Monday, January 20, 2014

Mozart's Family Life

Suppose we went to a concert where a young pianist was going to play a piano concerto, perhaps by Mozart. And suppose that before beginning the piece, the artist stood up and decided to tell us all about his horrible family life, how his mother died and his father emotionally abused him and all the sordid details about their financial difficulties and then pointed out how all this influences his playing and how the performance we are about to hear was shaped by all the biographical currents in his life.

I don't know about you, but after a few minutes of this I would start looking for the nearest exit. But, I'm sorry to say, this is roughly the gist of the biography of Mozart I am reading right now. Here is the link (I'm reading it on Kindle) and here is the publisher's blurb:
Beethoven biographer Solomon here presents a revisionist biography of Mozart, which his publisher claims is the first full-scale biography in nearly 40 years. Certainly it is a major work in terms of heft and range. Solomon will have none of the "divine child" approach, limning instead a man growing up under the shadow of an impossibly demanding father who was at once overprotective and jealous of his son's vast gifts. There is a great deal of psychological probing into the agonies of their relationship, much of it sensible; and Solomon paints an indelible portrait of Mozart's last years, begging for money, guilty about his deprived wife Constanze, resentful of being virtually cut out of his father's will, yet still heroically forging a new musical aesthetic. He also clears up much of the mystery about the bizarre Requiem commission, and the burial in the "pauper's grave." He is convinced that Mozart and his cousin "the Basle," recipient of many of the infamous smutty letters, were lovers for a time; and the portrait of the composer that emerges is of an extraordinarily sensitive, liberal-minded (the Masonic material is superb), extravagant but responsible person who has been much belittled by biographers beginning almost immediately after his death. Solomon also writes acutely about what was daringly new, and wonderfully enduring, about Mozart's music. Only a certain lack of flow between the chapters suggests the origin of much of this material in lectures.
There certainly is a "great deal of psychological probing". I should have realized from that the problem. Frankly, I am not interested in psychological (probably Freudian, though I try to be unaware of who's who in modern psychology) probing of Mozart's life and character. I'm not! Somewhere around Chapter 12 I started skipping pages, hoping the agony would lessen.

Solomon sets up the slow movement of the Piano Sonata in A minor, K. 310 as a kind of soundtrack to the agonies of his life, in particular the death of his mother and the emotional and financial bullying from his father. Here is Christoph Eschenbach playing the Andante cantabile con expressione from the A-minor Sonata, K. 310:


Solomon describes the first section, the exposition, as "oceanic, comforting and rapturous". Well, ok, though honestly, you could have chosen any three of a thousand adjectives and hit the mark just about as close: "brook-like, serene and joyous" would have done as well, or why not "field-like, gentle, with a touch of herbal scent"? Then, in the second half, where Mozart has a development with contrasting drama in C minor, Solomon describes it as "disturbing and destabilizing" which is the basic harmonic strategy of developments as we see in innumerable pieces by Haydn. He goes on, upping the ante by saying this section is "threatening to annihilate what has gone before" and notes a "brooding intensity, the relentlessness of the rapid modulations". Again, yes, this is exactly what happens in a development which is meant to destabilize the harmony for dramatic contrast.

But the problem for me is that Mozart very likely wrote this music for three fundamental reasons: first, because it was what he did, it was his gift, second, because this is how he earned a living, and third (and this is probably in order of priority) to escape from the seamy intrigues and paranoia of his monstrous father and the pain of his mother's death and the insecurities of his turbulent life. And here is Maynard Solomon, dragging him back into the very thing he wanted to get away from.

Now let's modify that opening fable of mine. Instead of the pianist telling us about himself, Maynard Solomon rushes on stage to make sure that we know every detail of Mozart's mother's illness and the nasty letters from his father and their financial affairs down to the last florin and groat. At this point don't we rise up as a body and throw him offstage, begging the pianist to please, just get on with the music? Wouldn't Mozart himself do the same?

Let me now engage in the customary backing and filling: Solomon's book is very useful in some ways. For the first few chapters I was glad to learn about the context of Mozart's life. But at some point, the obsessive interest in the details of his relationships with his parents and love interests just got unpleasant. I wanted to say, "can't we talk a bit more about the music?" But when he started introducing pieces of music as if they were mere accompaniments to the emotional turmoil of his life, I started actively disliking the whole project.

Now I'm afraid to look at the new book by John Eliot Gardiner on Bach for fear it will be more of the same...

7 comments:

Craig said...

I read this book a few years ago and wrote some thoughts about it. It sounds like I tolerated the psychoanalysis more than you, but we hit upon a few of the same criticisms. We must be right!

Bryan Townsend said...

As we both know, the real judge of someone's intelligence is whether he agrees with you! But it's not just you and me--as I discovered later, the first and most popular review on the book on Amazon makes many of the same critiques.

I just read your review and it is much kinder than I would have written!!

Craig said...

Yes, I think your aversion to the approach Solomon takes is quite a lot stronger than mine. Even I have my limits though, and he transgressed them a few times.

Rickard Dahl said...

Better to avoid that book then I suppose. That reminds me I have a Beethoven biography in Swedish to read but it too is alot about his personal life rather than music. Hopefully it doesn't use some weird psychological analysis approach.

Bryan Townsend said...

Craig, after reading your sympathetic and balanced review, I went back and had another look at Solomon's book. It got me rather fired up and I put up a new post on it today.

Yes, Rickard, if you want to read about Mozart instead of psychoanalysis, best to avoid this book!

Marc Puckett said...

Am just leaving the first 5% of JEG on Bach, which is all about JEG and his career, the music on its proper period instruments developments etc etc; he is now beginning to describe Altenbur... no, no, Eisenach after the Thirty Years War. I have seen intimations of psychologizing and amateur psychoanalysis but it's too early to make any judgments. There's a real contrast between the way Hilary Hahn described her teachers in that essay linked in today's Miscellanea and Gardiner's depiction of his, although she wasn't writing a book and he's not a 30 year old woman, so....

Bryan Townsend said...

I didn't really tear into Solomon's Mozart book until this, later post:

http://themusicsalon.blogspot.mx/2014/01/psycho-music-history.html