Mozart, by Paul Johnson

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

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