Book Review: ‘Mozart’

Ben Miles

With a pale, pitted complexion (the latter resulting from a case of smallpox in his childhood), nothing in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s frail appearance would betray his musical genius. In his short life of 35 years Mozart (Jan. 27, 1756 – Dec. 5, 1791) wrote more than 800 pieces of music, mentored Ludwig van Beethoven and was in awe of Joseph Haydn.

Mozart was and continues to be a major influencer among musicians over the centuries and around the world.

Mozart’s life story is cogently cataloged in music critic Marcia Davenport’s 1932 biography of this musical genius, the first Mozart bio ever written by an American. And though the bio-book was written 91 years ago, little if anything has changed in Mozart’s life story since his death in 1791.

He remains a stellar figure in music theory and melodic appreciation. Through Ms. Davenport’s extensive research, we learn of Mozart’s childhood, spent, along with his elder sister Nannerl, as musical prodigies, under their demanding but caring father Leopold. Leopold was an undistinguished musician but invaluable teacher to Wolfgang, whom he recognized as a prodigy early in Wolfgang’s childhood (Wolfgang and Nannerl were the two out of five Mozart children who survived infancy).

In 18th century Europe, childhood was not yet recognized as a tender developmental stage of life. Often children were worked relentlessly, and so it was ordinary parental practice with Leopold Mozart, who drove his musically gifted offspring to the brink of their capacity, performing before royal audiences throughout Europe.

Travel in primitive coaches though rough terrain composed a great deal of Mozart’s young life. Due to the demanding performance schedule adhered to by the Mozarts, Leopold was the only teacher available to his children. Beyond lessons in music, Leopold taught the children languages and other academic disciplines. Nevertheless, Wolfgang, was curious and anxious to progress beyond what Leopold was able to teach.

At around 5 years old Wolfgang created his first ink-splotched musical composition, and on his own initiative took to playing the violin, which astonished Leopold to such an extent that he abandoned composition as young Mozart’s talents became impressively obvious.

Ms. Davenport traces Mozart’s life through his marriage to his beloved Constanze, with whom he fathered six children, only two of which survived infancy. Additionally, Mozart’s appointment at the age of 17 as a court musician of Salzburg by Prince-Archbishop Heironymous Coloredo was where Mozart further developed his eclectic musical abilities, which included genres such as symphonies, sonatas, string quartets, masses, serenades and several petite operas.

Ms. Davenport hints at the artistic restlessness Mozart experienced at Salzburg and his motivation to move on and forward in his musical career. This quest for artistic satisfaction took Mozart to Augsburg, Mannheim, Paris and Munich. Mozart, like music celebrities from Sinatra to Elvis to The Beatles, had many love affairs and romantic dalliances. Most notably with Aloysia Weber (of the famed musical Weber family) and renowned soprano Henriette Baranius.

In the nearly 400 page Davenport tome (including appendices, bibliography and index) we learn not only of Mozart’s life and artistic accomplishments (in such varied modalities as opera, trios, symphonies, wind serenades, sets of dances, concertos, piano sonatas,lyric songs and religious masses) we also glean a good bit of European history, including the reign and patronage of Austrian Emperor Joseph ll. In that era musicians were reliant on royalty as their benefactors, although the lifestyle of musicians in the 18th century was meager at best, as was the case with Mozart.

What: “Mozart” A biography by Marcia Davenport

Where: Barnes and Noble Books, ISBN 0-88029-124-9 (casebound)

ISBN 1-56619-833-X (paperback)

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