Mozart and the Penguin Series

By Potter, Rollin R. | National Forum, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Mozart and the Penguin Series


Potter, Rollin R., National Forum


Peter Gay, a distinguished scholar known to many, has added to the numerous biographies of Mozart with a concise yet helpful book about the composer's life and musical contributions (Peter Gay, Mozart [Penguin Lives], A Lipper Viking Book, 1999, 163 pp.). Mr. Gay is currently the director of the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library and is Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University. Mr. Gay authored another important biography, Freud: A Life of Our Time, as well as The Enlightenment and Style in History.

Mr. Gay's latest publication is part of an impressive series entitled Penguin Lives, which includes twentyone forthcoming titles about important artists, authors, and political figures. Of particular note in the series will be Edna O'Brien on James Joyce, Jane Smiley on Charles Dickens, John Keegan on Winston Churchill, Roy Blount, Jr. on Robert E. Lee, and Louis Auchincloss on Woodrow Wilson. It is forecast that each of the biographies will be no more than 200 pages; Mr. Gay's Mozart is 163 pages in length.

Mozart was born in Salzburg on January 27, 1756, being the seventh and last child of Leopold and Anna Maria Mozart. Of his six siblings, only an elder sister, named Nannerl, who was also musical, survived beyond infancy. Mozart's father, a professional violinist and composer in the employ of the archbishop of Salzburg, played a major role in his son's musical education. Gay and other biographers portray Leopold's dedication to learning and performing as overly ambitious, particularly in regard to monetary rewards. Mozart's mother was more nurturing of her children but did not stand in the way of her husband's ambitions for their talented son.

Sketches of Mozart's early life tell us that he was a prodigy and a very precocious youngster. Mozart was identified as a genius early on, and when Goethe, who believed that works of a genius "have consequences and lasting life," heard the sevenyear-old boy's music, he noted that "all of the works of Mozart are of this sort." Haydn, when speaking to Mozart's father, said that the boy was "before God and as an honest man" the individual that he believed to be "the greatest composer."

At the age of five, Mozart wrote his first complete compositions, reported to be two short works for clavier. He soon taught himself the violin and performed as a soloist on that instrument shortly thereafter. "Utterly possessed by music, Mozart had little time or patience for anything else and even wove it into his childish games." Ready to capitalize on his talented children, Leopold arranged for a threeyear musical tour (June 1763 to November 1766) in Paris, London, the German states, and the Netherlands. Of special note during this time are dedications of early works to queens, lords, and countesses, which resulted in monetary rewards.

The young composer's musical abilities developed rapidly. The reader learns that "a child prodigy is, by nature, a self-destroying artifact: what seems literally marvelous in a boy will seem merely talented and perfectly natural in a young man." Mozart at sixteen had completed mature works in the sonata and symphony form and expanded into opera, oratorio, and piano concertos, all proof that he was moving beyond the prodigy stage and into the realm of true genius.

As Mozart's musical life matured, so did his personal attributes. …

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