Skip to main content

In Search of Mozart

ISSUE:  Spring 1939

Letters of Mozart and His Family. Translated and edited by Emily Anderson. New York: The Macmillan Company. Three volumes. $18.00. Mozart: The Man and His Works. By W. J. Turner. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $4.00.

Mozart is like his music. He seems immediately the most intelligible of geniuses, but he is ultimately elusive. Arthur Schnabel has called him “the most inaccessible of the great masters.” Until now, Mozart has been particularly inaccessible in books written in English or translated into English. Except for a few special studies—such as Edward J. Dent’s critical essay on the operas—they have been antiquated or eccentric or trivial. The present season is, therefore, a good one for lovers of Mozart, in bringing forth W. J. Turner’s biography, “Mozart: The Man and His Works,” and Emily Anderson’s edition of the correspondence, “Letters of Mozart and His Family.”

Miss Anderson’s edition is beyond praise. She includes all of Mozart’s own letters, and also extensive selections from the letters of his father, mother, sister, and wife. This means that her edition is fuller than the standard German edition of Schiedermair. Her translation is superb: Mozart writes in doggerel, in macaronics; he writes in reverse and upside down; his high spirits express themselves in broad obscenity. All this Miss Anderson makes idiomatic and credible in English. Her footnotes elucidate every reference; her brief introductory summaries give order to the material; her indexes are extensive and clear. The publishers have issued her work in beautiful form. The three volumes are, therefore, in every sense monumental.

Turner’s biography has a double intention. It is both a study of Mozart’s career and an essay on his genius. In its first capacity, it is excellent; in its second, it is sometimes illuminating and sometimes confusing. Its thesis is sound and is studiously built up: it argues that Mozart is neither the “voice of innocence” which the Nineteenth Century heard in his music nor “the delicate flower of salon culture” which more recent fanciers of the neo-classic and rococo have tried to make of him. Like Aldous Huxley, Turner would maintain that the “classical” style of performing Mozart misrepresents him; that any stylized interpretation is false, in failing to appreciate the profundity of his understanding and the universality of his sympathy. Only in Shakespeare does Turner find a fair parallel to Mozart’s genius.

It is difficult to see how any reader of the letters could think of their author as a period piece. After a hundred and fifty pages of his father’s letters, which are vigorous and detailed and prosaic, Mozart, at the age of thirteen, enters like a gust: “Dearest Mamma! My heart is completely enchanted with all these pleasures, because it is so jolly on this journey, because it is so warm in the carriage, and because our coachman is a fine fellow who, when the road gives him the slightest chance, drives so fast.”

Mozart so frequently uses musical tricks in his own letters that one is tempted to musical conceit in describing the correspondence. In it, there is a continual counterpoint of characters—Mozart’s and his father’s. Leopold, intelligent, wary, disillusioned, regards all men as villains. Although he is fully aware of his son’s gift and is willing to devote his life to furthering it, he is driven to “amazement and horror” at what he feels to be Mozart’s fecklessness. “Your letter reads like a romance.” “You must not be so open with every one.” “Avoid all familiarity with people of our own profession.” “Be sensible.”

Mozart’s own letters convey his lovable impetuousness, his liveliness of wit, his almost irrepressible gaiety and hopefulness. Even though one knows in advance that most of his hopes will be disappointed, it is almost impossible not to believe with him that he will get a comfortable appointment. It is intolerable to see him offering his services to a nobleman who, as Mozart sits at the clavier, blows his nose, clears his throat, and starts a conversation.

It was a rotten society. Mr. Turner seems merely truculent in insisting that a Mozart would fare even worse today. Though it be granted that musical composition is shoddily rewarded, it cannot be maintained that a performer of superlative excellence would have to submit to being treated like a lackey. Nor did Mozart submit very well: that was why he died of overwork and privation.

Yet his spirits were rarely dampened. His letters display a constantly alert interest and curiosity. He takes delight in seeing a Dominican friar gourmandize. He witnesses the hangings at Milan. He tells of the French Due de Guines, who is eager for his daughter to compose grand sonatas, that he and she may play them together on the flute and harp. Even when Mozart is most pinched by poverty, his table of expenses shows him buying flowers and starlings.

The most important theme of the letters, of course, is music. Mozart hated any restraint of “that talent for composition with which God in his goodness has so richly endowed me.” He took it as a matter of course that the Kapellmeister and the organist crossed themselves at hearing him play. This confidence made him superior to the petty animosities of his profession; so his judgment remained impeccable. He could conceal neither his delight at excellence nor his disgust at banality and pretentiousness. Though the works of the elder Bach were not fashionable, Mozart studied them laboriously. We think of Mozart as the most striking example of natural genius in modern history, but he himself accused of error those persons who thought his art came easily. “There is not a master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times.”

Miss Anderson is right in saying that “Mozart’s letters bear comparison with those of the great letter writers of the world.” Surely there is nothing else like them in the history of music. But, even though Mozart has thus revealed himself in a second medium as no other composer has done, he remains the most inaccessible of the great masters. He was inaccessible to his parents and his wife, and he must remain so to us. There is no extravagance or eccentricity in him, to serve as key; he professed himself inclined to a peaceful and domesticated existence. He was intimately a part of his family and of the society in which he lived; yet he was curiously uninvolved with them. If his letters frequently seem almost childish in their lack of guile, their penetration warns one against thinking them simple.

In a sense, Mr. Turner is right in representing Mozart as a child of the revolutionary period. Yet Mozart was no revolutionary. He was unconcerned with political or social ideas; and he did not feel impelled to musical innovation. He was a musician of sensibility; yet it was an exquisite sensibility. Like Shakespeare, he utilized the conventions of his period; and by his own supremacy he gave them his stamp. Turner’s excursion into the metaphysics of genius seems irrelevant. When he criticizes the intuitions of Kierkegaard by the criteria of his own intuitions he becomes unintelligible. But Mozart’s music is ever in his ears, and he would join Haydn in saying to Leopold Mozart: “Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer of whom I have ever heard; he has taste, and in addition the most complete knowledge of composition.”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading