A Prodigy's Quest For Self-Determination

Complex, subtle, filled with brilliant, intricately-wrought designs that dazzled and sometimes baffled its first audiences, the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is also brimming with a joyful exuberance and an exceptional beauty that can enchant even the untrained ear. Innocent yet sophisticated, elegant yet heartfelt, his music transcends attempts to label it.

Mozart's life, however, has too readily been reduced to over-simplification and mythology. The image of Mozart as a sort of divinely inspired nincompoop popularized by Peter Shaffer's play ``Amadeus'' is perhaps the extreme culmination of a more respectable biographical tradition that tended to view the famous child prodigy as a kind of eternal child. But now, thanks to a magisterial new biography by the eminent music historian Maynard Solomon, lovers of Mozart's music will gain a renewed understanding of and appreciation for the man who composed it.

Comprehensively researched, carefully thought out, and compellingly written, ``Mozart: A Life'' restores our sense of the genius's humanity. The central theme of this book - one might even say, the central drama - is Mozart's struggle to emerge from childhood dependency into the uncertain, sometimes dangerous world of adult self-determination.

The infant Mozart's brilliant career was stage-managed by a father whom he literally worshiped: ``Next to God comes Papa,'' was the boy's motto. By the time Mozart left his native Salzburg for Vienna in 1781, the once-blissful father-son relationship was suffering from intolerable strains. As Solomon shows, the Mozarts in the eyes of father Leopold, at least - were a family enterprise, and any step taken by the gifted son toward artistic, financial, or romantic independence or self-expression was viewed as a sign of dangerous rebellion.

Leopold Mozart opposed every one of his son's love interests, from his instantly bonding friendship-romance with his high-spirited cousin (Anna Maria Thekla Mozart, referred to as ``the Basle'' or female cousin) who shared his penchant for scatological humor, to his eventual marriage in 1782 to Constanze Weber, the kind-hearted daughter of a musical family like his own.

When Leopold wasn't casting aspersions on the ``scheming females'' he suspected were trying to entrap his talented son, he was cautioning the young composer against writing anything too experimental, reminding him of the debts - financial and emotional - owed to his family, and generally doing everything possible to make Mozart feel guilty about deserting his poor old father. Solomon provides ample selections from their correspondence to document this portrait of a loving father unable to allow his son to grow up. And indeed, when Mozart took the drastic steps of leaving the family home in Salzburg for life in the big city of Vienna in 1781, and, a year later, of marrying Constanze, his father refused to accept these decisions.

Thus, in Solomon's persuasive view, Mozart's search for love, creative freedom, and the financial independence that would enable him to support his own wife and children instead of his parents and sister led to his being all but cast out by the family that had nurtured him. His once-close relationship with his older sister Marianne (known as ``Nannerl'') was also a casualty, for after the death of their mother in 1778, Marianne devoted herself full-time to the needs and wishes of her father, taking his side in disputes with his son. Although Wolfgang had rallied to support her when she fell in love with a man their father (predictably) disapproved of, Marianne, unlike her brother, dutifully deferred to Leopold's wishes.

Torn between his desire for freedom and his hope for reconciliation, Mozart avoided outright confrontation with his father, resorting instead to a complicated cluster of responses and strategies involving compliance and defiance, antic buffoonery (very like Prince Hamlet's, Solomon points out), and bursts of outrage alternating with ironic reserve. Far from being the childish simpleton and divinely inspired empty vessel of ``Amadeus,'' the Mozart revealed in this biography is a sensitive, complex human being trying his best to resolve an impossible emotional situation.

While Solomon's focus and approach in this book are predominantly psychological, he also pays careful attention to other important areas of Mozart's life and work, from Mozart family finances and relations with patrons to the ``strange beauty'' and understated but very genuine originality of the music itself. Loosely following the chronology of Mozart's life, the biographer departs from strict sequential order to examine key topics. Thus, there are chapters on Mozart's music, his Freemasonry, his relationship with his sister, his reaction to the death of his mother, his penchant for riddles, his abilities as his own impresario, and even one about his affinity for the playful freedom of what Solomon calls ``the Carnivalesque dimension.'' Although he relates certain qualities of Mozart's music its joyfulness, its wistfulness, its unexpected turbulence, and its complex juxtapositions of moods to the vicissitudes of the composer's emotional life, he recognizes that its essence cannot be reduced to psychological explanations alone.

Insightful, lucid, learned, and immensely readable, Solomon's ``Mozart'' does not resolve all the questions and mysteries that hover over his subject's life. Whether or not his father was quite so baneful a presence may still be debated. Also unresolved is the question of whether or not Mozart was poisoned by a rival (Solomon thinks not, although Mozart himself feared it was so). Yet, while perhaps not quite definitive, certainly not the last word, this is one book no lover of Mozart's music should be without.

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