Mozart – Paul Johnson

I love classical music but I haven’t read much about the lives of my favourite composers. So, the opportunity to read this short biography of Mozart was too good to miss.

Mozart’s life was short but full of incident. Many myths have grown up around his life & Paul Johnson refreshingly dismisses most of them. Born in Salzburg in 1756, young Amadeus was a prodigy, composing from a young age & proficient in several instruments, including piano & viola. His father, Leopold, was a musician & encouraged Amadeus & his sister, Nannerl, in their music. The family traveled around Europe playing to royalty & nobility in Germany, France & England.

Amadeus was lauded for his talent & he continued to write an enormous amount of music in every conceivable form – operas, symphonies, concertos & sonatas. Johnson goes into some detail about the work but I have to admit that I couldn’t really follow him there. Apart from a few famous works like the Clarinet Concerto & the Piano Concertos, I don’t know the work until I hear it, the catalogue (K) number doesn’t help me. That’s probably why I don’t read much about composers. It would be wonderful if I could have tapped on my Kindle & heard the work as it was being described. Maybe an idea for the next generation of ereaders?

Johnson writes well about Mozart’s love of musicians & singers & the trouble he took to direct & help them play his music. The fact that he could play many of their instruments & so demonstrate what he wanted must have helped. He also knew the limitations & capacities of instruments so he was loved & admired by his peers. Often he would compose a piece with a particular singer or musician in mind, “Nothing pleased him more than an intimate talk with a player about his instrument, what it could do or not do, and what it could be made to do by a masterful player.”

Johnson discusses the contentious points of Mozart’s short life. It’s said that he was always in debt. He was often short of ready cash but his problems are usually short-term. A lot of letters from Mozart to his friends survive where he’s begging for another loan to tide him over & this seems to be the origin of this myth. After his death, his wife, Constanze, was able to clear his debts within a few weeks so there was always money coming in. He also wasn’t buried in a pauper’s grave. Burial in a mass grave was quite common in Vienna at the time & had nothing to do with the financial circumstances of the deceased.

Constanze has come in for a lot of criticism over the years but Johnson believes that she’s been unfairly treated. She’s been called slovenly & a bad manager, dragging Mozart into debt & costing him money with her medicinal trips to spa towns. She certainly suffered from poor health at times & also suffered the loss of several children. The couple led a hectic life with Mozart traveling frequently & spending long hours composing. There’s no evidence that the marriage was unhappy & their two surviving sons, Carl & Franz Xavier, grew up happy although neither had any of their father’s musical talent. Maybe it’s because she married again after Mozart’s death & her new husband wrote a biography of Mozart. However, Constanze looked after Mozart’s musical legacy with great care, ensuring that his music was played throughout Europe & his name was kept alive.

Mozart died in 1791 at the age of only 35. It’s astonishing to think that he was able to cram so much into such a short life. The beauty & range of his music is truly amazing & his popularity has never waned. Classic FM here in Australia puts together a Classic 100 every year, voted by listeners. One of the most popular lists ever was the Classic 100 Mozart. I can’t think of another single composer who could be the subject of such a list.

I read Mozart courtesy of NetGalley.

2 thoughts on “Mozart – Paul Johnson

  1. I haven't read in this area either Lyn, thank you.

    I finished “All Change” this afternoon, it's been a galloping read, I will do a more contemplative one later. First report: brilliant, incisive, brought the Cazalets into the late 50s very well, did not attempt a fairy tale end but a fair one.


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