My apologies, first of all, for the hyperbolic headline, another eyesore in an age of click-bait headlines. I hope to escape total damnation* by having resisted to add that intelligence-insulting trope of a sub-header: “You won’t believe the mistake on page 8!” As every hyperbole, it’s nonsensical, on top of aesthetically displeasing: I have not read every Mozart biography there is, nor can I look into the future. It is perfectly possible that there has been or will be a worse Mozart biography; my faith in the limitlessness of human ingenuity (or whatever the antonym of ingenuity is) is considerable. In my defense, however, it is not very probable that there is a worse Mozart biography, past or future, that will take the cake from (Forbes contributor) Paul Johnson. In any case, can I make up for it by offering a more reasoned, tempered headline now? Perhaps:
“Paul Johnson’s ‘Mozart – A Life’: A Review”?
Incidentally you actually won’t believe the howler on page 8, but if I mentioned it now, you might be tempted to assume that I gleefully found one major error in Johnson’s biography and then hung a whole damnation on it. I would loathe for that impression to take hold. So let me proceed more methodically. Firstly by acknowledging my indebtedness too – indeed co-authorship of – George A. Pieler, who wrote this book review with me when we initially hoped to publish it in our co-written column, when the biography came out.
To accompany this review, there is a discography with comment on ionarts and a corresponding playlist on Spotify: Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Discography | Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Spotify Playlist
In my graduate school, Paul Johnson – the author of “Modern Times” was revered and much quoted. (Tells you something about the school, but that’s not the point.) I was by and large on board with the admiration, but even then the ad hominem attacks against Bertrand Russell, which struck me beneath Johnson to make, raised some warning flags. Now the distinguished commentator, historian, and critic has written “Mozart – A Life”, a slender and personal primer on Mozart if not a biography per se. Johnson, who has lately specialized in short primers on famous figures, styles this is as a new look, giving Mozart’s religion, marriage and career successes their due place.
After two-and-a-half centuries’ worth of biographies, commentaries, and conjecture, it would be bold to claim to present a new view of the composer. Johnson doesn’t, but he has interesting thoughts on Mozart the musician and shares a wealth of personal reactions to his music and life. He wields a seasoned pen and knows how to tell a tale. Unfortunately there are so many problems, factual and analytic, with this work that it is of questionable use for the Mozart neophyte and an exasperating affair for experienced Mozarteans.
Exasperating, because the light entertainment is interwoven with unwarranted hyperbole, tiring laundry lists of works, strange and unsubstantiated biases, wild speculations, and uncritical adoration of the subject. Several statements are plain wrong, others dubious or