Archive for February 2014

Mozart, by Paul Johnson

February 23, 2014

Don Giovanni, thou hast me invited
To come to supper tonight,
The rum the rumdum.
Ulysses, “Lestrygonians”

“Too many notes” was the notorious critique of The Abduction from the Seraglio by Emperor Joseph II, but this book avoids the error of most biographies nowadays of trying to cram in all history surrounding the subject. Johnson takes only 131 pages to cover the life. The book is a bit padded out by an Epilogue by the author’s son, Daniel Johnson, on “Mozart in London.”

There is a short index and a “Further Reading” page, but no bibliography. This is a confidently written essential life set down by someone with his own strong opinions about his subject.

The Mozart in these pages is a working man first of all–or once he grows up, anyway.  A childhood spent touring royal capitals with his sister, Nannerl, and his father, Leopold, soon becomes a professional’s very busy career. Mozart didn’t stop for long. An assignment to the Archbishop of Salzburg was unhappy, and Mozart got away from his difficult boss as soon as he could.

Mozart had to work to keep himself and his family above water, so his legendary fecundity was a blessing there. Johnson notes that Mozart had a confident religious faith and regularly composed pieces for holidays and name days of his family. It is our loss that Mozart lived to be only thirty-five, but Johnson sings no dirge, noting that because Mozart began composing at age five and never stopped, we have thirty years of constant production from him, which is more than we have from many composers who were with us longer.

Mozart’s achievement in opera is amazing to Johnson because there was so little in his background to show that he would have any interest or skill in the form. Yet Don Giovanni, Figaro, and Cosi are central to the modern repertory. Each of the six major operas (also The Abduction, The Magic Flute, and Tito) gets little more than a page in the biography, so it may be my imagination, but Johnson seems not to have The Magic Flute as his favorite.

Other interesting details include the fact that Mozart preferred the viola to the violin for his own playing, but had difficulty with it because his arms were too short. Johnson also pooh-poohs the old tale that Mozart was poor all his life, explaining that a “shortage of currency in specie” made a certain amount of debt inevitable at this time. Johnson vigorously defends Mozart’s wife, Constanze, against the charge that she dissipated his funds: “Indeed most of the over two thousand books [sic] written on Mozart, when they have mentioned her at all, have taken an unfavorable view. The evidence is slight.” (Again, there is no bibliography.)

This is a book that you might want to read with YouTube open nearby, so that you can sample K. this or K. that as Johnson effuses over each work.

Score from The Abduction from the Seraglio

Score from The Abduction from the Seraglio


Broadway Babies Say Goodnight: Musicals Then and Now, by Mark Steyn

February 2, 2014

Oh, lean from the window, if the train slows down,
As though you touched hands with some ancient clown,
–A little while gaze absently below,
And hum Deep River with them while they go.
–Hart Crane, “The River”

This book is based on Steyn’s work as Musical Theatre Correspondent for the London Independent, so it’s a Canadian’s look at Broadway from London. (Britishisms are on display throughout–the intermission is an “interim,” etc.)

Broadway Babies is not really a systematic work, though divided into chapters on various aspects of the form: The Op’nin’, The Show, The Music, The Lyrics, etc. It’s not an encyclopedia; think rather of a standing date for lunch with a Broadway fan who can tell you what the great shows really were all about and why today’s shows can’t measure up–Sondheim, Lloyd Webber, and Miss Saigon, no thanks! Much of the first half of the book is devoted to the nitty-gritty of putting a show together–what works on stage, how a song lyric succeeds or fails. Steyn shows some familiarity with Puccini and Verdi, but invokes them only sparingly, to show that opera composers were always focused on what worked.

As the book proceeds, Steyn more and more indulges his Chestertonian weakness for the bon mot. You like this sort of thing or you don’t. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a “profit without honour.” After someone tells Steyn that Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un Faune also had its difficulties on opening–“Well, as they say on Broadway, don’t faune us, we’ll faune you.”

Published in 2000 with a 1997 copyright, the book suffers a bit from age and could use an updating. Though Steyn takes the long view and compares all current offerings unfavorably to Show Boat, any Rodgers & Hammersteyn, and his choice for best musical of all, Gypsy, he is writing very much in the present of the 1990s. The “jukebox” musical (Mamma Mia etc.) was just looming into view with Buddy [Holly]. Steyn fires much of his scorn on the “through-composed” musicals of Lloyd Webber and the Les Miz crowd, which suffer for lack of any tunes to stand up to the Great American Songbook.

Since this is getting posted on Super Bowl Sunday, we’ll wrap up with Steyn’s recollection of seeing Carol Channing closing Hello, Dolly! at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway in 1996, the same day as SuperBowl XXX:

The Super Bowl is mass culture, one of that select group of annual rituals that binds the nation together; the theatre, on the other hand, is elite, sophisticated, exclusive. No matter that the Super Bowl is a promoters’ gimmick cooked up in the late sixties; that whatever “sport” might once have been involved is now entirely subservient to the needs of television; that the teams are steely business franchises for whom the home-town label is good only until another municipality pitches them a more favorable tax deal; that the players earn so many gazillion dollars a year they’ll never have to encounter anyone as lowly as you ever again; that the only seats worth having are reserved for a corporate nomenklatura and that Joe Schmoe with his Bud and his pizza slumped in front of the TV has as much chance of getting to the moon as to the Super Bowl. No matter, too, that theatre sends its shows out to nowheresville towns that will never see an NFL team, much less the Super Bowl; that its leading players play eight games a week not for millions but for a few thousand, and spend their lives in hotels and dressing-rooms a football star wouldn’t hang his spare jockstrap in. No matter, none of it: the Super Bowl is mass culture; theatre is elite, exclusive.