A Prodigy's Quest for Self-Determination

Article excerpt

Complex, subtle, filled with brilliant, intricately-wrought designs that dazzled and sometimes baffled its first audiences, the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is also brimming with a joyful exuberance and an exceptional beauty that can enchant even the untrained ear. Innocent yet sophisticated, elegant yet heartfelt, his music transcends attempts to label it.

Mozart's life, however, has too readily been reduced to over-simplification and mythology. The image of Mozart as a sort of divinely inspired nincompoop popularized by Peter Shaffer's play "Amadeus" is perhaps the extreme culmination of a more respectable biographical tradition that tended to view the famous child prodigy as a kind of eternal child. But now, thanks to a magisterial new biography by the eminent music historian Maynard Solomon, lovers of Mozart's music will gain a renewed understanding of and appreciation for the man who composed it.

Comprehensively researched, carefully thought out, and compellingly written, "Mozart: A Life" restores our sense of the genius's humanity. The central theme of this book - one might even say, the central drama - is Mozart's struggle to emerge from childhood dependency into the uncertain, sometimes dangerous world of adult self-determination.

The infant Mozart's brilliant career was stage-managed by a father whom he literally worshiped: "Next to God comes Papa," was the boy's motto. By the time Mozart left his native Salzburg for Vienna in 1781, the once-blissful father-son relationship was suffering from intolerable strains. As Solomon shows, the Mozarts in the eyes of father Leopold, at least - were a family enterprise, and any step taken by the gifted son toward artistic, financial, or romantic independence or self-expression was viewed as a sign of dangerous rebellion.

Leopold Mozart opposed every one of his son's love interests, from his instantly bonding friendship-romance with his high-spirited cousin (Anna Maria Thekla Mozart, referred to as "the Basle" or female cousin) who shared his penchant for scatological humor, to his eventual marriage in 1782 to Constanze Weber, the kind-hearted daughter of a musical family like his own.

When Leopold wasn't casting aspersions on the "scheming females" he suspected were trying to entrap his talented son, he was cautioning the young composer against writing anything too experimental, reminding him of the debts - financial and emotional - owed to his family, and generally doing everything possible to make Mozart feel guilty about deserting his poor old father. Solomon provides ample selections from their correspondence to document this portrait of a loving father unable to allow his son to grow up. And indeed, when Mozart took the drastic steps of leaving the family home in Salzburg for life in the big city of Vienna in 1781, and, a year later, of marrying Constanze, his father refused to accept these decisions. …