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Mostly Mozart

Mostly Mozart

Jones, David Wyn

DAVID WYN JONES surveys a range of recent Mozart literature en route to the composer’s 250th birthday

THERE ARE only seven more writing years to 2006, the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. At a point roughly half way between the bicentennial and 2006 there is little sign of any decline in the Mozart industry, whether fuelled by scholarship or by commercial opportunism. CDs and books with the word Mozart on the cover continue to outsell all others devoted to ‘classical’ composers, while scholarly research on the composer has never been as active or as challenging. No doubt the imminence of 2006 will encourage a further increase in activity of both kinds, though with the inevitable consequence that a comprehensive and measured re-assessment of the composer will have to be delayed until after the year.

One of the most curious books on the composer recently published is Annette Kolb’s biography At first glance, it is obviously designed to take its market share amongst Mozart biographies, but it is also something much more. First written in German and published in Vienna in 1937, it is a token of a lost era, not overly fanciful in its narrative it must be said, but a glowing image of what Mozart meant to pre-war German society. It appears as part of a series called `Prion lost treasures’, and the publisher has prefaced the volume with an introduction written by the playwright Jean Giraudoux, originally prepared for the French edition that came out in 1938. This is even more a reflection of its time and place:

[…] we shall all be moved by her presentation, the most sensitive we have ever had, of the composer’s life. An emotion which, as we read her, deepens our conviction that Mozart was German through and through, that the Germany he created began to disappear with him, and that it is idle to play Mozart in a country where that which is Mozart, that is to say, liberty, candour and joy, is lost.

Mozart scholarship, unlike Beethoven scholarship, has not yet concerned itself very much with debating the changing image of the composer through the ages. Annette Kolb’s biography would be a central text in any such exploration.

The Mozart biography by John Rosselli in Cambridge University Press’s series `Musical lives’ is a revisionist one in the sense that the author has read the most modern literature, listened to the most provocative recordings of the period instrument movement and felt free to voice his dissent. He doesn’t share the modern enthusiasm for La clemenza di Tito, values Beecham, Bohm and Busch as much as Eliot Gardiner and Hogwood, takes more than one swipe at Maynard Solomon’s biography, and allows himself the jibe `Musicologists no longer fall on their knees’. His hero amongst previous writers on Mozart is Alfred Einstein, and it is that author’s epochal book (first published in 1946) that most comes to mind when reading this volume, for it is not so much a narrative biography as a series of appreciative portraits of the composer, with chapter titles such as `The eternal feminine’, `Man of the theatre’ and `Mozart and God’.

IT is difficult to tell whether Peter Dimond ever falls on his knees since his book, A Mozart diary, seems to have been conceived at the computer. It is awkwardly subtitled ‘A chronological reconstruction [why not `Chronology’] of the composer’s life, 1761[sic]-1791′ and lists dates when individual works were completed, journeys undertaken and the content of the family correspondence. His sources are limited: Kochel and New Grove for dates of composition, the German and English edition of Deutsch’s Documentary biography, and the second or third edition (the book is not clear which) of Anderson’s translation of the letters. A wider and more modern net would have yielded data that was not only more extensive but also more reliable. There is an index of names but, most peculiarly, the list of Kochel numbers does not refer the reader to the main diary. Even allowing for its deficient scope and methodology, it is difficult to think of a use for the volume, unless as a source of questions for pub quizzes: `What did Mozart do on Monday, 1 May 1786?’. For any sense of what Mozart the man and Mozart the composer achieved, readers would be much better off reading the bibliographical sources themselves.

The series `Cambridge Music Handbooks’ has never been driven by commercial concerns. If it had, more than four out of over forty handbooks would have been devoted to Mozart. The most recent on the composer’s music is by John Irving, given over to the six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn (K.387, K.421, K.428, K.458, K.464 and K.465). Within the customary tripartite division that characterises the series, background, comment on the music itself and reception, John Irving, like other authors, is allowed to pursue his own agenda. Accordingly, approximately a quarter of the book is devoted to chapters on Mozart’s early quartets (though the three divertimentos, K.136-38, are omitted from the discussion), the composition of the ‘Haydn’ quartets, and their publication; the following half to discussion of the music itself, divided into standard analytical approaches, and a more historically oriented one; while the final quarter of the book is given over to reception. Although Irving is never less than authoritative and persuasive in his remarks, there is, throughout, a feeling that one could do with more information and debate on a particular issue, whether it be the textual problems of autograph versus the first edition, the discussion of topoi in the analytical commentary, or Momigny’s analysis from 1806 of the first movement of the D minor quartet. The endnotes often hint at a more extended discussion and an engagement with the existing literature, but the reader is tantalised rather than wholly satisfied. Perhaps the problem lies with the now familiar expectations of the Handbook series; most volumes are devoted to single works like Brahms’s German Requiem, Handel’s Messiah and, in Mozart’s case, the Jupiter’ symphony and the Clarinet Concerto. While it would be inappropriate to devote a handbook to one of the ‘Haydn’ quartets, covering all six in an equivalent manner to single-work handbooks is obviously impossible. One senses that John Irving would have welcomed 200 pages, not 100.

No artificial constrains seem to have been placed on Ruth Halliwell in her book, The Mozart family, and the volume is all the better for it. In short, this is one of the most original, enjoyable and stimulating books on the composer to have appeared for a long time, and for those readers who are put off by some of the more arcane and navel-gazing preoccupations of modern musicology, it will be a relief to know that it is entirely readable. Halliwell’s starting point is the family correspondence. She draws attention to the fact that biographers have focused unduly on letters written by Mozart himself, ignoring the ample contextual material found in letters by other members of the family, especially Leopold and Nannerl. For English-speaking readers (and, indeed, for many German-speaking people for several decades before the complete correspondence was published in its original language) Emily Anderson’s edition has been the standard source, even though the overwhelming majority of letters by the family after the composer’s death are omitted from it, as are those between Leopold and Nannerl from the mid 1780s, while those by members of the family that are included are heavily truncated. As a consequence, Halliwell maintains that half of the extant correspondence has been systematically ignored, even when the material sheds direct light on some of the favourite concerns of modern biographers, such as the relationship between Leopold and Wolfgang.

HALLIWELES broader, contextual approach does not stop with the correspondence. She has worked extensively in archives in Salzburg and pursued references on all manner of subject matter, from the local-government-like duties of Mozart’s grandfather in St Gilgen to the typical contents of a Salzburg death certificate and associated inventory. Mozart’s life up to 1781, when he moved to Vienna, is woven into this broad tapestry with great care so that the reader has, for the first time, a vivid understanding of the composer in his environment. Inevitably, the book becomes less all-embracing when the coverage moves to Vienna in the 1780s, and the original family is fractured by the death of the parents and the marriage of the children, yet the material on Leopold and Nannerl in this period is rewarding, as is the careful untangling of the complex relationship between Nannerl, Constanze, Andre and Breitkopf & Hartel in the 1790s and beyond, as they try to influence the posthumous image of Mozart.

Mozart studies 2 is a collection of five substantial essays on the composer and his music edited by Cliff Eisen. He, like Ruth Halliwell, has devoted much of his scholarly work to the Salzburg period rather than the last decade of Mozart’s life, and he shares her outlook that to understand Mozart means having to understand musical life in general. His own contribution to the volume is a carefully assembled reconstruction of the content – or, rather, partial content since the full content is ultimately unknowable – of the family music library in Salzburg, as revealed by extant sources and references in the family correspondence. The exercise has produced some unexpected spin-offs: a previously unknown slow movement for a JC Bach keyboard sonata (printed here in full), and manuscript copies of Haydn’s op.l7 quartets that are `littered with dynamic indications by Mozart’ (21 bars are quoted in a music example).

The other essays in the volume are devoted to music from the Viennese period. In terms of broad musical context, scholarship in the last few years has built up an impressive picture of opera in Vienna in the 1780s, and two of the leading figures in this area, Mary Hunter and John Platoff, offer valuable examples of their work in Mozart studies 2. Hunter uses the character of Julie D’Etange from Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise as a foil for the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, an unlikely juxtaposition and one that could only be made plausible, it might be thought, through a study of the Countess in Beaumarchais’s play as well as in Mozart’s opera. But Hunter’s detailed knowledge of the expectations of a Viennese operatic audience in the 1780s gives the essay a security and a conviction that it might not otherwise have had. Certainly producers, conductors and singers should take on board the view that listeners are not eavesdropping on a rather droopy Countess in ‘Porgi amor’ (a standard response even more obviously encouraged by CD listening) but are being addressed by a character of commanding virtue and distinctive power.

Platoff’s concern is not individual character, but the nature of tonal planning in Mozart’s Viennese operas. Again, his knowledge of the repertoire that Mozart knew in the 1780s, as well as of Mozart’s own operas, allows him to undermine the views of many commentators that strategic tonal planning in order to create symphonic unity is a feature of the operas.

Elaine Sisman’s article on the ‘Prague’ symphony reflects another aspect of music scholarship in the last decade, explored also, for instance, by John Irving in his handbook on the ‘Haydn’ quartets: to what extent did music by Haydn, Mozart and other composes reflect contemporary understanding of rhetoric and the use of topoi (the hunt, the pastoral, dances etc.)? This approach may be more allusive than most modern reductive analysis but, because it typically values all the elements of the style rather than privileging a few, it offers a very natural link with performance. The first movement of the ‘Prague’ symphony is one of Mozart’s most complex creations (even more complex in certain ways than the finale of the Jupiter’ symphony) and Sisman’s exploration is a real tour de force. Here, most certainly, is a musicologist on her knees, both in admiration and in her determination to explore and explain her admiration.

The National Court Theatre in Mozart’s Vienna is not a book to be read from cover to cover. It is much more useful than that, since it is destined to be a basic reference tool for opera scholars, indeed social historians too, working on opera in Vienna in the 1780s and 1790s. It fulfils three fundamental needs. Firstly, it provides a calendar of performances for the period 1782-92 that surpasses in detail and coverage that found in the hitherto unrivalled work of the two theatre historians, Franz Hadamovsky and Otto Michtner; the theatres include the two summer palaces of Schonbrunn and Laxenburg as well as the two court theatres in the city itself, the Burgtheater and the Karntnertortheater; also, details of the many benefit concerts during Lent are systematically presented for the first time. Secondly, it includes all the references in the diaries of Karl Zinzendorf to musical and theatrical performances in Vienna during the same period. Although the documentary value of the Zinzendorf diaries has been appreciated since the l9th century, their sheer size – 76 volumes covering the social life of a music-loving aristocrat in Vienna from 1752 to 1813 – and perhaps the rather laconic nature of the entries themselves – waxing eloquently did not come easy to Zinzendorf – have always defeated any plans to publish them in a modern edition. Historians of all kinds have been through the material for specific purposes several times, and there have been editions of portions of the material before, but Link’s collection is especially welcome for her copious and informative footnotes. Thirdly, the book includes transcriptions of payments to singers, players, librettists, copyists and other personnel who worked at the court theatres during this period, plus subscription lists of those who attended. Link’s introductions to her material and her summary remarks on the makeup of theatrical life in Vienna during the reign of Joseph II are models of clarity and, for anybody who has had experience of working in the tangled web of Viennese archival sources, objects of envy too.

BY an appropriately provocative coincidence, three of the most valuable Mozart books discussed above (those by Eisen, Halliwell and Link) are published by Oxford University Press. For reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, OUP decided to shut its UK music book division last summer. While more commercially minded publishers will undoubtedly continue to feed the appetite of the public for books on Mozart up to and beyond 2006, the disappearance of one major university press from the music book scene is a worry, not only for questing Mozartians but also for music scholarship in general.

David Wyn Jones is Senior Lecturer in Music at Cardiff University.

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Spring 1999

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