Review: Short Mozart biography paints affectionate portrait

  • Posted: Sunday, January 19, 2014 12:01 a.m.

MOZART: A Life. By Paul Johnson. Viking. 176 pages. $25.95.



British historian and biographer Paul Johnson, the prolific author of more than 40 books, has written a concise introduction to the life and work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Although titled “Mozart: A Life,” this is not a detailed biography; for that, one must look elsewhere. It is, however, an engaging narrative about Mozart and his times.

The author focuses primarily on Mozart’s character and compositions. Johnson’s main biographical source is the correspondence of the Mozart family, including Wolfgang; his father, Leopold, and his sister, Nannerl, which provides much detail. Despite a “Further Reading” section at the end, the author does not provide a bibliography or notes, which is a glaring shortcoming.

Johnson concentrates much of his focus on Mozart’s compositions, methods of composing and innovative nature. The writing on specific compositions is, for the most part, brief and simple, posing no challenge to the layperson.

Johnson attempts to debunk some accepted ideas about Mozart’s life, particularly regarding his finances, marriage and general outlook. I sensed that he took offense with viewpoints presented in Maynard Solomon’s excellent 1995 biography, also titled “Mozart: A Life,” though Solomon is not explicitly named.

For example, Johnson reports as “scandalous” and “libelous” claims that Constanze was not a good wife, that she and Mozart did not have a good marriage and that Mozart had severe financial problems that triggered depression. The portrait of Mozart that Johnson paints is epitomized by the title of the fifth and final chapter of the book, “A Good Life Fully Lived.” Mozart was, in the author’s view, a man who exulted in composing, enjoyed the life he led and felt fulfilled.

Johnson doesn’t spend a lot of time and space contradicting myths; he simply tells you they are wrong and presents his views.

Who was Mozart? We meet a man who takes much delight in dancing and thus composes many dances, who enjoys the company of musicians and revels in talking to them about their instruments and playing, and then effortlessly knocks out compositions for them.

We meet a musician curious about the construction and mechanics of musical instruments, knowledgeable about every aspect of his keyboards, his violins and other instruments. Mozart not only is a virtuoso keyboardist and violinist, he also can play virtually any instrument, and does. Johnson is convincing in portraying Mozart as an irrepressible genius of such energy and focus, one whose output dwarfed that of composers who lived twice as long.

The biography concludes with an appendix written by the author’s son, journalist Daniel Johnson. It describes Mozart’s time in London, the music scene there, his attitudes toward London and the English and what might have transpired had Mozart settled there; it is a strange little companion piece, but interesting nonetheless.

Similar in length, but not in tone, to Peter Gay’s fine 1999 biography, “Mozart” (part of the Penguin Life series), Johnson’s book gives us a Mozart we can like: an optimist, a contented man.

Solomon’s 600-plus page biography, and Robert W. Gutman’s “Mozart: A Cultural Biography,” more than 800 pages, are much more detailed, but Johnson’s book benefits from the author’s sheer affection for his subject. Johnson makes effective use of historical context and writes with persuasive assuredness.

The authoritative biography of Mozart has yet to be written, but Johnson provides us with another view of the composer and his work that is, like some of his music, breezy and stimulating.

Reviewer Michael Nelson is a writer and editor in Charleston.

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