Mozart PETER GAY
Reviewed by Stuart Hille
Weidenfeld & Nicolson ‘Lives’ series
For the Mozart dilettante, the seriously curious or even the knowledgeable academic, this book by Peter Gay has a considerable amount to offer. Its approach is one of historical analysis and not of musical resolution. One suspects that the author avoided the latter for several reasons.
Foremost of these, is that the nature of this series of books is one of narrative with well researched detail, in a style that is flowing and enjoyably readable. This particular book is around the length of a small novel and for those who have a reasonable amount of information, be it from study, concerts, discs, programme notes or wherever, it reads as if it was a novel.
Apart from the fact that every detail given in the book is entirely accurate and extrapolations or interpretations well considered and worthy of careful attention, the life of Mozart with all its colour, dramas, intrigues and tragedy could easily be read as an engrossing account of some fictitious eighteenth century genius.
While we can imbibe the details of this musical sorcerer – producing three of the greatest symphonic works within the space of six weeks, writing overtures to operas on the eve of the first performance, committing works to memory upon one hearing and so many other feats, let alone writing some of the finest music of the entire repertoire – we cannot fully rationalise such extraordinary ability. Even given the fact that there are many hyperboles and mild fabrications in the earliest biographies, nearly all the information we have is authentic, even when our cogent minds would deem it to be the stuff of fantasy
Peter Gay’s authoritative account certainly dispels any such whimsy. The careful bioliographical annotations show thorough research and this information is used with skill and clarity in providing a convincing, albeit particular, historical interpretation. But this is not to suggest it does not contain some minor flaws.
These certainly do not apply to the factual information, which is impeccable, but more to the writing style and the lack of accent on Mozart’s mother (her subconscious influence on her astonishing son was quite profound).
Generally, the book flows beautifully, but there are occasional weaknesses – the over-abundance of superlatives in the first chapter, for example, not only leaves one wondering how much more resourcefulness or invention the author can maintain but also creates a diffident feeling from the outset as to the objectivity of the study.
Fortunately, as the book progresses, the colourful acclamations recede as the narrative and analysis become foremost. After all, we all know of the intellectual power, structural finesse and beauty of Mozart’s writing, whereas intelligent and insightful readings of his life are far less common than the Everest of glowing adjectives used to describe his music.
It is the penetrating conclusions, not the eulogising, that one takes from this book.
One of the crysallisations (there are far too many to detail in a short critique) that was especially interesting was an observation of the composer’s growing depression towards the end of his life. His paranoia has been fairly well established: Constanze having an affair with Sussmayer, one of his two surviving children being illegitimate, his general distrust of those around him – but it never occurred to this reviewer that Mozart suffered from bouts of true clinical depression.
Yet, the creativity never left him. Maybe this was a defence or perhaps an integration of opposites but whatever the case, Mozart continued to compose at his normal pace – though perhaps somewhat more frenetically – right up to the last couple of weeks of his life.
Depression can of course exacerbate any disease. However, if the ultimate cause of Mozart’s death was as a result of earlier experiences and recurrent turns of rheumatic fever, as the author states, then the cardiac and renal damage would have been beyond repair. General poor health, a depressive and paranoic state of mind and ritualistic phlebotomies would only have made the descent more rapid.
A useful tip for readers of this study and any other fine Mozart biographies is to read them in conjunction with the letters. These can be obtained through almost any public library.