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Mozart at the Gateway

September 22, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

I wouldn’t have predicted a week ago that I’d now be reading Christoph Wolff’s Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune: Serving the Emperor, 1788–1791. But I am. I’ve seen it mentioned favorably, most recently a Briefly Noted review in the August 27 issue of the New Yorker. Last night, while struggling to choose from my growing list of other books, I decided to give it a try and downloaded the opening sample from Amazon. Having just finished that sample, I have now downloaded the rest.

Wolff is a musicologist at Harvard, known especially for his work on Bach. Here is the description of Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune at the book’s website:

A fresh look at the life of Mozart during his imperial years by one of the world’s leading Mozart scholars.

“I now stand at the gateway to my fortune,” Mozart wrote in a letter of 1790. He had entered into the service of Emperor Joseph II of Austria two years earlier as Imperial-Royal Chamber Composer—a salaried appointment with a distinguished title and few obligations. His extraordinary subsequent output, beginning with the three final great symphonies from the summer of 1788, invites a reassessment of this entire period of his life. Readers will gain a new appreciation and understanding of the composer’s works from that time without the usual emphasis on his imminent death. The author discusses the major biographical and musical implications of the royal appointment and explores Mozart’s “imperial style” on the basis of his major compositions—keyboard, chamber, orchestral, operatic, and sacred—and focuses on the large, unfamiliar works he left incomplete. This new perspective points to an energetic, fresh beginning for the composer and a promising creative and financial future.

The site also contains praise from famous musicians: Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Alfred Brendel. And conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with this over-the-top comment:

For years I’ve been wondering and the question becomes ever more cogent, what puzzling new language Mozart used for his three symphonies and even the Magic Flute. It is a new Mozart, and we cannot simply continue as before. Why? What is it? What does it mean today? To the performer, to the listener? Now I found a helping hand in Christoph Wolff’s unexpectedly novel book. We musicians, used to helping ourselves, gratefully embrace his assistance.

I’m only a short ways into the book, so I’m not in a position to evaluate Harnoncourt’s assessment. Not that I would be anyway. I love Mozart’s final symphonies, but I hardly expect to make much sense of Wolff’s analysis when I get to it. I did enjoy one passage from the Prologue, which I’ll quote.

The setting: Mozart has written to his wealthy friend Michael Puchberg to ask for a loan, sending Puchberg a copy of the German translation of John Mainwaring’s biography of Handel. As Wolff explains, the “book was not a meaningless gift. It describes the life of a famous man Mozart would ultimately want to be compared with … . In addition, Mozart also seems to have used Mainwaring’s discussion of Handel’s excessive love of food as a paradigm for his own situation so that Puchberg, who knew what indulgences and extravagances played such a decisive role in his friend’s need of money, might better understand the special needs of a great artist.” Wolff then quotes from Mozart’s letter:

Those who have blamed [Handel] for an excessive indulgence of this lowest of gratifications [his eating habits], ought to have considered, that the peculiarities of his constitution were as great as those of his genius. Luxury and intemperance are relative ideas, and depend on other circumstances besides those of quantity and quality. … For besides the several circumstances just alleged, there is yet another in his favor; I mean his incessant and intense application to the works of musical art. This rendered constant and large supplies of nourishment the more necessary to recruit his exhausted spirits.

Constant and large supplies of nourishment. I like that. If only I were a genius, so I could merit them.

—–

I started this post two nights ago. In the meantime, I’ve gotten much further into the book, and I continue to enjoy it.

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