“How did Mozart make that up?” The speaker is a character in Jim Harrison’s novella The Beast God Forgot to Invent. He is asking the question about Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. It is a question the world began trying to answer as soon as the world became aware that a creature such as Mozart existed. Wolfgang Amadè Mozart was born in Salzburg on January 27, 1756. He was barely six when his fathered exhibited him in a three-week tour to Munich. There had been prodigies before, but this child was something special. As he grew—genius triumphing over precociousness, to quote one of his biographers, Peter Gay—he aroused suspicions, and by the time he was eight the doubters began putting him to the test, asking him to sight-read unpublished scores and play horrendously difficult fugues. “Wolfgang played and carried through as one eats a piece of bread,” his father reported in a letter to his wife.
For music lovers, Mozart’s story is part of the collective unconsciousness. We all know about the prodigy who grew up to push musical genres to a perfection never before imagined, the genius who loved to play pool and talk dirty, the brightest light of music finding himself increasingly out of vogue and increasingly desperate for cash. The death, at 35, on December 5, 1791. The burial in an unmarked grave. For those who do not have to die young themselves, there’s an undeniable taste of macabre Romanticism here, and in our broader wisdom we like to feel superior to earlier generations who might have neglected obvious genius.
We know today that, even when Mozart believed himself strapped for funds, his earnings were still respectable by the standards of his time (his spending habits were as extravagant as his music), and it is unlikely that poverty contributed to his death. He may have worked too hard—he seems from his earliest years always to have driven himself, and it’s easy to read something Romantic into this as well: Sensing somehow that his time on earth would be limited, he had to write down all he could. That, too, is farfetched. Mozart didn’t manage his money well, it’s true; but he was a practical sort. He believed his talents were God-given and he knew his worth, but whether he saw himself as a Tormented Artist in the way Byron and Beethoven and Wagner would come to view themselves is another question, and the answer to that one is no.
Just as his father tried to capitalize on his son’s genius, parading the little prodigy around Europe, we today take his name in vain. We have heard, for example, of the Mozart Effect. Some scientific studies have shown that, for a few minutes after listening to Mozart, the brain works a little better. Other studies have shown nothing. Still others have led to speculations that, rather than rearrange brain cells into optimal patterns, Mozart’s music offers “enjoyment arousal”—it’s beautiful and lifts our spirits, so we perform our tasks better. Still, Music for the Mozart Effect and Build Your Baby’s Brain are best-selling CDs, and in 1998 Don Campbell’s book The Mozart Effect for Children prompted Georgia’s then-Governor, Zell Miller, to introduce funding that ensured a free recording of classical music for parents of all newborns in his state. Mozart would have loved that—especially the endorsement from a politician—but he would have asked for royalties.
Mozart’s music is not guaranteed to make you smarter, not even for a little while. What it will do is make you happier and give you more to think about as you consider the strange beauty of the world and your place in it. That’s why we keep coming back to Mozart. It is not just for his amazing craft or elegance. It is because he allows us such a penetrating look into the heart.
Mozart’s music has been the favorite of concert audiences for 200 years. For an understanding of what makes men and women work, he has no equal among composers. At one point he was thought of as a creator of music somewhat fragile and precious. True, his patrons tended to come from the top of the rigidly stratified society into which he was born, and we still sometimes think of him as a face on a piece of marzipan. Yet he was one of the very greatest artists, one of those who compels his audience to see in new ways. He changed the world. For beneath the elegantly polished surfaces of his beautifully etched music lies an encompassing comprehension of what it means to be human. No one before him had penetrated so deeply into the heart. No one since has understood so completely how to capture the elusive balance of seriousness and joy, the subtle mixture of sunlight and shadow that is the essence of life. Mozart did all that. And he continues to show us just how much music can say and do. To quote Peter Gay once again, no metaphors and no words are equal to the experience of actually listening to Mozart.
Mozart, by Peter Gay This short biography, part of the Penguin Lives series, is an elegantly written introduction and overview by one of our most distinguished historians. (Lipper/Viking)
The New Grove Mozart, by Stanley Sadie Another good starting place. (Norton)
Mozart: A Life, by Maynard Solomon Provocative, moving, important. (Harper)
The Mozart Compendium, by H.C. Robbins Landon Interesting collection of information and opinion on a wide range of subjects. (Schirmer).
The Compleat Mozart, edited by Neal Zaslaw and William Cowdery Program notes on every single work by Mozart. (Norton)
Mozart: The Golden Years and 1791: Mozart's Last Year, by H.C. Robbins Landon Loving and perceptive accounts of Mozart’s Viennese years. (both Schirmer)
Mozart in Vienna, by Volkmar Braunbehrens Fresh look at the last decade of Mozart's life.
The Mozart Myths, by William Stafford Valuable attempt to sort out persistent questions about the composer. (Stanford)