Sunday, July 3, 2016

Mozart: A Cultural Biography by Robert W. Gutman

The Symphonic Poem by Cesar Franck is playing as I write my latest book review. I guess I should be playing something by Mozart since I'm reviewing a biography of him, but I randomly turned on the Classical station and this is what is playing.

Mozart:  A Cultural Biography is the third biographical work I've read on the composer, including the letters which are probably the most revealing.

So far this is the best.  It is a scholarly work and quite exhaustive.  Not only does Gutman provide the chronology of Mozart's life but he fills in the back drop:  what was going on politically in Austria and Europe, who were the leaders, what philosophical movements were growing such as the enlightenment, and how that ran up against a population that was still devoutly Catholic.  Not much is spoken of the Reformation but perhaps that didn't come into play in Mozart's life.

What this book provides is a much more thorough picture of the life of one of the greatest composers known to the world.  Gutman accomplishes this on a external as well as internal level.

We see how the political landscape and leadership affected Mozart's thinking as well as his career.  The Enlightenment with it's vocal supporters such as Voltaire, Spinoza, Kant, Descartes etc..were gaining ground and influence, culminating in the French Revolution, had an impact on his career since the Esterhazy house of Austria became panic-stricken over the assassination of the Prince's cousin, Marie Atoinette. Prince Esterhazy as well as the Royal leaders of all Europe suddenly became preoccupied with any possible threat to their positions.

Mozart and his father and sister toured Paris prior to that and Mozart, later as a young adult, toured again with his mother.  Neither tours provided any success and perhaps the clouds of discontent  that were gathering were responsible as well as Mozart's inability to defer to nobility.

In Mozart's native country, Austria, we see the different leaders, those that appreciated music, those that didn't, their influence and tenuous relationship with Mozart. 

In the biography by Marcia Davenport, in addition to being a sentimental dramatization of his life, portrayed the composer as largely unappreciated and unrecognized until after his death.  Gutman shows a different picture.

According to Gutman, Mozart and his father couldn't comprehend aristocratic politics.  Instead of simply bowing and smiling to people undoubtedly less musically knowledgeable, they would take on airs to the point of being insufferably arrogant.  Needless to say, they didn't win many friends with people in positions of power.

Most of this was due to Leopold.  Leopold needs to go down in history as the worst stage parent ever.  He  relentlessly exploited both his children, forcing them all over Europe to tour, compromising their health.  It's a wonder Mozart lived as long as he did.

Leopold also had delusions of grandeur.  His letters show someone who is not above exaggerating and even lying about Nannerl and Amadeus' success and connections to different Royal governing officials.  If Mozart hadn't eventually cut himself off from his father, he possibly would  have been a social pariah for the rest of his life.

Fortunately for Mozart and mankind, he did.  He left his father's home in Salzberg and took up residence in Vienna.  Away from the influence of his father, Mozart was able to temper some of his more flamboyant tendencies and carve out a career for himself.

In point of fact, contrary to the impression Davenport gives in her book, Mozart was slowly but surely gaining a reputation. The last six to nine years of his life showed, if not monetary success (and he would have had that, if he had been a better manager of his money), a steady path to fame and finally legend.

Even there Leopold's tentacles tried to reach out.  Declaring himself to be on the edge of poverty, a good chunk of Amadeus' money went straight to his father and the support of his sister (his mother died while they were traveling in Paris).  He constantly orders through his letters, which were largely ignored by his son.

I will say, however, that as I read the letters between father and  son, I assumed that Leopold was being the sensible one while Mozart was the dreamer.  This may have been true, but Gutman paints a larger picture that shows just how domineering Leopold was and how inadequately he prepared his son for adult life.  Maybe he wanted him to be forever a child, dependent on him.

My book of letters are not complete.  Gutman quotes many letters that show a man who took a very long time to grow up.  His sense of humor is shockingly gross, akin to a twelve year old boy, even though Amadeus was in his twenties.  He seemed fixated on anal humor.

However, Gutman prints a letter of Mozart's mother and it is similarly coarse and vulgar.  Maybe it was a family trait, or even a natural part of Salzberg culture. Gutman makes several comparisons to the "peasant" class of Salzberg compared to the more sophisticated Viennese.  Since Mozart spent the remainder of his life in Vienna, perhaps it tempered his "lower" instincts.

A few things that Gutman revealed that I did not realize was his devoted and loving relationship with his wife Constanze.  When Mozart wrote to his father about his engagement to Constanze Weber, he predictably exploded.  He threatened his son with severance of the family and every dire outcome that would result in this uneven match.  Loyal to her father, Nannerl joined in league with him and both remained cold and aloof to both Amadeus and Constanze, even refusing them visitation in their home when they were in town.

Constanze has had a negative reputation as a flaky airhead of a wife who couldn't begin to comprehend her husband's genius.   We now know the source of that information came largely from Nannerl who determined to stay true to her father's position even after his death, a mere four years before his son's. 

In reality, Constanze was quite musical herself, coming from a musical family.  Her oldest sister, Aloysia, was a highly successful opera singer.  Constance, at first, was as impractical in money matters as her husband, but she grew to become quite competent in finances and was able to pay off all her husband's debts.

A side story is that initially, Amadeus was obsessed with Aloysia, and believed she was the love of his life.  She, however, took up with an actor so Mozart, being practical, turned his attention to the third daughter, Contanze.  Later in life, when her star had faded and she was old, unknown and poor while Mozart had achieved world renown, one has to wonder if Aloysia ever had second thoughts.  According to Gutman, she never tired of telling her sister, Constanze, that she was his "first and true love" and he never stopped loving her.  What a witch.

And it wasn't true.  Mozart's letters show an intense passion and tender care for Constanze.  He couldn't bear to be apart from her, felt incomplete without her.  And, without going into too much detail, was quite randy.  Mozart had a healthy sexual appetite and kept his wife in a state of almost constant pregnancy for the nine years of their marriage.

Which brings me to another surprising trait of the Mozart's and probably their contemporary culture. Maybe it was because children died so easily (Amadeus and Constanze had six children but only two survived to adulthood), but there seemed to be a callous disregard to children.

Children were shuffled off to a wet nurse while the parents went on their business.  Child-rearing seemed to be largely delegated to the servants.  Once Amadeus and Constanze went off on tour, leaving the newborn with a wet nurse and came back to find out the poor child had died three weeks previously.

In addition to cultural and personal facts, Gutman interlaces compositional analysis into his biography.  He uses quite a bit of subjective visual imagery when describing Mozart's writing techniques, especially his operas.  I suppose his objective is to provide the reader with insight into the deeper philosophical meanings and political messages Mozart was attempting but I found it all to be rather a bit of hand waving.

Mozart, it seemed, was never in robust health, but nevertheless kept up a frenetic schedule of composing and performing. This finally compromised his health and he became bedridden.  The doctors with their usual routine of emetics, enemas, and bloodletting did the rest. He died at the age of thirty-five.

Contrary to popular belief, he was not buried in a pauper's grave.  While it is true, the funeral was simple and no one accompanied the coffin (due to spread of disease), he was buried in a public grave with a small plaque.  Unfortunately, every ten years these graves were plowed  up to accommodate new inmates.  By the time anyone thought to preserve his body (something extremely expensive to do) it was too late.

Following her husband's demise, Constanze showed her true mettle and shrewd business acumen.  She toured with a company, performing and selling her husbands works, paid off all his debts, remarried a Danish Civil Servant, who, with Constanze wrote one of the first biographies of Mozart.

Ironically, Constanze and George Nikolaus von Nissen, her second husband's graves are located in St. Sebastian Church in Salzburg.  There is even a disputed photograph of her.  She was alive at the time of the photo in 1840, but not everyone is in agreement that the photograph actually shows Constanze.  Here's a link, if you're interested:
Constanze Weber 

This book is thirty-five chapters long and each chapter is about twenty pages.  It is, in my opinion, quite a scholarly work, probably containing more information than the average person wants to know about Mozart.  I however, thoroughly enjoyed it and even looking forward to reading what is considered to be the definitive biography of Wolfgang Amadeus:  the three volume work by Otto Jahn.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Other links: 


  1. I find that reading multiple biographies on the same person can really shed light on the subjects life. With that, I have not read any Mozart biographies but I would like to.

    The myth of the pauper's grave illustrates how so many false stories creep into popular accounts of history.

    1. Hi Brian! I have been reading reviews of certain biographies of composers, the latest on Schubert and it's interesting how many books were written to debunk previous myths and legends of the likes of Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven. I am learning to be selective with buying biographies.

  2. Your fine posting/review piques my interest! I like biographies that include plenty of cultural and social contexts. They become more like broad-brush histories than small-frame snapshots.

    1. Hi R.T. Reading about someone in the context of their times certainly allowed me to have a better understanding and deeper appreciation of them than reading about them in a vacuum.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.