Settling old scores

MOZART: A Life Maynard Solomon Hutchinson, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
The personality of Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart has always been an attractive area for psychological speculation. The exhibitionist childhood, the domineering father, the delight in puns and riddles, the vigorous interest in Plumpi Strumpi (Mozart's own term), the predilection for, how should one put it, the excremental side of life: no self-respecting shrink would ignore raw materials like these. And here at last is a thorough job, by one of America's foremost musicologists. Professor Maynard Solomon has already written a prize- winning psychobiography of Beethoven; now it's Mozart's turn on the couch.

One's first reaction is to sit back and marvel. The story of the "little man with his wig and his sword", as Goethe remembered the boy Mozart, composing at five, performing for the emperor at six, conquering Europe at seven, will always fascinate. But the familiar narrative is only the beginning of Solomon's story: his aim is to illuminate its dark side. What sea of troubles might a childhood like Mozart's not have engendered or concealed, after all? When Goethe saw him the composer was seven, setting out on his first European tour. He would be away from home for the next four years, visit a total of 88 cities and towns en route, and travel thousands of miles. The first sign of treatment like that these days, and the social workers would be banging at the door.

"Cherchez le pere," Maynard Solomon would advise them. Leopold Mozart, he insists, stands at the epicentre of his son's psychic and creative life. He brought Wolfgang up, taught him, relied on his income, made him, so he thought, the musician he became. No great success as a composer himself - though not a complete failure - Leopold Mozart was determined that his son should be "the instrument by which the father's unfulfilled career was redeemed".

The history of the Mozart family has been picked over often enough, and its basic facts are not in dispute. What Maynard Solomon offers here is a skilful and sensitive interpretation of the data, as he plumbs the copious family correspondence and diaries for evidence of unsuspected psychological pressure or trauma. The acrostic Mozart wrote in his sister's diary, for instance, spelling the word "Papa", could hardly be be more revealing, especially to a Freudian. "Pfeif mir im Arsch, pfeif mir im Arsch", it reads: "Blow in my arse, blow in my arse". And this from a son whose constant, and frequently quoted, refrain was "After God comes Papa."

With subtexts like that, it's no surprise that the Mozart family balance didn't hold. The child prodigy would one day have to grow up, however much his father might prefer to keep him in "infantilizing thralldom". Leopold was shattered when it happened. For Mozart it was an explosive psychological drama, the liberating experience of his life - a choice between a "state of perpetual childhood" on the one hand and "the anguish of enforced isolation" on the other. He chose the latter, as we know, removing himself in 1781 to Vienna and independence. His intention to marry was soon announced and his father, bluntly, couldn't handle it. Constanze Weber's family, he spluttered in a letter to his son, "should be put in chains, made to sweep the streets, and have boards hung round their necks bearing the words 'seducers of youth'."

This "Great Refusal", argues Solomon, won Mozart considerable equanimity. And as a result his music moved in new directions, freeing itself of tradition, finding confidence in its own originality. Up to this point Solomon's musical analysis seems unarguable. But not everybody will go along with his attempts at linking psychology and musical expression, or the variety of explanations offered for the beauties of Mozart's music, its peculiar happy-but-sad quality: the death wish, or a sadness associated with the lost Eden of childhood, or a yearning for unattained love-objects. Solomon may just be right, of course, and indeed part of the virtue of such speculation is that it can't be proved. Merely having faith in the possibility of such answers, one suspects, makes it more likely that they will be found.

The same is true, of course, of any interpretative endeavour: what you find depends on what you look for. Solomon is not much concerned with large historical questions, economic or social, in his pursuit of Mozart; his terms of reference are deliberately restricted. In the end it is precisely this restricted focus, the tenacious and imaginative application of a method, that gives the work its intensity.