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NA314412 - KEENLYSIDE, P.: Life Of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (The) (Unabridged)

Perry Keenlyside
The Life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
A Musical Biography



Narrator - Nigel Anthony
Mozart - Paul Rhys
Leopold Mozart - Edward de Souza
Other parts - David Timson; Anna Patrick


Mozart is arguably the most often performed classical composer today. We hear his music everywhere: not only in the concert hall, on the radio and in fine recorded performances, but also in debased or arranged forms, as ‘muzak’ or comfortable aural wallpaper. Why should this be so? The answer seems to lie partly in the music itself, obviously enough—graceful, accessible, ‘charming’—and partly in the myths which have grown up in the two hundred years and more since his death. The myths, which include the ‘chocolate box’ wonder-child, the misunderstood genius and the giggling freak of the film ‘Amadeus’, may contain at least a grain of truth, but they are all ultimately misleading and unnecessary simply because the real story of his life and music is in itself so memorable and compelling.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg in 1756 and died in Vienna in 1791. Within those thirty-five years he wrote an astonishing quantity of music, and it may be tempting to feel that he composed with an urgency born out of a sense of his own human fragility. Yet this explanation is both speculative and unlikely: Mozart wrote so much because he was gifted with astonishing fertility and facility, and because as Europe’s first significant freelance composer he needed a constant supply of new works, not only to meet commissions but also in order to put on subscription concerts of his own. He began to compose in early childhood, having rapidly acquired proficiency on both keyboard and violin, and, unlike many a child prodigy, he continued to develop and mature as a musician throughout his brief adult life.

This life went through several distinct phases. Put simply, there were the years in which he toured the courts of Europe as a wunderkind, usually accompanied by his father and his sister (both of whom were formidable musicians in their own right); then there were a few years at home in Salzburg as a junior court-musician to the Prince-Archbishop; and, finally, the ten years in Vienna as a mature and independent musician. Mozart’s life is available to us in often fascinating detail because of the miraculous preservation of a mass of family and business correspondence: his father Leopold wrote home extensively during the years of European adventure, and then corresponded voluminously with his son in Vienna. Leopold was an intelligent, worldly man in spite of his provincial background, and his letters would be valuable even if he had not fathered a son who was a genius. Wolfgang was also an enthusiastic letter-writer, the tone and content of his correspondence ranging from crude familiarity to profound reflections on love and death. Towards the end of his life there are the famous begging letters to Michael Puchberg, a fellow freemason, which are dreadfully vivid in their evocation of a man desperate to sustain his honour, his credit—and his family.

Yet while he struggled to stay afloat in the competitive artistic world of Vienna, he produced a stream of wonderful compositions—an astonishing example of the apparent detachment of genius in the midst of adversity. It is true that, towards the end of his life, there is an unmistakable sense in the music itself of the valedictory—the music seems to simplify itself into a sublime resignation—but the overriding impression in Mozart’s music is of a wellnigh perfect balance between vitality and introspection, energy and elegance. And Mozart wrote in such a rich variety of forms: although not so much an originator of new forms as, say, Haydn, Mozart’s particular contribution was to take an established genre and develop it beyond what had seemed possible before. This is abundantly true of his operas, which are effortlessly superior in dramatic sense and psychological depth to anything previously produced; and, to take another example, Mozart more or less invented the concerto as the brilliant and spaciously-conceived piece we know today.

What we know of Mozart’s life gives us an extraordinary understanding of the personal and social context in which the great works were produced. Through the letters and certain crucial eye-witness accounts we find out about not only the economics, fashions and foibles of Viennese society, but also so much of his personal life: his adolescent infatuations; the shock of his mother’s death away from home, when he had to take an adult’s responsibility for the subsequent arrangements; the excitement of his successful subscription concerts, where so many of the great piano concertos were first performed; Leopold’s opposition to his marriage with Constanze; the strained relationship between adoring, disappointed father and struggling, independent son; the six children Constanze bore Mozart, of whom only two survived their father; the poignant details of the last months and the death-scene itself, so graphically described by Mozart’s sister-in-law Sophie; and the unmarked pauper’s grave which was the final resting-place of the once-adored prodigy.

Notes by Perry Keenlyside

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