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The Worst Mozart Biography Ever. Paul Johnson: «Mozart -- A Life»

My apologies, first of all, for the hyperbolic headline, another eyesore in an age of click-bait headlines. I hope to escape total damnation[1]* 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[2], 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
misleading. Comprehensive fact-checking is made more difficult by the lack of any notes, or specific references. The index is limited to some (not all) names and topics referred to in the text, omitting compositions.

«Paul Johnson: Mozart – A Life» A Review Paul Johnson: «Mozart – A Life» A Review

That which is sold as novel in “Mozart – A Life” is chiefly the author’s informed opinion after reading some of the best-known literature on the subject, as identified in “Suggestions for further reading” at the end of the book. One of these, H.C. Robbins-Landon’s Mozart Compendium, provides a particularly similar account of Mozart’s finances, and marriage to what Paul Johnson presents.[3]

In brief, Johnson says that Mozart’s work was inspired by his Roman Catholic faith (true up to a point, but Johnson goes well beyond what the evidence supports); that Mozart’s marriage was strong and important to his life and career (fair enough), that his wife Constanze had been wrongly maligned as a bad housekeeper (thereby overstating the importance of the anti-Constanze view only to take it down), and that Mozart shouldn’t be thought of as a writer of begging-letters. The latter because the composer was merely a typical 18th century free-lancer, bridging monetary gaps that would invariably incur: Mozart was rich, he spent money, and after all, a composer of his repute had to live up to a certain standard.

This view of Mozart’s finances is plausible, but we certainly have ample evidence of his pleading for loans (and eventually paying them back).[4] We also know that Mozart liked to live well whether his income supported it or not, that his father Leopold always told him to be more financially frugal. We also know that his contemporary colleague Joseph Haydn knew how to work on a barter arrangement (goods for services) when cash was tight.

It’s not clear why Johnson is quite so concerned that the letters requesting money might leave a stain on the composer’s reputation and character. But he certainly is, and after hinting at how finance and financing worked in those times (insufficient supplies of money and credit required everyone borrow some time) he abandons this tangential but truly intriguing track for categorical statements: “On a careful analysis [to which the readers are sadly not privy], I reject the idea that Mozart can be accurately termed a begging-letter writer.” Indeed: “There is no point of connection between creative work and money problems, which indicates to me that Mozart felt no guilt about borrowing money because he knew that his work was earning it fully and that sooner or later his debts would be paid down to the last penny, as they were. That, I think, is the last word that needs to be said of Mozart as a writer of begging letters.” Well, there you have it.

Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Discography | Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Spotify Playlist

Paul Johnson: Mozart – «A Life» A Review

A Funny Bone to Pick

Paul Johnson starts frustrating the reader of his Mozart-narrative early on when, six pages (of just 138 net pages, excluding the Appendix written by his son Daniel) in, he hits upon the topic of humor in music. Mozart would indeed make a splendid case study for this, given his wildly diverse sense of musical humor, from blush-worthy crude to utmost sophistication. Johnson whets our appetite, hinting at Mozart’s special ability in this department and how he learned it from his father Leopold. Then he claims bewilderingly that this is a specifically Bavarian specialty. In doing so, he links Mozart – who always lived in (then) independent Salzburg or Austria – and his father, who left Bavaria at age 18 – to “Mozart’s alter ego, the Bavarian joker Richard Strauss”. Perhaps more damning and telling of things to come, Johnson backs this up by suggesting that jokes “like Papageno’s in The Magic Flute” are as easy to get as those in “Strauss’s last ten bars of Die Fledermaus”. If you haven’t cringed already: Die Fledermaus was written by (Viennese) Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899), not Richard Strauss (1864-1949).

Having made the assertion, the author never explains or elaborates the point beyond the ill-conceived Papageno-Fledermaus link. That’s dissatisfying for the curious reader and it looks a little as if Johnson was merely repeating something he assumed true but didn’t quite know himself. On the subject of humor, he never mentions the quintessential musical humorist, Hungaro-Austrian Joseph Haydn.

Much of the Mozart family humor appears in letters of Mama Mozart who hailed from the Salzburg region, but never in Bavarian-born Papa Leopold’s. Johnson notes this, but here distinguishes music-humor and word-humor. Yet a paragraph later the two are mixed together again: Writing about Mozart’s penchant for wordplay (“Mozart played with words in exactly the same way as he improvised on the clavier treating words as though they were notes”) Johnson quotes from Wolfgang’s letters, presumably in support of this interesting thesis: “Thus (November 5, 1777) ‘Dearest Coz Fuzz!... Today the letter setter from My Papa Ha! Ha! dropped safely into my claws paws. I hope that you too have got shot the note dote which I wrote,’ and so on.”

Quoting this clunky and out-of-context translation from Mozart’s sui-generis “Bäsle letters” to his “did-they-or-didn’t-they?” cousin Marianne (admittedly it’s not much more clever in German) without discussing its deliberate silliness is unhelpful. Not telling us how this supposedly relates to Mozart’s clavier improvisations, is downright cruel.

On the other hand, Johnson purports to join his readers in mock- (or earnest?) surprise and shock at the scatological nature of some of the Mozart family’s communiqués. Yet he never puts the scat-talk into proper historic and cultural perspective (how earthy crudeness was common then; how digestion played a hugely important and much discussed role in health etc.) nor does he point out the same rude approach to language and humor found in many Mozart songs and rounds. As little as a reference to Mozart’s Canon for 4 Voices in F major, K.560 would have been helpful.[5]

Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Discography | Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Spotify Playlist

Making it Personal

When Paul Johnson needs to fill a chapter with some historical context, he often diverts onto ground he has covered elsewhere and territory with which he feels familiar. One such far-fetched digression suggests a pattern in the rise of personalities in the world of the 18th century as exemplified by Washington and Napoleon:

“When George Washington distinguished himself in colonial service during the Seven Year’s War, when Mozart was an infant, he aspired to rise in the British regular Army or its Indian offshoot. But he had no interest at the Horse Guards or the East India Company in London. So he went on to become a revolutionary leader, and the first president of the United States. When Napoléon was a young teenager in Corsica, he greatly admired the Royal Navy ships… but he had no influence in the London Admirality, and so […he] went on to become emperor of France and conquer half of Europe. Thus history is made”

This suggests that achievement often comes from frustration with the usual course of career progress, a commonplace not limited to Mozart’s time. And what does it prove? If people did not transcend their social and cultural limitations, they would hardly end up as the extraordinary figures that Johnson likes writing books about. In any case, this digression yields less cultural insight than convenient self-promotion. The only thing missing is a helpful footnote reading: Customers who like this factoid will love Paul Johnson’s “George Washington: The Founding Father” and “Napoleon: A Penguin Life”.

Strewn in here and there, are also some remarks that set the breezy conversational fireside-chat tone of “Mozart: A Life”. Somewhere between charming and out of place, Johnson relates that “the Mozarts put up in Cecil Court, near Leicester Square, in a house that, though altered, is still there, opposite a shop selling musical books.” This store opposite the house where Mozart lived no longer stands and happens to be the shop where Johnson bought his three-volume copy of the Mozart family correspondence.

Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Discography | Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Spotify Playlist

Taking it Personal

Paul Johnson tends to take it personally when he encounters evidence Mozart was not universally loved. And he is at his angriest writing about Salzburg’s Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo. Colloredo did not, Johnson insists, appreciate and treat Mozart in accordance to how the young genius deserved to be treated. This unleashes Johnson’s wrath.[6] We’re invited to share in that feeling when Johnson tells us that“[Mozart] found the man ungracious. For [Colloredo’s] installation he wrote a special Trinity Mass of 863 bars. This is, to be sure, rather on the long side – Mozart did not then know of his predilection for brevity – but the hostility with which His Grace received it was uncalled for… Mozart never had any false pride about writing to order (within reason) or even rewriting to order if asked nicely. But Colloredo was peremptory and ill mannered.”

Apart from this rather simplistic appeal to our emotions, and the ridiculous suggestion that a ruler might get a job more suitably done by his employee if only he “asked nicely”, we are never told exactly how Hieronymus von Colloredo displayed hostility toward Mozart’s Missa in honorem Sanctissimae Trinitatis, K.167 (a Missa brevis et solemnis). But it wouldn’t have been the length, presumably, that incensed Colloredo. Eight hundred and sixty-three bars or not, it conformed to Colloredo’s “under 45 minutes” directive Mozart reported (in correspondence to Padre Martini) as regarded Masses. This raises a few questions. Notes would help find out how Johnson knows this was specifically written for Colloredo’s installation, which took place in March of 1772… whereas K.167 reportedly received its first performance on June 6th, 1773 – and in the Trinity Church (right across from where the Mozarts would move to three months later), rather than being intended for use in the Salzburg Cathedral.[7]

Elsewhere Johnson refers to Mozart’s K. 126, the drama/opera Il sogno di Scipione as written for Colloredo’s “enthronement” and calls it (in quotes from an unnamed source) “the dullest thing he ever wrote”. There he suggests an emotional link in Mozart writing his only bad work (it’s not the only one and probably not even the dullest) for the man he allegedly so despised. Scholarly consensus is in any case that the piece was written for Colloredo’s predecessor and re-dedicated to Colloredo in (most likely) vain hope of a performance. Later Johnson calls K. 126 an “installation piece”, the same term he uses for the Trinity Mass.[8]

Johnson gives Colloredo no quarter: “Colloredo was… domineering and surrounded himself with subordinates who copied him… [Mozart] may have felt that fundamentally the archbishop disliked music. He played the violin, but badly, and it seems odd that he did not turn to Leopold, the world authority on the violin and its teaching, or Mozart himself, a most accomplished performer, for help.”

Perhaps the outrage of Colloredo not going to the Mozarts’ for music lessons is ameliorated a little, when one considers that the man also busied himself with reforming the principality’s tax system, balancing the budget, introducing the vernacular into the church service, hiring composers, painters, engineers, doctors, pedagogues, and writers and altogether turning Salzburg into a hub of science and the arts. By all accounts, he was extremely fond of music.[9]

Paul Johnson tops himself in the next chapter, proclaiming that “[my] own surmise is that he [Colloredo] viewed Mozart’s gifts with hostility, unbecoming a subordinate, tending to put Mozart beyond his control. He was a petty princeling, not a grand one, and a genius was more than he could handle.” “Mozart seems to have sensed that Archbishop Colloredo was antimusic from the start. He was extraordinarily intuitive about people who were aurally insensitive, having perfect pitch himself and being able to detect and remember tiny differences of pitch.”

One trusts that as a Roman Catholic Paul Johnson didn’t let Colloredo’s association with the Illuminati or his sympathizing with the Febronian movement and Jansenism (an anti-Jesuitical reformed Catholicism that favored localized church powers over the Pope’s Rome) influence his picture of the man. Summing up, Johnson quotes the mistranslated (or misquotes the correctly translated) letter about Mozart ‘caring very little for Salzburg and not at all for the Archbishop and “that I shit on both of them…”. In this instance Mozart, although liberal with all variants of “shit” in his letters, writes that “he doesn’t give a crap about either”… a decidedly more casual statement, then as now.

Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Discography | Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Spotify Playlist

«Paul Johnson: Mozart – A Life» A Review Paul Johnson: «Mozart – A Life» A Review

Fawning before the Genius

Paul Johnson admires, worships Mozart. He is very easily impressed with even comparatively simple achievements of Mozart. He won’t tolerate a bad word about him, and anyone who stood in Mozart’s way gets thwacked by Johnson. Mozart, Johnson tells us: “seems to have had a strong propensity to learn subjects with complex and difficult rules. Hence his early and marked capacity to learn how to read music. It is likely he learned how to read notes before he learned word reading.” This might sound impressive to the layperson who doesn’t read music, but reading notes is literally child’s play, assuming one gets started early. Mozart was surely a genius, but this feat isn’t the proof. Nor does the knack for “sight reading [a] piece he had never seen before” make him stand out among talented musicians. And there is this giddy hyperbole: “No composer of note, in the whole of musical history, I think, was sufficiently versatile and self-confident to play three different instruments to concert standard.”

Johnson is amazed, too, that for his Sinfonia Concertante Mozart “used the key of E-flat… The key gives the viola greater volume and much more brilliant tone… Only an expert player, like Mozart, would have known this. Thanks to Mozart’s cunning, based on sheer knowledge… the two instruments become true equals for the first time in musical history.” Actually, anyone who had studied the instrument would have known this. Joseph Martin Kraus, the “Swedish Mozart” did. So did Joseph Schubert, or Alessandro Rolla – to name only two exact Mozart contemporaries who composed concertos for the viola in E-flat. They still would not have written the Sinfonia Concertante, which is unique to Mozart’s genius… but they would have written it in E-flat alright. For all the reasons to be impressed by Mozart, Johnson has a tendency to choose the most mundane and trivial.

On the topic of the Mozart Requiem he is quick to wave aside any criticism of Mozart-student Franz Xaver Süssmayr who had a very considerable hand in finishing it after Mozart’s death: “As Mozart had discussed the Requiem with Süssmayr throughout its period of gestation, and as he was in any case thoroughly familiar with Mozart’s method of work, we may be confident that the Requiem as we have it is to all intents Mozart’s work.” But we may not be confident. There’s a whole school of Requiemology, which is a symptom, albeit not proof, that there are plenty and good reasons to doubt that Süssmayr particularly excelled at what he was doing. And that doubt has a very long and reputable tradition… including the Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein (also one of his better biographers). Mozart himself, in his letters, rather poked fun at Süssmayer in a way that left doubt as to his skills. “The supposed clumsiness, awkwardness and technically imperfect qualities of [Süssmayr’s] orchestration have assumed near-axiomatic status in the secondary literature…” writes Simon P. Keefe in Mozart's Requiem: Reception, Work, Completion. The point is not that there is no case for Süssmayr, which remains for better or worse the standard performance version, but that Johnson denies there is legitimate controversy to begin with.

Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Discography | Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Spotify Playlist

On Moral Character and Normal Women

Mozart’s character appears as good as flawless to Johnson: Mozart “was through his life physically attractive to both men and women. He had charm… He was certainly little. But he exuded a fierce whiff of masculinity, at times of sexuality. He was flirtatious, which does not mean he was promiscuous.” “Mozart was in debt for most of the last two decades of his life, but that does not mean that his total liabilities exceeded his assets. I do not believe that they ever did.” “He probably gambled a bit on the game [of Billiards] too. But not much. The life patterns of habitual gamblers are easily identified, and Mozart never exhibited them.”

Johnson speculates and counter-speculates about what a good father Leopold was, and concludes that since Leopold “sacrificed his own promising career as a performer and composer entirely in order to promote his son’s and who behaved in many ways with heroic unselfishness”, he was therefore an “admirable father”. Certainly Leopold believed his son had a divine spark of genius; equally clearly he was a classic stage father who knew the commercial and patronage value, not just the spiritual value, of his son’s genius. Johnson notwithstanding, it remains questionable whether living vicariously through one’s children is particularly significant in judging the quality of parenting.[10]

Likewise Constanze and Mozart’s marriage is defended against all possible criticism: “I believe her marriage was fundamentally happy, and it is hard to conceive how any normal woman could have been unhappy with Mozart.” If this statement doesn’t baffle, nothing will. Surely Mozart – whom we never knew personally – being a revered genius today, is a poor determinant as to whether women in general “could have been unhappy” with him. And what exactly is a “normal woman”, either then or now?

Johnson proceeds to excoriate the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians for outrageously slandering Constanze and Wolfgang alike by suggesting that he, Mozart, might have been the problem and that Constanze wasn’t a prudent and neat woman until after his demise. Not so, Johnson says: “The truth, as far as I can judge, is that Constanze was always a good wife and mother, ran the household well, but was out of action a large part of the time, either pregnant or nursing or in Baden in desperate attempts to regain her health and strength. Nor was Mozart a bad husband… If he had had a major affair, we would certainly know about it”, Johnson reasons. Two pages later, however, Johnson attributes to Mozart a love of secrecy and reticence, “which formed an important part of his psychology.”

There is indeed no hard evidence against Constanze, and plenty that she was a savvy wife and mother after Mozart’s death, which doesn’t prove she was or wasn’t before. At least in this instance Johnson gives us his reasoning, rather than just expecting the reader to trust his conclusions after plainly stating that those are his beliefs. It would be ever so much nicer to be privy to how he came to form all his other convictions.

Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Discography | Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Spotify Playlist

Paul Johnson: «Mozart – A Life» A Review Paul Johnson: Mozart – «A Life» A Review

Errors and Hyperbole

When the book isn’t presenting selective evidence, “Mozart: A Life” is plagued with countless little errors or oversights which may betray someone fairly well acquainted, but not intimately familiar with the subject matter. The mix of trivia, conventional wisdom, mistakes, and exaggeration sadly pops up repeatedly throughout the entire book and betrays sloppy research and worse editing. Here are some of our favorites:

“The bassoon, like the oboe, uses a double reed made of bamboo.” Reeds have been and continue to be made out of giant cane, which – much unlike bamboo – is native to Continental Europe.

The bassoon in German it is not “fagot” but “Fagott”, and one is hard pressed to think that anyone but modern (post-1914) English speakers would find humor in the instrument based on that spelling of the name and the insinuated pejorative allusion.

The early piano concertos of Mozart’s, K.107, were not based “on sonatas by J.S.Bach” but sonatas by Johann Christian Bach.

The “so-called Kegelstaff trio of works” – Johnson lobs into this ‘trio’ the Clarinet Trio with that moniker, the Clarinet Concerto, and the Clarinet Quintet – I have never seen referred to as such, but even if they were thus known, or if the connection were logical (it isn’t; even the nickname for the Trio was misapplied to begin with), it would still be Kegelstatt.

“Valve trombones were not available in Mozart’s day”. That’s true, but it’s irrelevant: They’re rare even today; the standard sliding Trombone hasn’t changed fundamentally between then and today. Presumably he means valve trumpets?

Timpani “are the only percussion instrument that can produce notes of definite pitch and so can become part of the orchestral harmonies.” That’s horribly wrong; the vast majority of percussion instruments, short of rainsticks and tamtams, produce a definite pitch. And even most drums, which might be what Johnson is thinking of, have a definite pitch, except for snare and bass drums. There is more on timpanists, though: “The belief that they ‘whisper to their drumskins’ is superstition. They are in fact testing harmonics by humming various tones.” After blushing at the convoluted muddle this is, a timpanist acquaintance who plays in one of the best, certainly greatest-sounding European orchestras, helped me in setting this straight:
“On the whispering thing he’s actually not entirely wrong, apart from his usage of “superstition” and the fact that we are not “testing harmonics” pe se, but using them to ensure the right pitch. Sympathetic resonance works wonderfully with timpani: if you hum a perfect fifth above into it, it hums back at you very resonantly. So if you want a G, hum the D above into it, keep moving the pedal and it’ll hit you when you’re on the G. The problem, though, is that most of us find that in the middle of a performance, really can’t hear ourselves hum, and even if we feel we’re humming perfectly in tune, we’re actually not – at least not perfectly enough. And so it’s very rarely done. Most players, therefore, use their fingers most of the time. Tapping the skin is also rarely done, however, since one generally can’t do it loud enough to really get the instrument going: what one hears is extremely thin and tinny – difficult to hear the pitch precisely. What most players do is flick the skin. There’s less impact noise and you get pretty much the whole skin moving properly, producing a much more fundamental tone. And that’s what is to that.”
But on with more obvious mistakes: Handel did not die “five years before Mozart was born”, but three years after. Handel died in 1759, Mozart was born in 1756.

Mozart’s various illnesses throughout life were not necessarily all associated with the kidneys; they include smallpox and mostly are recorded as fevers, throat infections, ‘rheumatic fever’ and so on.

According to family letters, the Miserere by Gregorio Allegri was heard and then written down entirely from memory by the fourteen-year old Mozart. But this, if true, took place at the Sistine Chapel in Rome, not Milan as Johnson claims.[11]

Mozart’s first child, Raimund Leopold, was not born on June 17, 1782 – which would be two months before Mozart and Constanze married. While that’s possible, of course, the year was 1783.

Mozart did not specifically compose a Mass – the “Great Mass in C minor, K.427 – to celebrate his wedding with Constanze (which was really the Viennese equivalent of a shotgun wedding as Johnson omits to mention). Perhaps he intended it as a votive offering. Pace Paul Johnson, we don’t know. He did, admittedly, write that he had promised himself that if he introduced Constanze as his bride in Salzburg, he would get a newly composed Mass performed there. If he did, it was presumably on October 25th but on October 26th; moreover there is no documentation to prove that it actually happened. If these are relatively minor mistakes or points of contention, Johnson also claims that “Mozart finally finished [the Mass] in May 1783.” The Great Mass, alas, remains unfinished (part of the Credo and the whole Agnus Dei were never composed). Not as famously so as the Requiem, but still very much unfinished. The 10-line paragraph is exemplary, though, in containing a string of sloppy statements, assumptions dressed as fact, all graced with a point-blank error.

Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Discography | Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Spotify Playlist

Opinionisms and Curiosities

Aside from multiple factual errors, “Mozart: A Life” is laden with subjective judgments masquerading as (someone else’s) expert opinion. Some of these are just sweeping exaggerations, other are so vaguely put that no one could prove (or argue) the proposition. Some are both, usually modified with the maddening meaningless-makers “probably” or “perhaps”.

“Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest organist in the world…” “Arthur Schnabel, who probably played Mozart better than anyone…”, “Beethoven’s [violin concerto] is perhaps his most perfect work”, “Sibelius, whose own Violin Concerto is… perhaps the most delightful of his major works…”, “Mozart… exhibits perhaps his most persistent gift [in writing for violin and piano]. They show Mozart at his best.” (If we had to argue for ‘Mozart’s best’ for any genre, outside of opera, we’d suggest the Viola Quintets, for whatever that’s worth. Johnson, who puts special emphasis on Mozart’s viola writing, oddly mentions these sublime works only in passing.) Haydn’s “spectacular Trumpet Concerto [is] perhaps the liveliest thing he ever wrote.”

Apart from elevating Schnabel to the probably greatest Mozartean ever, he proceeds to misquote the man:
“Schnabel… said of [Mozart’s] sonatas that ‘they are too easy for children and too difficult for artists.’ He put it another way: ‘Children are given Mozart because of the small quantity of the notes. Grown-ups avoid Mozart because of the great quantity of the notes.’ Again: ‘It is not the notes, it is the pauses that raise the problem.’”
If this sounds confusing, it does less confusing in the actual original quote: “Children are given Mozart because of the small quantity of the notes. Grown-ups avoid [certain] Mozart because of the great quality of the notes.”

The nonsense reaches ludicrous heights when Johnson claims that “by the time Beethoven came to write his Sixth Symphony, his oboes… were fully chromatic without recourse to fork fingering. This is one reason why his later symphonies are so much better.” Surely no writer on music has more pithily dismissed Beethoven’s Third (“Eroica”) and Fifth Symphonies. And has anyone seriously claimed that Symphonies Six through Nine are “so much better” than the preceding ones?

Later in the book, Johnson writes “Tovey compares [the Haffner, Linz, and Prague Symphonies] to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony in the development of his style, and I can see what he means, for some people think Beethoven’s Fourth his best…” Obviously not the same “some people” who think the later symphonies “are so much better”.

“[Mozart] loved, all his life… to improvise. This is why we can never experience the true and full Mozart completely. When he was alive, his cadenzas were always wholly or in part improvised. Those he wrote down were never his best work.” This is another perplexing statement. If they were improvised – i.e. never written down – how can we possibly know they were better than those he jotted down? Did Mozart, blessed with such a remarkable musical memory, forget his own best cadenzas and resign himself to notating ‘good-enough’ bits and pieces? There are ear-witness accounts, which can’t be verified, but that the written out cadenzas were “never his best work” is a ridiculous assertion.

“But many would vote his Clarinet Concerto his finest work”... “[and it is] the best thing he ever did, in my opinion”. Now we have declared, either by hypothetical vote or probability or opinion, at least four works as Mozart’s best: the Sinfonia Concertante, the Clarinet Concerto, The Marriage of Figaro, and Eine kleine Nachtmusik. They are all great, obviously, but this perceived need to constantly declare something ‘the greatest’ and ‘the best’ might do in a hyperbole-laced article, but in a book it soon becomes noxious.

Johnson muses idly about K.239 Serenata notturna – the only work he can think of in Mozart’s oeuvre that has a double-bass solo – and how he should like to know what it might sound like. “But how often is it played?” There are forty, maybe fifty different recordings of this work available that could provide the answer. We are happy to recommend one or three that pack a punch: Jordi Savall (on Alia Vox) for example, the Ensemble 415 (on Zig-Zag), or Sándor Vegh (on Capriccio) with Mozart’s hometown Salzburg Camerata.

“There is no other work [than Piano Concerto K.488] that shows the difference between a recording (however good) and a live performance (even with a small orchestra) more sharply.” Apart from the size of the orchestra probably not being a particularly relevant factor for the quality of a live performance, this claim is absurdly random. If anything, Mozart – anything by Mozart – is very well suited to communicate through recordings (for all their inherent limitations). For composers and works where the gap between live and recorded is truly gaping, try Charles Ives or Karl Amadeus Hartmann! Unfortunately Johnson has plenty more enervating blanket statements that help no one’s appreciation of Mozart.

Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Discography | Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Spotify Playlist

Instrumental Semi-Facts

The errors and overstatements are a special problem in the chapter Johnson devotes to the particulars of instruments and Mozart’s relation with them. Many claims are simply a little odd to make. Left unsubstantiated they become absurd. The clarinet, a very lovely instrument for sure, becomes the “most versatile, protean, and useful of wind instruments”… which raises only a mild eye-brow, except from oboists. A more daring claim, about Mozart’s famous colleague, is that “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony would have been a much more subtle work if he had taken more trouble over his timps.” (Still “so much better” than symphonies One through Five, though.)

“Mozart’s Oboe Concerto K.271 is not deemed by modern scholars as ‘lost’ but as per the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe presumed identical with the Oboe Concerto K.314 which Johnson calls a concerto “for flute and oboe”. He is confused and/or means that there are two versions (which is true because there exists of it a version Mozart retooled for Flute), but this sounds like a double-concerto companion to the flute and harp concerto and the Sinfonia Concertante, which it is not. Nor did K.314 “survive… in the oboe version.” It survived in both versions, of which the oboe version was considered lost until 1948. “K.271” meanwhile is firmly associated with the “Jeunehomme” Piano Concerto No.9. When “271” is used at all for the Oboe Concerto, as the sixth Koechel-edition does, it’s “K.271k” to avoid confusion.

Speaking of flute concertos:  “The two flute concertos, K.313 and 315 in G and C, survive, and give the lie to the tradition that Mozart disliked the flute. This probably arose because flautists are notoriously disobedient and introduce their own ideas and scoring without consulting the composer, a form of cheek intolerable to a musician as meticulous in his scoring as Mozart.”

Flutist (to observe the profession’s authentic etymology and preferred reference) Marina Piccinini is clever enough to dodge the latter accusation, “on the grounds that it might incriminate me...” though adding with a form of self-effacing cheek: “the irresponsible ones are fun and flashy, the serious ones are a bore and have a lousy sound. Both are annoying”. To debunk the flute-myth she suggests to “look at the correspondence between Mozart and his father”, not at the alleged reputation of disobedient flutists. “It's all right there. In Mannheim, Mozart was commissioned to write six quartets and four concerti – but at the same time, he was for the first time away from his father and that domineering influence, plus he was in love with Aloysia Weber… When he only got paid 96 Gulden instead of 200 because he only completed half the amount of pieces (four Quartets and two Concerti, one of which is by the way K.314 in D, not the 315 in C[12]) his father was nevertheless furious, and the ensuing correspondence shows Mozart attempting to weasel his way out of the difficulty. Among other excuses his cites his dislike of the instrument as one reason for not being able to complete this task. But we know better!” (As would have Aloysia.)

On the subject of the Mozart piano concerti, Paul Johnson makes the interesting claim that “Mozart’s [piano] sonatas have suffered because his piano concertos are obviously more accomplished.” First, it might be argued that Mozart’s Piano Sonatas have not actually suffered in any meaningful sense. The number of recordings is copious and performances abound. What then could this possibly mean? Pianist Andreas Haefliger, who performs the concertos regularly and has recorded several of the sonatas for Sony and Avie, is as puzzled by this statement as we are: “The Mozart piano sonatas stand out in the piano repertoire for making the pianist be tactile magician, conductor, orchestra and dramaturg all at once. An adventure intricately more complex than performing one of the piano concertos. True: this can lead, in the hands of a mediocre performer, to an unsuccessful performance. But blaming this on the pieces would be mediocre itself.” His colleague Tzimon Barto, suspecting a drunken joke when confronted with context-free quote, dismissed the line as not worth a response: “But, as you want a response, I'll just have the great Rumi give you one:
Knowledge has two wings, opinion only one wing;
Opinion is weak and lopsided in flight.
The bird having but one wing quickly drops down,
And again flies on two steps or more.
This bird of opinion goes on rising and falling
On one wing, in hope to reach his nest.”
In any case, if Johnson means ‘better‘, the case would have to be made. But he makes no attempt at it. The concertos are among Mozart’s supreme achievements and they don’t have the status of those of Beethoven (just about the worst you can say about them). But why treat Mozart’s works like batches of hausfrau-baked goods that must compete against each other for the blue ribbon?

And then we get this gem: “The violin is one of the finest inventions in the whole range of art because the beauty of its tone and its sheer attractive power makes it the only instrument to rival the human voice, and its unique agility and brilliance gives it a range of emotions and infinite nuances of expression that no other instrument can match, while its sustained tone never becomes tiresome.”

Violinist David Frühwirt, being read the statement, listened to the first bits with bemused mock-agreement then incredulity from “the only instrument to rival the human voice” onward. Although performing on a fine violin himself, the Ex-Brüstlein 1707 Stradivari, he can’t let the lopsidedness stand: Not the violin, but foremost the clarinet and then the cello are the instruments that most closely approximate the human voice, he objects. The rest is hyperbole that a violinist – though not Frühwirt – might be suckered into agreeing with but it is hardly universally accepted fact. The list here could go on considerably, but it would run the risk of becoming more tedious than the book itself.

Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Discography | Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Spotify Playlist

Johnson on Opera
If you have kept reading, you reach the fourth chapter on Mozart and Opera. In “Mozart’s Operatic Magic” Paul Johnson at last does more than just re-arrange facts assembled from other biographies while adding his passionate consumer’s expertise. It’s a chapter written with genuine feeling and, if not great new insights, at least knowledge and the fewest mistakes per page. When Johnson states that “one of the most endearing things about Mozart is that he saw music and laughter as inseparable… [That] nobody took music more seriously. Nobody got more jokes out of it”, one is delighted. It rings true, and even though it is just a claim, it seems to explain itself.

Paul Johnson gets much right on the ‘big’ operas, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and Die Zauberflöte, though he has grave doubts about the skill and character of Lorenzo da Ponte, librettist for the first three of these. The “Ten Characteristics of a Mature Mozart Opera” may sound more like a headline than a sound musicological thesis, but Johnson makes substantial points about what made Mozart’s operas so special, and what special things opera brought out of Mozart. It seems Johnson does not approve of the Abduction from the Seraglio, though. He mentions it once by name and then insists on calling it derisively and repeatedly to the point of comedy: “the harem opera”. (Incidentally I can’t chide him much for that; I, too, find it the weakest of the mature Mozart operas by some measure.)

Nor is Johnson infallible even in this chapter: “[La clemenza di] Tito had a lukewarm reception in Prague, then a tumultuous one on the final night of the run. Why? We don’t know.” Yes, actually… we do. Or at least we can take an educated guess: At the premiere on September 6, 1791 the wife of Emperor Leopold II – for whose coronation this inspired rush job was stitched together (to a libretto that every second-, third-, and fourth-rate composer had already gone through) – allegedly fell asleep and called it a “porcheria tedesca.” The crowd was invitation-only; a selection of the Must-Attend officialdom of the monarchy. The royal reception, snoring or not, won’t have gone unnoticed, and the level of interest by those in attendance for non-musical reasons can be surmised. Once the show opened to the paying public, it was a smash hit… Much the same still happens today at events to which tickets are handed away or to dignitaries instead of purchased.

In his 5th and final chapter, having made it through most of the book without technical jargon, Johnson suddenly hurls a whole paragraph of it at the unsuspecting reader. Discussing the hallmarks of the classical concerto, he paraphrases Donald Francis Tovey, a favorite of his, at length. He also decides to give a rundown of the concertos and the symphonies – better late than never – and express personal opinions about lots of them.

This is so much a matter of personal taste that you either agree or disagree. Even so, it is strange that an author who so appreciates Mozart’s operas has little to say about how the composer’s growth as composer of musical theater spilled over in his concertos and, to a lesser extent, symphonies. Further, two of Johnson’s observations on specific Mozart symphonies demand response. Symphony No. 29 (K. 201) is not one of the “jokiest, burlesque” of Mozart’s works. Indeed Alfred Einstein regarded it as exceptional, with a finale “the richest and most dramatic Mozart had written up to this time.” Einstein knew what he was talking about and it’s almost as if Johnson mistakes the most remarkable K. 201, with its instantly compelling first movement, for another work. Mozart’s “first ‘dark’ symphony” K. 183, by which Johnson means that it was written in a minor key, showed not “how deeply Mozart, by then twenty-seven, could feel”, in part because Mozart was 17 at the time of composition. Further on Johnson suggests (admitting he is alone in this view) that the last three symphonies expressly embody the Rosary of Roman Catholicism. The notion becomes even stranger when elsewhere, Johnson makes clear that when Mozart wanted to send a message about his religious beliefs, he did so directly.

Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Discography | Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Spotify Playlist

Johnson’s Mozart

Paul Johnson gives us a Mozart whose life was largely sunny and untroubled, bolstered by his faith and family, and disrupted only at times by money troubles and conflicts with those who failed to appreciate his genius. The tensions between Mozart’s Catholicism and his voluntary embrace of Masonic beliefs are understated and the frivolousness of Wolfgang’s lifestyle is downplayed. The Paul Shaffer “Amadeus” portrait of a silly fellow who happened to be a genius is dismissed for the umpteenth time, as is the Salieri-poisoning myth.

For some readers these kicks to a dead horse’s body might not be entirely out of place. But why ignore the grains of truth behind the myths? Mozart’s silliness comes through in the very jokes Johnson cites, and the myth about Salieri, with whom Mozart was in fierce if respectful competition for sinecures and fame, started with Mozart himself (albeit possibly in delirium).[13]

Johnson quietly constructs a Mozart in his own image, backed by the view that only a happy, contented Mozart could accomplish the psychological insights and mastery of his mature operas and instrumental music. It’s an only most superficially credible notion, and not one most biographers of Mozart accept. That sort of thing would need to be boldly stated, then vigorously defended with evidence, not assumptions, but here it gets neither. Instead it is embedded into a general tale and rehashing of Mozart’s life and associated factoids so riddled with misstatements as to leave savvy readers embarrassed and everyone else misinformed.

“…So [Mozart] walked to the then famous ice-cream parlor in the Palais Royale, where they served the best tutti-frutti in the world… The parlor [Palais Royale] was still going strong when the English invaded Paris at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, but it no longer exists. Its site, however, is occupied by a famous restaurant, which has excellent ices, and if I live to finish this book satisfactorily, I shall eat one there in honor of Mozart and his wonderful combination of the highest possible artistry and childish delight in simple pleasures.”

Paul Johnson should not treat himself to a tutti-frutti ice – nor should his editors at Viking Press. But at least he could enjoy the concoction, which appears to have come about in the 19th century. It would be quite different from the “ice” (not “ice cream” and not – as far as we can know from the letter that Johnson makes the basis of his colorful imagineering – anything “tutti-frutti”) Mozart had and wrote to his father about. It’s a last example of how this book reads like an enlarged pamphlet from someone who is used to writing, writes reasonably well and with routine, and who does so, because he is paid for it. Nothing wrong with that, except that “Mozart” contains zero inspiration and precious little that suggests that Paul Johnson was in any meaningful way compelled by his subject to write the book. Instead, it’s a sad little, enervating pamphlet.

Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Discography | Paul Johnson: “Mozart – A Life” Spotify Playlist

Paul Johnson: Mozart – «A Life» A Review
Paul Johnson: «Mozart – A Life» A Review

[1] On second thought, just in case writers’ purgatory might include being forcefully subjected to Norman Lebrecht ‘articles’, I might opt for straight-to-hell, after all.

[2] His ability to ferret out factual errors in a text is so fearfully impressive, I’d only ever want for him to read my scribblings before, never after publication. Because no longer accommodates co-authorship, I am now going solo with this article, though, grabbing all the massive glory or blame for myself. Thanks George!

[3] H.C. Robbins Landon, ed., “The Mozart Compendium”, Schirmer Books (1990). See particularly the discussions by Andrew Steptoe in Section 6, ‘Marriage with Constanze” and “Mozart’s income and finances”.

[4] Just one small example (of many possible) is a letter from Mozart to Viennese Judge Franz Hofdemel from c. April 1789, saying “If you could send me 100 florins till the end of next month I should be very much obliged to you. On the 20th I receive my quarter’s salary, and I shall then be able to return the loan with thanks.” Mozart goes on to say he ‘relied too much’ on 100 ducats due him from a source ‘abroad’ leaving him short of cash. Most of Mozart’s letters—so far in German only—can be found online on the excellent website of the Stiftung Mozarteum Salzburg.

[5] The score with its bawdy lyrics can viewed online at the Petrucci Music Library “IMSLP”.

[6] It is also, if we follow Harke de Roos’ argument in his brilliant and painstakingly researched (if controversially ending) Mozart biography “Das Wunder Mozart”, quite wrong: Colloredo seemed, given the insubordination he was faced with from Mozart, quite tolerant and well-meaning to this young man whose genius was obvious to all… and certainly the Habsburg rulers and their kin.

[7] Alfred Einstein, in Mozart – His Character, His Work suggests that a Fugue on “Et vitam venture saeculi” was a bit elaborate and may have been received impatiently by Colloredo. Robert Gutman (Mozart: A Cultural Biography) on the other hand writes, after pointing out how the Mass conformed to the Archbishop’s taste, that Colloredo “appears to have been placated by the industry of his Konzertmeister…” (Einstein also points out that Mozart only ever wrote two masses to order: The Missa Solemnis in C minor for the consecration of the new Orphanage Church in Vienna and the Requiem… both after he left Colloredo’s employ and quite different from works written as part of his duties.
[8] According to The Mozart Compendium K.126 “was probably written between April and August 1771…for the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary on 10 January 1772 of the ordination of Archbishop von Schrattenbach” who died December 16, 1771. “The Mozarts hoped to see the work performed to celebrate the arrival of the, later notorious” Colloredo, “but there is no record of the work’s performance.”

[9] The 18th century music historian Charles Burney received a letter from the English diplomat Louis de Visme that suggested that Colloredo “plays well on the fiddle” and “takes pains to reform his band”.

[10] Andrew Steptoe notes in the Compendium, “Leopold Mozart was a worldly man, well aware of the subtleties of court life. He meticulously planned every development in his children’s triumphant progress round Europe, weighing up the cost and likely profit of each engagement…” and “Leopold paid an immense emotional price for living through his son”.

[11] Johnson’s much cited Compendium itself refers to the “famous visit to the Sistine Chapel to hear the Allegri Miserere on April 11, 1770.”

[12] K.315 in C is the Andante in C, probably composed to replace the Adagio of K.313]

[13] One aspect missing altogether—this one, granted, missing from other biographies, also—is Mozart’s legal status in moving to Vienna. Harke de Roos, in  “Das Wunder Mozart”, is among those who point out that Mozart had never rightfully been relieved of his service in Salzburg and could rightly have been arrested and brought back to Salzburg, if only the authorities had wanted to do so. His fame, several high-ranking supporters, and the embarrassment such a move would have brought on the Habsburg house kept him from that fate. But his public disobedience to law and order was frowned upon. That Mozart didn’t succeed with jobs in Munich or Paris or anywhere else on the continent (but more readily so in England), is not, as Johnson suggests, down to bad luck or ignorance on those surrounding Mozart, but very plausibly because of the influence and reach of the Habsburg rulers, whose relatives ruled in all these constituencies, and who wanted to assure that the genius Mozart didn’t make more a mockery of the royalty than he already did in word (his letters speak volumes about his irreverence for authority) and deed.


CJS said...

Another error of Johnson's that one might point out is that the concert aria Per questa bella mano, K. 612 also has an obbligato part for string bass (nor is it, one supposes, an inordinately obscure work).

jfl said...

I'm sure that there will be yet more found... although I would probably not want to argue that K.612 is not reasonably considered an obscure work of Mozart's. :-)