Mozart: A Life

  • Paul Johnson
  • Viking Adult
  • 176 pp.

The master of the quick-read history offers an excellent biography for both the young musician and the adult who are curious to know more about the fascinating composer.

Like quick books? Here’s one. Mozart: A Life by historian Paul Johnson clocks in at 176 pages (and that’s including the Epilogue) and consists of five chapters I might characterize as essays. These focus on: the child prodigy (early years); how Mozart related to and wrote for different instruments; his married and social life (middle years); his operas; and finally, his later years.

In a nutshell,this book offers a delightful, concise read. It’s fun — like listening to Mozart is. You don’t need to be a musician to enjoy it, though there are plenty of interesting details for the musician to appreciate: the breathtaking quantity of the composer’s work, his deep knowledge of the capabilities of each instrument of the orchestra, and his level of involvement with instrument-making. As Mozart wrote to his father, “I much prefer Stein’s ... sounding-board ... He is delighted when it cracks, for he can then be sure that nothing more can happen to it. Indeed he often cuts into it himself and then glues it together again and strengthens it in this way.” The author also offers ready insights into Mozart’s personality based on sensible interpretations of the available letters and documents.

These strengths may not seem particularly significant but consider this: if, as the author says, there have been over 2,000 books written about Mozart (I believe it), how are you going to pick one? For my money, this is a great place to start, for both the young musician and the adult who are curious to know more about the fascinating composer. If a reader needs more after this, she can always work her way up to Hermann Abert’s W.A. Mozart (edited by Cliff Eisen) which was proclaimed “the best book on Mozart” in 2007 by noted late pianist and music critic Charles Rosen — but only if she’s willing to stretch to 1,600 pages.

And length doesn’t guarantee quality. Some reviewers assert that Maynard Solomon’s Mozart: A Life, a recent, hefty tome at 656 pages, contains entirely too much psychoanalysis for a history or biography. Johnson, on the other hand, does an admirable job of making clear the distinctions amongst what the written record shows,what the historical contexts are and when he is stating a personal opinion or drawing a conclusion. Consequently he comes off as eminently reasonable — especially when he is bashing myths that were planted in the public consciousness long before Peter Shaffer’s dramatization, Amadeus, ever came to Broadway or the screen.

Among the myths Johnson examines along the way: Mozart’s allegedly tempestuous relationship with his father, his supposed perpetual indebtedness, his wife’s mismanagement of the household and Mozart’s career, and the whole Salieri thing. He even goes so far as to call out the folks at The New Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians for condemning Mozart’s wife Constanze’s purported “slovenliness and improvidence.” Johnson shows Constanze as a sympathetic mortal, the mother of “[t]wo survivors out of six. It was by no means unusual at that time, but it meant that Mozart’s last decade was punctuated by harrowing bereavements and that Constanze’s life was an uninterrupted serious of pregnancies, births, and fatal illnesses.”

Comfortably established as a master of the quick-read history, Johnson has added Mozart to his stable of works on historical figures, which also includes Darwin, Socrates, Napoleon and others. You needn’t know a ritornello from a dal segno to enjoy the magnificence and genius that is Mozart’s music. To read and learn about the life of such a remarkable musician is a treat and a privilege. Paul Johnson has made his story accessible and rewarding.

Carolyn Sienkiewicz is a freelance writer and oboist. She and her husband used to live on a sailboat. They miss it very much — but on the up side, she now has space for reed-making equipment.


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