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Mozart(Penguin Lives) Hardcover – June 1, 1999
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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.
Top customer reviews
As nearly every other reviewer has pointed out, this slim volume treats Mozart's correspondingly brief life with Gay's celebrated prose style. No new details are introduced, at least nothing destined to alter Mozart scholarship (for all the details, you'll want the much longer `Mozart: A Life' by Maynard Solomon). What Gay brings to Mozart's life is readability, historical context (this is PETER GAY, after all) and a nice quick summary for those readers who have an interest in Mozart but may not care to spend more than a few hours studying him.
One nice advantage of the book, especially for those looking to gain a better understanding of Mozart's music, is that Gay connects the events of Mozart's life to the production of some of his musical masterpieces. With Gay's book and iTunes, you can quickly build a "best of" Mozart library as you read along.