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Friday, July 6, 2012

“Mozart: A Cultural Biography”, by Robert W. Gutman


992 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN-13: 978-0151004829

Mozart: A Cultural Biography is a wonderfully written account of the life of one of the greatest composer who ever lived. It is rich and detailed, and obviously very well researched. By tracing all the major influences on the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – among them his father Leopold and sister Nannerl; his wife Constanze; Count Hieronymous Colloredo, the Archbishop of Salzburg (his infamous bête noir) and Austrian Emperor Joseph II – author Robert Gutman presents Mozart in a far different light than the loud, immature and vulgar individual depicted in earlier biographies and in the film Amadeus. Gutman's graceful and eloquent pen instead presents Mozart as always confident in his own limitless abilities. Although late to maturity due to his father's domineering ways, he was completely competent to manage his own affairs once he achieved independence from the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg (Contrary to the popular belief he died a pauper, Mozart actually had achieved a limited measure of financial security at the time of his death). Imbued with a strong sense of high morality and a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humor, he could be at times cheerful, witty, optimistic, and wise beyond his years; at other times, petulant, immature, tactless and crude.

I read this work over a lengthy period of time as the material is very dense, and the book is more like a collection than a single volume. Yes, this is a biography of Mozart, and also biographies of those who were Family, his peers, and Monarchs who ruled during his short life, but it is a work of history, as well. Mozart the person throughout the book is always placed within the context of the events surrounding him. Politics would influence where he could play, as would religion, all forms of civil disobedience, and war (in this sense the work has as an element Political Science, as well). The author includes detailed economic facts from the smallest of costs that were included for a concert tour, to the largesse that was or was not handed to Mozart by a variety of royal courts. These latter two issues were obsessions with his father: Leopold Mozart not only micro-managed the lives of his children, but also was constantly vying for the good graces of the wealthy and nobility, as well as with royalty, and dealing with all manner of court intrigue in hopes of his personal advancement.

You will also look in vain for uncanny overtones in the visit of the masked messenger who ordered the Requiem, and neither is there the tragic end of the neglected genius dumped in a pauper's grave. Mozart had a standard third class funeral, Gutman tells us, as did most Viennese citizens, and the proceedings surrounding it were quite in keeping with those customary at the time. Nor was the composer a death-ridden derelict in his final year; on the contrary, he was in high spirits, and on the brink of the artistic recognition and ensuing financial success that allowed his widow to spend the many years she survived him in the greatest comfort.

So is this a boring book then? By no means! Gutman replaces the sensational but stale caricature with a flesh-and-blood human being, and a very likeable one at that, who almost jumps off the pages. His treatment of Mozart's psychology is highly refined and subtle. He was no divine spirit incarnate, he was a man like you and me, this book tells you. But it tells you a lot more. It delves deeply into the complicated politics of 18th Century Europe, with all its competing rulers, many of them afflicted with strange personalities. Culture and customs are described in similar detail. The ample footnotes contain thumbnail-biographies, delightful anecdotes and musical details alike and almost form a book in themselves. The 800 pages are densely packed with information, not making for a relaxed bed-time read; this book demands your time and concentration, and deserves both! You will reap rich rewards from your investment.

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