But Was He Happy? This Biography Of Mozart Makes A Case For Yes

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A monument to Mozart is flanked by the graves of Beethoven and Schubert in Vienna’s Central Cemetery.

Mozart: The Reign of Love. Jan Swafford. HarperCollins. 810 p.

BOOK REVIEW — In Mozart: The Reign of Love, author/composer Jan Swafford attempts to debunk longstanding myths that have arisen around Mozart’s life and character. Among these fictions and misunderstandings: that Mozart was unappreciated and poverty-stricken in his adult lifetime, that he was puerile and irresponsible by nature, that he was buried in a pauper’s grave, and most egregiously, that he was overshadowed and ostensibly poisoned by his archrival, Antonio Salieri.

“Mozart had some hard times toward the end of his life,” Swafford declares at the beginning, “but…composers do not get much more successful than Mozart in his own time…and if he was never the most popular composer around, he was greatly admired by a great many people….I have no doubt that if Mozart had lived 10 years longer, he would have been the dominating figure he became shortly after he died.”

This is the primary premise of Swafford’s painstakingly detailed biography. “While Mozart had his share of sorrow and loss and frustration like the rest of us,” the author claims in his introduction, “he was fundamentally a happy man.” That in itself is a controversial premise, but Swafford is at least intermittently persuasive in making his point. “I am primarily a composer,” he states, “and I write biographies of composers from that point of view.” Swafford’s previous credits include biographies of Beethoven, Brahms, and Ives, which in the author’s words “are scholarly in nature but intended for the broad public.”

The present Mozart book is flawed but informative. The subject has been abundantly researched, although Swafford’s bibliography of works cited is almost entirely from English-language sources. Translations of letters and vocal texts range from literal to metrical to archaic, depending on the source. Swafford takes us through Mozart’s life year by year, step by step, letter by letter, Köchel number by Köchel number. Not every letter and Köchel number, of course, but an amazing number of places visited, letters sent, and compositions created and analyzed. Also rewarding is Swafford’s descriptions of changes Mozart made in his manuscripts, including the significance of Mozart using different colored inks, providing intriguing glimpses of the compositional process.

The biographical material is excellent, as is Swafford’s summary of musical forms at the end. His frequent and extensive descriptions of the works he considers most significant resemble CD liner essays or notes in a concert program. In this context, they’re generally edifying, but inconsistent in length, depth, and accuracy, at times distracting for interrupting the flow of his narrative. And his imagined soliloquies (by Leopold Mozart and others) at various junctures in the text are irrelevant and inane.

Swafford seems to be more conversant with Mozart’s symphonic and instrumental works than with the operas. His descriptions of the chamber music, especially, are on the mark and often inciteful, although anyone unfamiliar with a particular work would have to go to a score or recording to make what he writes fully meaningful.

The opera analyses are more dubious. In his lengthy recounting of Don Giovanni, Swafford fails to distinguish the original Prague score from the Vienna revisions or from the mélange that has become the traditional performing version. He dismisses the early stage work Il re pastore as “a workaday affair,” without noting that the exquisite aria “L’amerò, sarò costante” became a very popular concert piece, for soprano with violin obligato — often with a bravura chromatic cadenza composed after Mozart’s time. (Check out Elisabeth Schwarzkopf on YouTube for a touchstone rendition.) A few pages later, Swafford credits another aria from Il re pastore,Aer tranquillo e dì sereni,” for providing material in the G major Violin Concerto — referring to the piece incorrectly, however, as a “symphony.”

There are numerous factual errors, which should have been ferreted out in the editing process. Just a few examples: Belmonte’s third-act aria in Die Entführung aus dem Serail is not preceded by a recitative. Der Schauspieldirektor does not contain four arias; it contains two arias and two ensembles. Sesto’s aria in La clemenza di Tito is not “a duet of tenor and clarinet”; the role was composed for castrato (Domenico Bedini), and is almost always sung today by a female mezzo-soprano.

Jan Swafford (Photo by Carolee Asia)

Swafford’s narrative is best when evoking the day-to-day aspects of Mozart’s life. When Leopold Mozart takes his six-year-old son Wolfgang (and older daughter Nannerl) on a concert tour, the author makes us feel every bump in the primitive carriage and taste every rotted meal and smell the malodorous air inside the ill-kept inns. He doesn’t spare the reader the ghastly sanitary conditions, nor the barbarous medical practices of the time. He paints a picture of Leopold as a failed composer whose hopes for the future are in the talents of his children: an emotionally abusive father who neglects his wife, uses his talented daughter as a quasi-servant, and hides the money they bring in from their concerts, never letting on that he has a stash saved up for his old age. The description of Mozart’s last days is graphic and harrowing. Swafford asserts that “a major factor in what killed Mozart was his doctors,” and posits a recurrence of childhood rheumatic fever as his final illness.

There’s a lengthy digression regarding Holy Roman Emperor and Archduke of Austria Joseph II, Mozart’s patron through the 1780s — the years of the Da Ponte operas — and an important figure of the Enlightenment. As a result of a disastrous war, Joseph’s progressive dicta were largely rescinded after his early death by his successor (and brother), Leopold II. In the wake of the French Revolution, the country slipped into what became essentially a police state. Not all the space Swafford allots to Joseph II is entirely germane, but the inference is there that the historical facts bear ominous implications for us today.

At the time of his death, Mozart was better off financially than at any other time in his life. He was about to be offered generous yearly stipends from two individual noblemen, as well as a permanent Kapellmeister position.

“Mozart was dying,” Swafford maintains, “at the very moment when the world began to pay him his worth.”

Robert Croan is a Senior Editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, having retired after 35 years as the paper’s classical music critic. He was Professor and Chair of Voice and Opera at Duquesne University’s School of Music until his retirement in 2000, subsequently teaching at the University of Pittsburgh’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. He was President of the Music Critics Association of North America 1999-2003 as well as chairman of the organization’s educational activities.  

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