang’s exceptional gifts in sight-reading, improvisation and composition. Before leaving England, the Mozarts presented the British Museum with a four-part choral piece “God is our refuge” that the boy had written.

Perhaps even more amazing than such precocity, the eight-year-old Mozart could imitate the emotional content of opera, a skill that gave much of his early work a depth of feeling startling in one so young.

When Wolfgang returned to his native Salzburg he was 10 years old and already a well-traveled and experienced professional musician, with exceptional keyboard skills. His father was an employee of the prince-archbishop and the younger Mozart soon began contributing compositions for the church and the university.

The pattern of writing whatever kind of music was most desired or most marketable continued throughout Mozart’s life, and indeed was typical of composers of his era. As a 14 year old traveling in Italy he composed an opera, “Mitridate, re di Ponto,” as well as an oratorio commissioned for the city of Padua and a wedding serenata for the marriage of Archduke Ferdinand.

Later in Vienna, Munich and Mannheim he produced more operas as well as the symphonies, concertos and chamber music needed to entertain the aristocrats who sponsored much of the music of the time. Living back in Salzburg from 1779-1781, he complained that he could not do serious work, probably because the prince-archbishop expected a considerable quantity of church music.

Nonetheless Mr. Rushton notes, “This last period in Salzburg is most notable as that in which Mozart became a complete master of prevailing orchestral genres.” As well as the required liturgical pieces, he wrote three symphonies, the “Posthorn” serenade, a concerto for two pianos and his magnificent “Sinfonia Concertante” for violin and viola. This, when he was still only in his early 20s.

Throughout this study, Mr. Rushton carefully traces Mozart’s development of skills. These were not revolutionary. Unlike Beethoven, 14 years his junior, he did not transform the symphony. Unlike Verdi, he made no radical change into the fully dramatic opera; instead, he worked in the opera buffa and opera seria styles typical of the 18th century. Indeed, Mr. Rushton says of Mozart, “He can appear the least original of all the great European masters.”

But originality, the hobgoblin of romantic minds, is not everything. As Mr. Rushton writes, “The centre of any case for Mozart is to recognise his skill in musical combinations of all kinds: harmonic, thematic, stylistic, and formal. No one moved as he does, above all in his later instrumental music, with such swiftness, serenity, and sleight of hand to create a musical argument combining his greatest loves — counterpoint, chromaticism, comedy.”

Arnold Schoenberg, certainly among the most revolutionary of musical revolutionaries, said that he had learned the arts of forming subsidiary ideas and of introductions and transitions from Mozart, as well as the skill of coordinating heterogeneous material to form a thematic unity.

Haydn, though a quarter of a century older than Mozart, told Leopold, “Your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste, and what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.” Indeed, Mozart’s ability to compose magnificent work in nearly every musical form of his day has always been praised.

Readers of Mr. Rushton’s book will gain insight into the construction of this monumental body of work, and the sheer inventiveness with which Mozart created and combined material, bringing what he inherited from his musical forebears to the loftiest heights. Readers will also come away from this study with a chronology of the works and of Mozart’s peripatetic life.

But they will gain little insight into his personality. In this area, Mr. Rushton’s main concern is to deny Mr. Schaffer’s dramatic elaborations, asserting instead that “Mozart lived a busy, often difficult but by no means extraordinary life, except in the quantity and quality of his productivity.” The curious will thus find little to excite them.

Nor may other readers. Though Mr. Ruston’s description and readings of Mozart’s music is always firmly grounded in current historical and musical scholarship, his writing is generally workmanlike rather than inspired.

Worse, he frequently assumes a great deal of knowledge, not only of music but of the social and cultural context of Mozart’s life. Often he refers to matters that are footnoted but not explained such as “E.T.A Hoffman’s curious short story of 1813.”

This is apropos Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni,” but the import of the reference is entirely lost on English-speaking readers unfamiliar with Hoffman’s “fantastical deductions.” A few words of explanation would be a considerable help.

Similarly, out of the blue Mr. Rushton refers to ‘the major expenses arising from Constanze’s skin disease,” as if readers know about his wife’s illness.

More egregiously in a book whose focus is musical analysis, Mr. Rushton says of “The Magic Flute,” “The sources and authorship, not to mention the meaning, of this opera’s libretto, are too complicated — and disputed — to be discussed here.”

But surely in a book that analyzes Mozart’s work, a reader could rightly expect some brief synopsis or discussion of current thinking on one of his greatest operas, certainly something more than a footnote to another scholarly book.

Such annoyances aside, Mr. Rushton’s critique of Mozart’s work and his estimate of his place in musical history is useful for any serious lover of music. In the last quarter of the 20th century, time once more brought Mozart into the center of the public’s attention; he has even slightly displaced Beethoven as the iconic musical genius.

Perhaps at some future point fashions will once more change, but Mozart will never be less than a major star in the musical firmament. This anniversary year is prompting an enormous number of concerts and festivals, so lovers of his magisterial works can feast their senses.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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