Is there anything left to find out about Mozart? Between two extreme views - the conventional one of the young genius as romantic icon, or (in Amadeus) as a musical Superbrat - there may be a more authentic middle course; MOZART: A Life by Maynard Solomon, Hutchinson pounds 25
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IT has become a cliche to regard biography as a surrogate form of the 19th-century novel, offering a hearty meat-and-two-veg rich in human interest and "characters you can identify with" to readers increasingly fed up with a diet of fat-free, low-sodium fiction. If the Booker Prize list looks thin, get a Life. But the biographer faces a challenge to which the novelist is largely immune: the need to address the preliminary question "Why bother?" Arguably, if the work needs commentary or validation from the life, it is by definition second-rate; if it doesn't, then such extraneous detail is at best of academic interest and at worst caters to a vulgar desire to have Wolfgang and Constanze invite us retrospectively into their lovely apartment in Vienna's fashionable Schulerstrasse.

Even rejecting this extreme position, there are two very different categories of potential subject. The first - Schoenberg and Stravinsky, for example - had well-documented public lives whose vicissitudes clearly interact with their artistic development. They themselves reflect upon this interaction in their own writings, aware of their status as icons for a certain vision of what it meant to be a composer at a given moment in history. The second category - Brahms or Bruckner, to choose two equally discordant personalities - offers no such easy toeholds to the biographer. Here there appears to be no evident connection between the work and the life, and any account of the latter tends to add up to little more than a catalogue of facts, dates and anecdotal minutiae: Brahms's taste for strong coffee, Bruckner's for little girls.

Mozart appears at first to fit comfortably into this second category, but in this as so much else he is also a special case. From a very early date - the first biographies, written with the "collaboration" of the composer's widow and sister, appeared a few years after his death - Mozart was subjected to a retrospective process of mythologisation, an attempt to expiate the stain of guilt left on Western culture by its conspicuous failure to appreciate and reward him adequately during his lifetime.

The strategy was two-fold: on one hand, a breast-beating exaggeration of the extent of this neglect; on the other, the creation of an infantilised Mozart who had preserved his clouds of glory intact and evaded the shades of the prison- house, but at the price of never growing up. This Romantic stereotype later hardened into the familiar Meissen figurine, and its durability was merely confirmed when Peter Shaffer inverted it in Amadeus, giving us Mozart as scatological brat rather than porcelain paragon.

If this view is finally being undermined, it is due not to biographical revelations - despite a few recent discoveries, the documentary core has long been public record - but to the efforts of the musicians and musicologists responsible for the "authentic performance" movement. After a century and a half in which even Mozart's admirers tended to agree with Queen Victoria that his "instrumentation was so poor (it was so in those days)", it has become possible not only to hear his work in a form which would have been more or less recognisable to him, but to understand the cultural, social and performing conditions for which it was written.

Such a profound change in perceptions of the work demanded a corresponding re-evaluation of the life, and although there have been several studies of various aspects (notably by Braunbehrens and Robbins Landon), this is the first subsequent attempt in English at a full-scale biography. Maynard Solomon sets out to present the known facts, to interpret these so as to form a coherent psychological narrative, and to relate the resulting portrait to the work.

As far as the first is concerned, he is entirely successful. The corpus of knowledge about Mozart and his family, including the most recent discoveries, is made available in a form which is highly readable and superbly documented, with a particular emphasis on financial data, and a large number of persistent errors are finally laid to rest (eg the idea that Mozart died impoverished and forgotten).

Solomon's interpretation of these facts is unabashedly psychoanalytic and considerably more tendentious. The villain of the piece is Leopold Mozart, who is viewed as ensnaring his children in a brutally co-dependent relationship with a father who was at least a ruthless egomaniac if not actually mentally ill. This is not the first time that Leopold has come in for criticism, of course, but no one has approached the Balzacian dimensions of the manipulative monster portrayed here, even though judgement is tempered by the claim that Leopold was "unconsciously" re-enacting his own flight from and rejection by his mother.

Part of the problem, of course, is that our main source of information about Mozart's life is the family correspondence, most of which is written to, by or about Leopold. He therefore inevitably looms large, and larger than he perhaps did in reality. But that "perhaps" is the key: if readers were given 5p for each time Solomon uses the word, this book would come free. The fact is that we simply don't know, and never will. Leopold Mozart was undoubtedly a kvetch and a control freak, but whether he dominated his son's life to anything like the extent that he does this Life is an open question.

The greatest disappointment is in the three chapters dealing with the music, which offer sensitive and unexceptionable comments on various passages (copiously illustrated) but which appear as little more than tentative interpolations in the general scheme of the book. Given his central thesis, it seems extraordinary that Solomon offers no analysis of the ambiguous "father" figures in Mozart's operas, and in his comments on the Andante of the Sinfonia Concertante K364 makes no mention of the fact that here, as elsewhere in Mozart's work, the interweaving, colliding relationship of violin and viola is surely an idealised paradigm of the one between Leopold (whose Violinschule identified him with the instrument) and Mozart (who took the viola part when playing quartets with Haydn and others, even though he was certainly the better violinist).

In the end, Solomon modestly notes, "we cannot reach Mozart, we can only hope to come nearer to him". For some, his intelligent, well-intentioned if rather relentlessly earnest fantasia upon the available biographical materials may achieve this aim. For others, it will serve as a useful corrective to previous distortions, a stimulus to fruitful disagreement, and a reminder that the most effective way of coming "nearer" to Mozart is to listen to his music.