Mozart did not consider himself a tortured genius

“Mozart: The Reign of Love” shows him as “fundamentally a happy man,” and rejects the depiction of him as a desperate, impoverished cult figure. 

HarperCollins Publishers
“Mozart: The Reign of Love” by Jan Swafford, Harper, 832 pp.

It has been a century since Hermann Aber published his monumental biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and more than 40 years since “Amadeus,” Peter Shaffer’s hit Broadway play (and subsequent movie) made the life of the composer, as well as myths surrounding it, the stuff of popular culture. Jan Swafford has availed himself of new scholarship and published an updated biography of one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music. He presents not only a lively, accessible, and richly detailed account of his subject’s life and times, but also takes a crack at debunking the “hoary corpus of myths about Mozart.” 

Swafford begins “Mozart: The Reign of Love” by recounting a scene in the Mozart home in Salzburg, Austria, in 1761. The 4-year-old Wolfgang, though he has never displayed any unusual interest in the harpsichord, stuns the family by playing a moderately difficult scherzo he has heard practiced by his older sister, Maria Anna, herself a keyboard prodigy. In the days that follow, under the tutelage of his father, Leopold, young Wolfgang learns more pieces from his sister’s notebook, playing them note-perfect and with impeccable rhythm. “When the tiny child sat at the keyboard,” Swafford writes, “he commanded it.” 

Young Mozart also displayed a genius for composing. He published four violin sonatas at age 7 and was writing symphonies at 8. Leopold wrote that “every day God performs fresh miracles through this child.”

Mozart spent most of his childhood on the road, traveling under arduous conditions on years-long tours, performing for European royalty under the supervision of his father. A violinist, composer and teacher, Leopold Mozart devoted himself to nurturing and promoting his children’s extraordinary talents while also hitching his financial star to their earning capacity. 

As a young teenager, Mozart proved himself to be a peerless tunesmith as well as an extraordinarily hard worker. At 17, his apprenticeship over, he was engaged as a musician in the Salzburg court. He later landed in Vienna, where he composed many of his best-known works, including symphonies, operas, concertos, sonatas, and sacred works. Adept in all musical genres, he was one of the most admired composers in his day, though not the most loved, as much of his music went over the heads of the average listener. Swafford sums up a common refrain about Mozart voiced by critics and connoisseurs alike: “too many ideas to take in, too many instruments, too many notes.” 

Swafford has written well-received biographies of Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and Charles Ives. He is also a composer and program-writer for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and in addition to prodigious research, he offers up well-informed appraisals and insights into Mozart’s work. He also makes good use of a vast trove of letters written by Mozart, his family members, and many others. Mozart’s letters give the reader a first-hand glimpse at his intelligence, his playful, often bawdy, wit and his caustic scrutiny of people and their many foibles.  

Mozart was in great demand as a performer and composer, and enjoyed commercial success, though was in constant financial straits due to his lavish living and his inability to handle money. There is little doubt that his early and much mythologized death at the age of 35 was due in large part to overwork. This gave rise later to the myth that his overwork was due to neglect, poverty, and desperation. Swafford disputes this, asserting that Mozart took on too much work because he wanted to, seeing every opportunity as something to be seized. 

Swafford contends that Mozart was “fundamentally a happy man,” and rejects the popular depiction of Mozart as a tortured genius. That notion, which arose during the Romantic era, was quite foreign during the Enlightenment, the period in which Mozart lived. “Mozart did not subscribe to the Romantic cult of genius, and he did not create art for art’s sake.” Indeed, Mozart did not think of himself as writing music for the ages, but for the task at hand. 

As to a fatal rivalry with composer Antonio Salieri, that’s another popular idea upon which Swafford throws cold water. When Mozart arrived in Vienna, Salieri was a well-established composer in the highly competitive musical world there and a favorite of Emperor Joseph II. In his day, Salieri’s operas were far more popular than Mozart’s and Swafford asserts that he had little reason to see the younger man as a rival. Sadly for Salieri, the rumor that he poisoned Mozart hung over his head in his last years and beyond. 

Mozart premiered two operas in three weeks in 1791, the year of his death, wrote more music and earned more money than at any comparable period. In Swafford’s view, the only profound tragedy of Morzart’s life was his early death, when he was on the verge of taking his art to even greater heights. 

“When Mozart died, having just written the magical and incomparable Zauberflöte [The Magic Flute], he was imagining an opera based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” Swafford writes. “It makes you weep to think of it.” 

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