Few composers loom larger in the popular imagination than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Certainly Beethoven's music is more familiar, but even those who don't know their Figaro from their Fidelio have some conception of Mozart as a person. The child prodigy whose sense of humor never matured. The giggling gadabout who dies penniless. The unappreciated genius who was perhaps poisoned by his rival while writing his own Requiem.
Much of this notoriety is untrue, resulting from the success of Miloš Forman's 1984 Oscar-winning movie, "Amadeus." And while many embellishments in the film, and the 1979 play upon which it is based, have long been debunked, Jan Swafford aims to puncture any remaining myths in his mammoth new biography of the composer, titled simply "Mozart."
The book goes well beyond setting the historical record straight, however. It is an utterly comprehensive look at Mozart's life, as well as an exhaustive reference to his music. Swafford, who has also written biographies of Beethoven, Charles Ives and Brahms, is a composer first, and his keen understanding of music is his greatest strength as a biographer.
This book is not just Amadeus for aficionados. It is, as Mozart characterized two of his midcareer piano concertos, "a happy medium between what's too difficult and too easy … there are passages here and there that only connoisseurs can fully appreciate — yet the common listener will find them satisfying as well."
The book opens with Mozart, whom his father called a "miracle of God," taking Europe by storm, beginning at the age of 5 in 1762. These wondrous early tales are a highlight of the book, but they are not just solo performances. Wolfgang's older sister, Nannerl, traveled with him. She was a prodigy as well, and possibly an even better pianist, but as a woman in the 18th century, she sadly had no career options after outgrowing her novelty.
Swafford contextualizes Mozart's development as a composer with helpful historical primers but keeps it interesting with countless anecdotes, such as a yuletide piano duel with Muzio Clementi, and rich mini-biographies of figures like Mozart's frequent collaborator Lorenzo Da Ponte, a lecher and minor poet who had never written a libretto when he showed up in Vienna looking for work.
The stories behind and between the music generally hold sway, but at times the musical theory can dominate the narrative. One of the great joys of reading a book like this in 2020, however, is that even after coming across an unfamiliar work — say, the duet "Se viver non degg'io" from the 14-year-old Mozart's first operatic hit, "Mitridate, Re di Ponto" — it is possible to hear the piece immediately on one of the ubiquitous streaming music services.
A point Swafford hammers home is that Mozart, unlike artists of today or even his near-contemporary Beethoven, was not writing for posterity or "trying to express [himself]" with his music; he simply wanted to make people "happy with his notes." "Mozart" provides numerous opportunities to reflect on how often Mozart the composer achieved his goal.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor in Michigan.