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Mozart: A Life (A Penguin Life) [Kindle Edition]

Peter Gay
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)

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Book Description

A biography of the greatest musical mind in Western history

Mozart's unshakable hold on the public's consciousness can only be strengthened by historian and biographer Peter Gay's concise and deft look at the genius's life. Mozart traces the development of the man whose life was a whirlwind of achievement, and the composer who pushed every instrument to its limit and every genre of classical music into new realms.

Editorial Reviews Review

In his lifetime, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart didn't have the best of luck with his patrons. One of them, Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg, actually had his chamberlain kick the composer in the ass to signal the end of his employment. Mozart has been luckier, however, with his biographers. In the last 20 years alone, he has been the subject of two fine books: Maynard Solomon's meticulous study, which slides Mozart's rather mystifying psyche under the analytic microscope, and Wolfgang Hildesheimer's more sardonic effort, in which the author seems determined to strip every last bit of romantic varnish from the traditional portrait.

Now Peter Gay joins the party with his own brief life. Weighing in at 177 pages, Mozart will never displace its deep-focus predecessors. But it's a delightful introduction to the composer, whose entire existence was, as Gay puts it, a "triumph of genius over precociousness." It's one thing, after all, to knock 'em dead at age five--at which point the waist-high Mozart was already a keyboard virtuoso. It's quite another to keep developing at the same prodigious pace. "A child prodigy is, by its nature, a self-destroying artifact: what seems literally marvelous in a boy will seem merely talented and perfectly natural in a young man. But by 1772, at sixteen, Mozart no longer needed to display himself as a little wizard; he had matured in the sonata and the symphony, the first kind of music he composed, and now showed his gifts in new domains: opera, the oratorio, and the earliest in a string of superb piano concertos."

Gay gets in all the essentials: Mozart's mind-blowing maturation, his family life, his weakness for billiards, and (of course) his seriously scatological style as a correspondent. Like Solomon, he takes an Oedipal approach to Wolfgang's perpetual head-banging with his overbearing father. And like Hildesheimer, he's at pains to scotch certain cherished myths--the mysterious figure who commissioned the Requiem, for example, turns out to be no otherworldly harbinger of death but a chiseling wannabe who hoped to pass off the finished product as his own work. Perhaps best of all, Gay never goes sublime on us. His portrait is attractively level-headed, and at one point he's even modest enough to knock his own metaphors for their puerility. Here, surely, the author is being hard on himself. But he's right about one thing: as far as artistry goes, this former child prodigy does make children of us all. --James Marcus

From Publishers Weekly

In the new Penguin Lives series, edited by former New York Times editor James Atlas, Gay's Mozart biography comes with particularly high expectations, given the author's distinction as a historian (he won the National Book Award for volume one of The Enlightenment). There is little new information here, yet Gay's overview of the composer's life and work is lucid and concise. Noted for his studies of Freud and Victorian society, the author clearly knows the Mozart literature as well. His book includes a fine bibliographical essay, in which he admits to leaning on Maynard Solomon's 1995 tome, Mozart: A Life. Gay provides brief glimpses into the social and historical contexts of Mozart's music: changing attitudes toward listening, the economics of composition and new audience sectors. Also notable is the discussion of how well Mozart's works were received and the author's survey of how Mozart was regarded by subsequent composers. Gay offers a straightforward and helpful introduction to Mozart, debunking romantic interpretations of the composer's life. (Gay maintains that Mozart's burial in an unmarked grave was due to the practice of the period, when extravagant funerals were frowned upon, rather than to poverty.) However, in a book this size, it's hard to stay away from the occasional oversimplified phrase (Mozart "could not have written mediocre music if he tried"). While Gay's judgments of Mozart's works are mostly unsurprising and in line with general opinion, they are discussed vividly and with enthusiasmAand bolstered with famous quotes and thorough references. BOMC selection. (June)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • File Size: 261 KB
  • Print Length: 177 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (June 1, 1999)
  • Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00132S76I
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #579,511 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
46 of 47 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Peter Gay's brief biography of Mozart is the third of the new Penguin Lives which I have read, but only the first to offer a reasonably complete portrait. (The others were "Mao Zedong" by Jonathan Spence, which seemed disappointingly incomplete, and "Woodrow Wilson" by Louis Auchincloss, which seemed terribly superficial.) As an eminent cultural historian of Europe since the Enlightenment and a native of German-speaking Europe himself, Gay is more than qualified to write a superior life story of Mozart and certainly rises to the occasion with a captivating style that made reading this book a pleasure.
For a book that is only 163 pages long, exclusive of endnotes and bibliographic essay, this volume offers an unusually full picture. It depicts Mozart as man and musician, while placing him and his art in the context of his times. Gay delves into Mozart's complex relationship with his autocratic father, describing his evolution from docile Wunderkind to assertive mature artist. He also explores Mozart's unusual personality, including his often juvenile sense of humor, his devoted commitment to his wife, his tendency to constantly live beyond his means and the resulting sometimes obsequious dependency on his patrons, and his interactions with contemporary composers, particularly Johann Christoph Bach and Franz Josef Haydn. Gay is especially good at explaining Mozart's major contributions to the development of classical music in terms that even someone who lacks a technical understanding of music can fathom, showing how he contributed to chamber music, the symphony, and opera. And he briefly points out what is distinctive about a number of the composers' major works.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Triumph of Genius over Preociousness October 25, 2002
This is one of several volumes in the Penguin Lives Series, each of which written by a distinguished author in her or his own right. Each provides a concise but remarkably comprehensive biography of its subject in combination with a penetrating analysis of the significance of that subject's life and career. I think this is a brilliant concept. Those who wish to learn more about the given subject are directed to other sources.
When preparing to review various volumes in this series, I have struggled with determining what would be of greatest interest and assistance to those who read my reviews. Finally I decided that a few brief excerpts and then some concluding remarks would be appropriate.
On misconceptions of Mozart (e.g. the "willful child" unable to grow up, the "miracle worker" who never needed to revise a single note): "These tenacious caricatures are distortions rather than fabrications; most of them, as we shall discover, contain a kernel of truth....But Mozart's life in music is fascinating enough without embroidery; his reputation as a genius is not threatened by mundane truths." (Page 2)
In a letter to his father (1781): "Nature speaks as loudly in me as in anyone, and perhaps louder than in many big, strong lugs. I cannot possibly live like most of the young men today. -- First, I have too much religion; secondly, too much love for my fellow beings and too honorable a disposition to seduce an innocent girl; and thirdly, too much horror and repugnance, dread and fear of diseases, and too much care for my health to scuffle with whores." (Page 70)
Peter Gay on Salieri: "There is an all-too-well-known melodramatic tale about Antonio Salieri poisoning Mozart. It began as a rumor and was first given literary form in the 1820s in a verse playlet by Pushkin.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A Two-Dimensional Mozart May 20, 2008
Somewhere between Maynard Solomon's 650-page opus Mozart: A Life and the Mozart write-up on Wikipedia, there is Mozart by Peter Gay.

Mozart's story should lend itself to the Penguin Lives series of short biographies. It was a remarkable life in spite of its brevity. Mozart gifted the biographer with a voluminous correspondence and Gay makes extensive use of it. If it sometimes seems as if the narrative consists of epistolary excerpts strung together, they do communicate some aspects of Mozart's character, particularly as regards the increasingly difficult father-son relationship.

Gay also enjoys quoting the vulgar witticisms that frequently occur in the correspondence. Peter Gay is also the author of a biography of Sigmund Freud, so the character analysis was perhaps bound to take a psychoanalytic turn. For example, vis-à-vis the penchant for vulgarity, Mozart "yielded more readily than many others to the regressive pull of early fixations." His adolescent attraction to Aloysia Weber was the expression of "agreeable rescue fantasies". It's hard to say what, if anything, these observations add to the reader's insight into Mozart the man. In the end, while we learn the important facts about Mozart's life, we don't really get a clear sense of character from this book.

Not to say that the author fails to recognize and carry out his writerly duties. In a biography of Mozart, or of any famous person, the author is required to engage with the standard mythology, and Gay dutifully sets the record straight. Mozart was in fact dismissed from the Archbishop of Salzburg's service with a kick in the rear end, and he did once write a full symphony in four days (No. 36).
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars ... and major works of the composer without going into great depth or...
A quick look at the life and major works of the composer without going into great depth or detail. You do not have to understand music theory or composition to understand this... Read more
Published 3 months ago by marquis des
4.0 out of 5 stars Gift
Published 3 months ago by C. Braden
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
A great balance on the musical side and on Mozaert - the man
Published 8 months ago by Yolanda Labia
5.0 out of 5 stars A great intro to Mozart
I was first introduced to Mozart through film, including the Oscar winning film, Amadeus. This book provides much clarity of facts that were mistreated for dramatic purposes in... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Tim Dingman
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting and readable: the story of the life of Mozart
You can gain an inside view of the workings of this incredible musician and brilliant creative mind. Read more
Published 20 months ago by Sallie Brooke
4.0 out of 5 stars Motzart: A Life
Do not know much about famous musicians and found this a very interesting book. Most of us think famous folks must have had a great life--his wasn't so great and here we are... Read more
Published 21 months ago by Patricia Isaacson
3.0 out of 5 stars Heavy on Music Theory
This was my first biography of Mozart and had some interesting things to say: what is was like to make a living as a musician in Mozart's time, the general music scene, Mozart's... Read more
Published 24 months ago by Sarah B
5.0 out of 5 stars Quality and service was awsome.
I love the fashion the item was shipped, packaging, promptness and appeal. Excellant people to do business with at such a low cost and limited time. Appreciate the opportunity. Read more
Published on March 22, 2013 by Blanca Estella Garcia
5.0 out of 5 stars WHAT A BOOK!
This Book is a very good book! I checked out lots of books of the library and this book is a VERY GOOD MOZART BOOK! I personally will buy this when I can.. Read more
Published on February 5, 2013 by Lili
5.0 out of 5 stars Thorogh Without Being Too Much Of A Deep Dive
As a pianist who has played Mozart for years, I have always had an interest in the man himself. Hence, I have read several books to understand more about the man behind the music. Read more
Published on November 8, 2012 by J. K. Gates
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