- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 11, 2006

It may be something of a novelty to have an Italian historian whose 18 previous books include “Lenin and the Myth of World Revolution” tackle the biography of a musician about whom countless books had already been written, but Piero Melograni’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (University of Chicago, $30, 316 pages, illus.) is a refreshing read. Working primarily from published letters, the author spent five years piecing together this thoughtful, concise account of Mozart’s life and work.

That Wolfgang lived as long as he did (to age 35) is amazing, given that his mother had lost five of six previous children in infancy and that Wolfgang, in childhood, had typhus, smallpox (he was blind for nine days) and possibly viral hepatitis. His mother succumbed to diarrhea brought on by drinking the water of the Seine — and by being bled by her physician — while she was accompanying the 21-year-old Wolfgang to Paris.

Mr. Melograni details the development of the prodigy who began playing the harpsichord at age three and, between the ages of seven and 10, with his family, visited 88 cities in Europe, performing (playing blindfolded, improvising for hours at the keyboard) before awe-struck listeners. The experience, he says, gave Wolfgang, first, “an extremely useful and precocious knowledge of the world; second, it assured his fame throughout Europe; and third, it enabled him to meet excellent musicians, much more talented than the father who had helped him to mature musically.”

Upon returning home to Salzburg, Wolfgang, who at age 11 had a hundred compositions to his credit, concentrated on practicing his instrument, studying counterpoint and learning Italian, English and French. Unfortunately, as the prodigy aged, resentments of his earlier successes surfaced, and Empress Maria Theresa, into whose lap he had once jumped for a hug, turned against him.

Because he never gained the permanent position at court, Mozart had “to strike a balance between tradition and innovation; between his genius, which pointed him toward an avant-garde inventiveness, and a need to earn money, which urged him not to disturb the public with too many novelties.”

The image of Mozart in the film “Amadeus,” Mr. Melograni notes, derives from evaluations of Mozart repeatedly expressed by his father Leopold, his sister Nannerl and his wife Constanze, and moviegoers liked it because “it suggests that anyone can achieve success by mysterious means rather than through hard work, self-discipline, and determination — plus a bit of luck.”

In fact, the author points out that Mozart slept only five hours a night and worked very quickly, for example, composing his last three symphonies between June and August 1788. Commissions “did not flow in because his music contained many new elements, which contemporary audiences sometimes found difficult to accept.” Much of the money Mozart earned was dissipated in gambling and the purchase of “sumptuous gifts to himself, to Constanze, and perhaps even to other women.”

Would Mozart have become a great musician without his father’s help and his sister’s example? Mr. Melograni thinks it is “unlikely that any individual would possess such inborn, absolute musical talent,” but that “certain predispositions can be developed from childhood by familiarity with music and early training.”

Read Mr. Melograni’s delightful book for other insights into the hardships of the musician’s life in the 18th century (court players were treated like servants and, before the age of copyright, a composer received only a one-time payment for each new work), the difficulty with which Mozart managed to achieve independence from his father, and Mozart’s own explanations of various compositions, for example:

“These [piano] concertos [K. 413/387a and K. 414/385p] are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.”

Horatio Alger never wrote a book about Andrew Mellon. That is because the once-renowned banker, statesman and art collector was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, one that over his lifetime he turned to gold. Mellon is a challenge to the biographer — he was introverted and charm free — but he is now the subject of an excellent, if overlong, biography by Cambridge-educated historian David Cannadine: Mellon: An American Life (Alfred A. Knopf, $35, 800 pages, illus.).

Mellon was born in 1855, the son of a Pittsburgh banker. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1873 and promptly joined his father’s bank, Thomas Mellon and Sons. His timing was excellent, for Pittsburgh was emerging as the steel center of the nation, and its economy was booming.

Mellon demonstrated an aptitude for banking, and upon his father’s retirement in 1880 Andrew became president of the family bank. He expanded his interests, making acquisitions in the growing fields of oil and coal as well as steel. Always alert to the promise of new industries, he was one of the founders of the Aluminum Company of America.

But was he happy? In 1921 he remarked, “I suppose I am what they call a rich man. They tell me so. I am not particularly conscious of it … I don’t spend much on myself. I have always just worked, done what needed to be done in business.”

Politically, Mellon was — predictably — a conservative Republican. In 1921 President Harding offered him the position of secretary of the treasury, and he accepted; he would serve in that position for 12 years, under Coolidge and Hoover as well as Harding.

For a time all went well. He established repayment terms for countries owing war debts to the United States, and refunded the federal debt. He fought high taxes on individuals and corporations alike, contending, like President Bush today, that lower tax rates bring in more revenue.

When Mellon’s loveless marriage ended in divorce, his interest turned to art. He was initially a very cautious collector, checking the provenance of every purchase and sometimes hanging a picture in his home before making the purchase. While serving in the Hoover cabinet, however, Mellon had the opportunity of a lifetime.

In 1929, the cash-strapped Bolshevik government in Russia began secretly selling off some of the art treasures of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Although Mellon loathed anything connected with communism, in 1930 he authorized his agent to purchase for his collection, sight unseen, several of these paintings. As an anchor to windward Mellon stipulated, “We will acquire them at a price at which we consider they can be disposed of, should [I] not care to retain them, of approximately fifty percent profit.”

In the end, Mellon paid the equivalent of $90 million in current dollars for two dozen of the Hermitage’s finest paintings, many of which can now be seen at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Shortly before his death in 1937 Mellon made his art collection — then valued at approximately $19 million — a gift to the nation. He provided additional funds for a building to house it, which today graces Constitution Avenue.

Modest to the end, Mellon stipulated that the building not bear his name.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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