Mozart and His Music
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Next, short biographies of exceptional individuals. This is the idea behind a series launched this year by Lipper/Viking Books. Well-known writers were asked to pick subjects they care deeply about and then write biographies that are engaging and short, around 200 pages long.
Tonight we launch our own series: Interviews with the biographers. We begin with Peter Gay on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born in Salzburg in 1756, began composing at age five, and died at age thirty-five, leaving behind a remarkable variety of music. His biographer is Peter Gay, director of the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and the author of “A History of the Enlightenment,” among other works. I spoke with him last week.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much for being with us, Peter Gay.
PETER GAY, Author: I’m glad to be here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: James Atlas, the editor of this series, told us that there are no rules for picking authors and subjects, that it’s about passion and also about a good match. How did you end up doing Mozart?
PETER GAY: Well, I think the whole series is somewhat reverse of what normally you would get: That is to say, the first thing of writers, whom they like to get and then after that they try to match the writer with some subject. So when I was called, I was asked to do a biography of Darwin. And even though I think I know Darwin pretty well, there are so many highly technical things. So I said to them, “Don’t you have any so-called creative people, painters or sculptors or composers?” They said no, they didn’t, but they might like them. And so then I said Brahms. They said, “no, not Brahms. So I thought about who is my favorite composer, after all is Mozart. I suggested Mozart and that was that. And I think that’s true of some of the other authors, as well.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You begin the book with the line, “The life of Mozart is the triumph of genius over precociousness.” Tell me about that.
PETER GAY: Well, the point I make at the very beginning — I mean I think you read the first sentence of the book — is there were and have always been these wunderkind, brilliant young pianists or whatever else who when they get to be teenagers just fade into perfectly ordinary performance, very rarely is it different, maybe Mendelssohn would be another example. But the thing about Mozart was he started early and all he did was go up higher all the time. I mean, his stuff becomes more complex, more original. This is why I call him — I hate to use that word easily — that’s why I call him a genius. And that’s what I meant, he was precocious, but that wasn’t all there was to it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did anything surprise you as did you the research?
PETER GAY: No, I think you I knew him before, but what did astonish me a little, let’s say, was how much of Mozart is really the dark Mozart. I suggest well-known end obviously of Don Giovanni, but there’s a good deal of chamber music, especially, for example, the string quintets with the added viola which are very dark in tone and often rather grim. And, you know, to many people, especially in the 19th century, Mozart was a sort of a Eine Kleine Nachtmusik — kind of Rococo light — and so forth but that’s only a very small part of Mozart. And I suppose the emphasis on that was important for me.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. We’re going to play a different piece of music right now that we know that you like very much. It’s the Piano Concerto Number 20. Let’s listen for just a little bit and then talk about it.
PETER GAY: Okay.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Talk to us about it.
PETER GAY: Very good. Well, listen, you know, to the opening chord. These opening bars confirm something I just said a minute ago: Namely, you know, that the serious, weighty grave Mozart. And if you go on playing, say if you take the second movement where he does absolute miracles with simplifying, you know, the kind of music that was then known and was then in the 19th century characteristic of the virtuoso, you know, like Liszt and so on, he’s just very different.
He attacks you at a very deep point all the time, particularly in his last years. And the piano concerto beginning with 20, 22, 24 are absolutely magnificent. And I think they have never been surpassed, except that other composers have done longer, louder and showier pieces, but that’s it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Describe the relationship between him and his father. You actually undertook psychoanalytic training, didn’t you?
PETER GAY: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You are especially qualified to explain this relationship.
PETER GAY: Well, I tried not, you know, to overdo this, not to simply — a biography involving his relationship, a very difficult relationship with his father. But I did think it mattered. And of course I’m not the first one to have discovered that.
I mean, Leopold Mozart, his father, was a fairly gifted musician who wrote a famous handbook on how to write the violin. He was a bit of a composer, although he’s very rarely played these days. And he was a very tough task master. But his father was very demanding, and to use an old-fashioned word, very unfair. He wanted from his son things that no son could really, it seems to me, reasonably give to his father — complete obedience, taking responsibility for everything, including the bad mistakes made by his father, as well, you know?
And he died, the father, in 1787 just four years before Mozart died, but I think he remained with him as a heavy burden all the way through. So this was of interest because it also tells you something about some of the letters in which Mozart talks about his depressions, his sadness, his feeling of being unjustly handled, which is he is, so the correspondence is very revealing and also gives you some sense of what I’ve called the grave Mozart.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There were many myths about him, you had to deal with, whether or not weren’t there, the myth that he was poisoned by Salieri, the smith formed the centerpiece of the film “Amadeus.”
PETER GAY: No, no. The film which I never saw, but the play also, which makes the same point is from the point of view of veracity absolute nonsense. The two men got along quite well, although for Salieri, I mean if there was any envy, it would have been the other way. Salieri was the great court composer.
He had all the prerequisites, all the high salaries that Mozart achieved only on very rare occasions and never quite reached this kind of position at court. So if anyone was to envy anybody it would have been Mozart and if anybody was poisoned, it would have been Mozart poisoning Salieri. The point I make in the book is that if anybody poisoned Mozart, it was his doctors. I mean, they were the best doctors in Vienna. It’s not that he had to go to some poverty-stricken healer.
But they did things that we now know were killers, like bleeding him, which is one way of reducing, you know, resistance of the body, to say nothing of the fact that when they stuck him of needles, as of course they also did, theynever knew anything about clean needles either. So the medical reports that I read and then used made the point that it was probably the zealous treatment, which to the Viennese doctors seemed the absolute best.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Peter Gay, finally, you have written many very long and works of history that took you years to write. How did you like writing this short biography of Mozart?
PETER GAY: Oh, it — well, it can be done. This in a way was what we were faced with when yes asked to write our biographies; 45,000 words was the maximum. And I’m glad I came in at 42,000 words. Yes, it can be done. When you have to cut into your own flesh, as you may hate to do it, but if that’s what the demand is, you just are a professional and you do it. And the main point I wanted to make always was I wanted to write a book, not a series of — not a long catalog of something. And I hope I succeeded in that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you very much for being with us.
PETER GAY: Thank you.