This book won the National Book Award. Written by Peter Gay, a Professor Emeritus of History at Yale who has also chosen as subject matter
the Enlightenment and Freud, it is probably the best biography one can choose to understand Mozart objectively, and its addition to the Penguin Lives series is a tribute to Gay’s unquestionably scholarly approach that sweeps aside rumors and legends in a search for truth.
Mozart was, as the world knows well, a musical prodigy, and as Gay puts it, “The life of Mozart is the triumph of genius over precociousness.” The promise of youth rarely outlives adolescence, and in Mozart’s case it took a domineering father with strings of guilt pulling at the boy to turn what might have otherwise been a colorful but unknown character into an accomplished and adored master of his arts.
Or was it always Leopold, Mozart’s father, who kept him on the path to fame? Mozart taught himself violin and was able to give solo performances by the age of seven and composed his first music at age five. His father, himself a musician of no small accomplishment, knew he had a phenomenon on his hands. With Mozart’s sister Nannerl, the family soon went on tour. “The Mozarts would offer a concert and were rewarded with precious snuffboxes and gold watches or in cash, just as precious to them…Leopold Mozart quite unselfconsciously speaks of their ‘producing themselves.’” But isn’t that what most artist require – someone in the background willing to make the bookings, regulate the practice sessions, control the material, and keep the checks rolling in? Leopold definitely thought so.
Undoubtedly, according to Gay, who has studied relationship psychology, Mozart’s father burdened his son with a harsh view of reality and a lot of guilt, often implying that had his son been in Paris when his mother died, he might have saved her life, an unusually cruel psychological onus to put on a young man on the brink of a brilliant career.
When hormones hit the young Mozart, his rebellion against Papa began in earnest, and his choice of women was never satisfactory to his strict, suspicious parent. Mozart took the commissions his father recommended, nonetheless, and didn’t mind holding onto the family purse strings as long as he could. In fact, his father’s grasping nature turned Mozart into an expert at writing whining letters begging friends or patrons for money, or trying to excuse himself from paying his debts. It is another marker of his father’s influence that Mozart begged for money even when he had sufficient. Leopold’s will was not favorable to his son, demonstrating that the grudge between them was still a primary factor over many long years.
Gay also tackles the legends surrounding Mozart, addressing them as accurately as possible with texts and memoirs for support. That Mozart wrote the Requiem for his own death seems a tidy fantasy but
is probably untrue, and that he was buried in a pauper’s grave is probably less significant or ironic than his wondering fans have made it out to be. “From what we know of Mozart’s convictions, steeped as he was in the Catholic Enlightenment with its touch of anticlericalism, and refined by his Freemasonic principles, we may deduce that he wished for nothing else.”