Mozart in Context

By Threasher, David | Gramophone, October 2019 | Go to article overview

Mozart in Context


Threasher, David, Gramophone


Mozart in Context

Edited by Simon P Keefe

Cambridge University Press, 350pp

74.99 (HB) [pounds sterling], 22.99 (PB) [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-1-107-18105-2 (HB)

ISBN 978-1-316-63244-4 (PB)

How well do we ever know the composers of the past? We know them through their music, of course, although in many cases even this masks their personalities. Snippets of biography may illuminate stretches of their public and private life--although the variable accuracy and veracity of these can obscure and befuddle as much as they enlighten, especially as one delves further back into history. Even a character such as Bach must necessarily remain largely concealed from the 21st-century music lover, for all the enduring brilliance and popularity of his creations.

Mozart is perhaps the first great composer whose personal and musical biography can be mapped out with anything approaching completeness. This is not least thanks to the new fashion for literary biography at the cusp of the 19th century--with early such works based on the reminiscences of Mozart's surviving relatives and those who knew him. There is also the considerable goldmine of the many letters between the Mozarts, concerning not only musical matters but also more mundane, day-to-day events. Over the 19th and 20th centuries, Mozart became the first composer to have his complete works published in a scholarly edition (twice), to be the subject of a range of biographical and musicological studies (albeit of varying degrees of scientific enquiry and/or romantic wishful thinking) and to have his voluminous surviving correspondence collected, edited and translated into a range of languages.

Mozart in Context is not a birth-to-death biography but instead takes aspects of the composer's life--musical, professional, social, geographical and so on--and assesses them in brief chapters, packed with information. The book is divided into five sections, respectively tackling Mozart's 'Personality, Work, Worldview'; the 'Towns, Cities, Countries' in which he lived, worked and composed; 'Career Contexts and Environments', addressing concepts of patronage, publishing and performance as they affected Mozart and his contemporaries; a fascinating and especially valuable segment on 'Performers and Performance', introducing the singers and players with whom Mozart worked (and his sometimes less than flattering opinions of them); and 'Reception and Legacy', assessing the responses of the ensuing centuries to the man and his music.

Simon Keefe, from his professorial chair at the University of Sheffield, is something of a one-man Mozartiana factory: his hefty Mozart in Vienna appeared only a couple of years ago (12/17) and he has written authoritatively on aspects of the composer including his piano concertos and the Requiem, as well as editing a string of such volumes of essays as this one. …

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