Genius rings out despite manuscript's missing notes

January 27, 2006

Mozart remains an elusive and frustrating figure to scholars 250 years after his birth, but his music still moves audiences, Christopher Wood discovers

It's Mozart year. Forget for a moment that for most people who pay the slightest attention to classical music, every year is Mozart year.

This year the normal steady flow of Mozartiana - on radio and television, CD and DVD, in the concert halls and in the opera houses - will become an all-conquering flood. Last year, it was only 249 years since Mozart's birth. But this year, today in fact, it's Mozart's 250th birthday.

Academia is not to be left behind, and we can confidently expect an outpouring of scholarly comment on Mozart's life and music throughout 2006.

One book that has got in early is The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopaedia , an A-Z of topics connected to Mozart that tries to tread a line somewhere between biographical and historical background and questions of chronology and authenticity - "the two extremes that have been typical of similar Mozart compendia", says Cliff Eisen, who edited the Encyclopaedia with Simon Keefe.

As Eisen indicates, there have been quite a number of other compendia, and there will be more - something that is partly attributable to the wealth of surviving documentary material concerning Mozart. "The interesting thing about Mozart," Eisen says, "is that although there are huge gaps, there is a tremendous body of information - far more than for any other 18th-century composer. With the survival of 400 autographs, 40 or 50 handwritten copies that Mozart used to perform his works, all the first editions that he either authorised or proofread, plus a collection of some 1,100 letters among the Mozart family - the literature of things written about Mozart during his lifetime amounts to some 600 pages. In that sense, there is a huge amount known about Mozart."

Such an embarrassment of scholarly resources is a mixed blessing. According to Eisen, it makes Mozart a particularly tough nut to crack. "The need to negotiate between the known and the unknown, to formulate a narrative, to arrive at what seem to be convincing ways of looking at his music, is much more complicated, just because there are all these basic starting points that do not exist for Bach or for Handel, for example. It requires a certain different type of critical imagination to deal with Mozart."

At the risk of complicating their lives further, Mozart scholars hunt continually for new artefacts. Not that there are too many obvious lines left to follow. In 1980, a cache of 300 autographs - musical manuscripts - discovered in Poland accounted for all the lost autographs that were known to exist. And the confusion that followed the end of the Second World War, when many German archives were dispatched on a complex nomadic journey (the archive of the Berlin Singakademie, for example, eventually ended up in Ukraine and was rediscovered only in 1999), now seems to have played out.

Eisen is doubtful that there is much buried treasure left to be unearthed.

"When it comes to the life and works, the gaps are known, but they will never be filled in. You have stretches of time when Mozart was at home in Salzburg and there's no correspondence. We only have a few autographs. What Mozart thought, what he felt, is a black hole. And there are no documents out there, except for a handful that were known to exist but have been missing since the early 19th century. People have been looking for 200 years."

Except, that is, for Nannerl's diary - the journal kept by Mozart's sister Nannerl that survives for 1779 and 1780, his final years in Salzburg. "It gives a day-to-day account of their activities, who they played cards with, whether it rained. It's boring, but remarkable. The obvious question would be, why only that period? Is that the only time she kept a diary? It seems unlikely."

Scholars are searching, perhaps not particularly hard. But there is still plenty to keep Mozartians busy. Various forms of musical analysis go in and out of vogue, some of questionable usefulness. The notorious Schenkerian analysis (a tonal theory of music whereby all tonal music follows a simple progression of notes) is still practised - "It always finds what it seeks to find," Eisen says.

"There is a sort of historical cultural analysis in which the work is seen anthropologically," he says. "Some work I did on the Requiem is based on what Mozart and his audience's attitude to death may have been, looking in the music for evidence of broader cultural concerns."

Nor is the bread-and-butter task of establishing exactly what is and is not composed by Mozart yet finished. In the Cambridge Encyclopaedia , an impressive worklist has two special categories: "Spurious" and "Traditionally attributed to Mozart, but lacking authentic sources". Into this latter purgatory, Eisen and Keefe have dispatched a couple of flute quartets and several early symphonies.

"There are 40 or 50 pieces always attributed to Mozart for which there is no autograph, no evidence that he ever performed it, no evidence that he wrote it, but because they've always been attributed to Mozart, people never throw them out of the canon," Eisen says. "What I'm trying to say is, please think again. Maybe this piece isn't by Mozart. At least be aware that there's a difference between this early symphony and the Jupiter symphony."

The section of the Encyclopaedia dealing with Mozart biographies is written by Keefe, who notes that misinformation about the composer has been raining down ever since Friedrich Schlichtegroll published an obituary two years after Mozart's death in 1793. Schlichtegroll drew much of his information from Nannerl, who knew little of Mozart's life in Vienna but plenty about his childhood. The resulting emphasis on a childlike genius who never fully assumed adult responsibilities gave birth to the myth of the "eternal child", which still attaches to Mozart today.

More myths followed, notably during the Romantic era, when Mozart was claimed as the archetype of the struggling, starving artist, unrecognised for the genius he was, who died of the world's neglect and was unceremoniously dumped in a pauper's grave.

"Biographers even today have their own vested interest," Keefe insists.

"Maynard Solomon's 1995 biography is wonderfully detailed and provocative, but it's incredibly charged with theory that many of us regard as historical and inappropriate. For Solomon, Mozart's father Leopold was psychologically manipulative, using Mozart for his own ends. Talking about Mozart in those terms is difficult to sustain - it's Freudian psychology and it's passe."

And if the 19th and 20th centuries created the Mozart they wanted, don't expect this one to be any different. As we speak, Mozart pundits are beavering away, tapping the Zeitgeist to fashion a Mozart for our times.

It will go on for ever, and we will never know the "real" Mozart. In the meantime, we want to hear good Mozart performances, and scholarship has a great deal to say about 18th-century performance practice - not just the instruments then in use, but what ensemble size, ornamentation and articulation were the norm, what tempo and dynamics favoured. It is a world of study the Encyclopaedia dutifully charts, although Eisen himself sees clear limits to what can be achieved.

"The thing I do like about authentic performance practice is the instruments. I don't necessarily buy anything about the phrasing, the structure, but the sound of the instruments is terribly exciting. You hear different things as a result of playing on period instruments.

"But I don't think we can ever know we are performing it as Mozart would have, or would have liked it to have been, performed. We're deluding ourselves if we think that any of this research actually produces an authentic performance.

"We live in the present. You've got to believe that the main thing Mozart wanted was a performance that moved his audience. He was writing something not for someone to Schenker-analyse, but so that audiences would come out humming the tune having had a great experience. And that's still exactly the same."

The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopaedia is published by Cambridge University Press, £95.00.

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