*and I’m only on page 370
I mentioned last week that I’m reading Mozart: The Reign of Love by Jan Swafford. I hope you didn’t expect me to have finished reading its 750+ pages by now. But I’m almost halfway! Time to share a few things I’ve learned so far.
One. Wolfgang’s father Leopold, a musician and composer, wrote and published a successful handbook for teachers and students in 1756, called Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing.
Two. Leopold, as many people know, was a hard taskmaster. He pinned his hopes on his brilliant son’s supporting him and the family, but Wolfgang as he matured had some bad luck with patrons and was not always practical or diplomatic. Despite his hectoring, Leopold in fact had saved up a nice nest egg from his travels with Wolfgang and his precocious sister Nannerl, a sizeable fund he kept secret from the children who had earned it for him.
Three. Wolfgang’s prodigious talents are well known, but the actual facts are always startling. In 1761, at the age of four, he began playing the clavier, his family’s keyboard instrument, mimicking the pieces he was hearing Nannerl play. Later that year, he began playing a piece his sister had never played; he began composing. He never stopped creating new music to the end of his life.
Four. In 1781, Wolfgang created a violin concerto (G Major, K. 379) between 11:00 pm and midnight the night before he performed it for the first time. He wrote out the violin part for a soloist and accompanied on keyboard from memory.
Five. Before Mozart, an opera’s libretto (the story and lyrics) was considered the salient aspect of an opera. The music was secondary. Wolfgang revised and collaborated on libretti more than previous composers, but after him–that is, after Ideomeneo, The Abduction from the Seraglio, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, and the rest–music, partnered gracefully with the libretto, superseded the story in importance.
I’ll close by quoting a chapter’s ending I particularly liked. It ushers in the massive changes in Mozart’s life as he moved to Vienna from Salzburg in 1781 at the age of 25.
[Mozart’s new friends] came to know an inexplicable force of nature who could rise from a luminous improvisation at the clavier for a round of meowing like a cat and leaping over the furniture. They would remember the myriad fancies and gaieties of the little man with an overlarge heard and a pale pockmarked face who was forever drumming on things, tapping his feet, jabbering away, but who might also grasp your hand and look at you with something profound, searching, and melancholy in his eyes. Even in company there was often an air about Mozart of being in his mind not quite there. At table he might sit silently and unseeing in the hubbub, clutching a napkin to his face and grimacing. In Vienna it was as if he lived onstage and off at the same time, a character in life’s tragicomedy but also outside it, watching, studying, gathering material from the world around him for the fabric of his art.