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A unique, quick take on the mysteries of Mozart

Mozart: A Life

By Paul Johnson


164 pages, $26

By Mary Kunz Goldman

News Classical Music Critic

The British author Paul Johnson, now in his 80s, has written a bundle of biographies. His subjects are wide-ranging: Charles Darwin, Socrates, Jesus, Winston Churchill, Napoleon, George Washington. Others of his books bear such intriguing titles as “ A History of the Jews,” “Art: A New History” and “Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties.”

“Mozart” is at least as bold as any of these undertakings.

What can you say about Mozart that has not already been written? Quite a bit, it turns out.

There is one corner of Mozart scholarship that has been underserved – and it’s important. No one has taken on the challenge that Johnson has here – of correcting misunderstandings and, occasionally, outright lies about this superstar composer who could be considered, in some respects, music’s most enigmatic genius.

Was Mozart a drunk, as portrayed in “Amadeus”? Did he hate his father?

Was he a gambler, as pundits in the 1970s asserted he was?

What about his marriage? What about his faith? What was the situation surrounding the last year of his life, when he wrote his “Requiem”?

The answers to these questions shouldn’t be foggy, but they have become so.

Johnson’s book circles around, and repeats itself occasionally. But Johnson has a way of cutting to the chase. A famous story centers on how as a boy, Johnson cornered Winston Churchill and asked him his secret of success. (Churchill’s response: “Never stand when you can sit, and never sit when you can lie down.”)

Concise and observant, Johnson brings up some things that will be new even to hard-core Mozart fans.

About the situation with Mozart and his family, he tells how Mozart’s sister championed his piano concertos. Mozart emerges as happy and healthy. And Johnson makes clear that Mozart’s relationship with his father was nothing like how it appears in “Amadeus.”

“Leopold had been bitter about his son’s marriage and had felt they were no longer close, in the old way, but there had been no breach,” he writes. “He had sacrificed his own life to his son’s career, but he never had any doubt that it had been worth it.” He adds: “It is no use asking what if Mozart had had an ordinary, normal father. Mozart without his father is inconceivable, and there is no point in considering it.”

About the billiards, Johnson points out that a billiard table was a status symbol of the time, and Mozart could compose while waiting his turn. (He did that while bowling, too.) He also says: “Mozart had a fetish for small, rolling objects.” Who knew? We learn about instruments of the time and Mozart’s approach to them. And I had never put it together, in so many words, that Mozart was a fanatic about dancing. That must have had an impact on his music.

Johnson sorts out, patiently, the complicated subject of Mozart’s Freemasonry and simultaneous Catholic faith. “In Austria, Germany and England the two institutions existed happily side by side at this epoch.” He argues that the Masons looked after the widows and orphans of their membership, and that Mozart saw it as a kind of insurance. And that the Masons, in his era in Vienna, identified themselves with representative government, reform of the feudal system, constitutions and other ideals that were then progressive. He even points out that Mozart belonged to a Catholic lodge.

Not every case Johnson makes is as convincing. I wondered, for instance, when he asserted that Mozart was never remotely close to poor. Those begging letters Mozart wrote asking for money sound pretty desperate. I also would have liked more explanation at certain junctures, for instance when Johnson dismisses the old rumors that Salieri poisoned Mozart.

In general, though, I am grateful for this book’s authority and perspective.

An appendix, written by Johnson’s journalist son Daniel, explores Mozart’s lifelong love for England. It probes some intriguing “what ifs.” What if Mozart had moved to London, a plan he considered later in life? Could London, and not Vienna, have become the capital of the musical world?

The book benefits because Johnson is Catholic. Too many writers downplay Mozart’s religion, or are ignorant of it. It is touching to read how Mozart’s father, taking the child prodigy on tour, genuinely wanted to present him as a miracle from God. “If it is ever to be my duty to convince the world of this miracle, it is so now, when people are ridiculing whatever is called a miracle and denying all miracles,” Leopold wrote. Johnson adds: “It is important to grasp the strong religious element, radiating from his father, that existed in Mozart’s life from his infancy.”

Johnson’s knowledge of the Catholic liturgy and hierarchy lead to juicy explorations of Mozart’s life in Salzburg. He floats unique theories, such as this take on Mozart’s last three symphonies: “If there is a unifying principle … I think it is religious: the Rosary. The E flat stands for the Joyful Mysteries, the G Minor for the Sorrowful, and the C Major for the Glorious. But I hazard this thought rather than insist on it.”

Johnson’s style is attractively conversational. As one example, he tells how rehearsals for the “Paris” Symphony, when Mozart was 22, were such a disaster that Mozart vowed to say a rosary if the symphony came together. It did, and Mozart came through with his promise, treating himself to ice cream afterward at a famous Parisian ice cream parlor.

Johnson continues: “The parlor 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.”

Go have that ice cream, Mr. Johnson.

Make it a double scoop.

Mary Kunz Goldman is The Buffalo News classical music critic and is writing a biography of Leonard Pennario.