Mozart: A Life by Peter Gay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Years and years ago, I read Alfred Einstein's biography of Mozart. It must have been some time in the early 1970s as it was then that I began listening to classical music (and serious jazz) in addition to my usual rock, punk, and "alternative" diet. By the phrase "I read Einstein's biography", I mean skimming through it; my knowledge of music theory is nil and I probably did not understand 95% of terms the author was using. So I am happy that I have found Peter Gay's short biography "Mozart" (1999) that focuses on the composer's life, and deliberately avoids musicological jargon. The author, born in 1923, is a famous German-American historian. He writes very well, and "Mozart" is a pleasure to read.
The book chronicles Mozart's life and music from his first attempts at the harpsichord at the age of three, through the triumphant European tour with his father and sister (the tour began when he was seven and ended when he was 10), composing an opera at 14, which was so successful that the prima donna had to repeat an aria at the premiere in Milan, to his mature years and the peaks of his creativity: the late symphonies, piano concertos, string quartets, and phenomenal operas - "Don Giovanni" and others.
The first sentence of the book is magnificently crafted: "The life of Mozart is the triumph of genius over precociousness." Millions of kids are precocious at three, thousands at 10, but there are only a handful of geniuses in the history of music. The main focus of the biography is the constant conflict between Mozart and his father, Leopold, himself quite a gifted musician. The young Mozart is aware of his own incredible talent and wants to do anything possible to develop it, while Leopold just wants his son to make money. In fact, the biography makes it clear that Mozart the son was also quite interested in money, but was rightly thinking long term, while the father was only able to see the short-term gains. Great thanks to Wolfgang Amadé (Mozart's preferred middle name) for not following his father's advice! Leopold's death ends the conflict, but Mozart has frequent bouts of depression caused by not having reconciled with his father.
This short book portrays Mozart as a full-bodied human being, not just a giggling overgrown child, as he is shown in the movie "Amadeus". The author also dispels several myths that have been common for over 200 years: the myth of Requiem as being composed for Mozart's own death, of Salieri as the archenemy, and of Mozart having been poisoned.
I am happy that the author spends some time writing about Sinfonia Concertante K. 364, which is one of my favorite works by Mozart. I wish he also mentioned Adagio & Fugue K. 546 and Mass in C minor, K. 427. Anyway, I am putting some other books by Peter Gay, on the Enlightenment, Freud, and Nazi Germany, in my reading queue.
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