I would never say that I have any real knowledge of classical music, but there are a few composers who have slid into my awareness and settled into my appreciation. Ravel, Debussy, Handel, Stravinsky, Beethoven, and, of course Mozart. His music is compelling on so many levels. His musical pairings are so versatile, and he brings out so many different things in his instruments. And in spite of the complexity, the music can make your spirit soar, reaching right into your core. Requiem reminds me of Dostevsky's reaction to a Hans Holbein painting, "A man could even lose his faith from that."
When you marry the sensations his music elicits with his life--maybe more so his death--its mind-bendingly tragic. The combination of his genius, youth, and tragedy make him one of the most mythological figures of the Western Canon.
Peter Gay's brief biography of Mozart gives him greater depth while acknowledging the legends the preceed him. Legend vaguely alludes to Mozart as someone who is haunted and is consequentially given to fits of silliness and frivolity. Gay proves that what most haunted Mozart was his father-- the most influential figure for the young prodigy. Serving also as his son's manager, critic, and booking agent, he was awestruck by Mozart's talent, but also embittered that his own talent paled in comparison. In an effort to make a musical contribution, he puts rigorous demands on Mozart, insisting he devote more time to his craft, to the point of monasticism (even though he was unfathomably prolific). When Mozart established his independence financially and familially, he carried a heavy burden of guilt the rest of his life, wanting only to please the man he felt so indebted to.
Gay attests that Mozart's fatal flaw was his inability to tighten his belt. His concept of "necessary" included a lot of billiards and frequent entertainment, lavish furniture as well as a house staff. His debtors were largely people from his Masonic Temple, but as they mounted, his self-loathing increased. He suffered the disappointment of his wife, his father, and his Masonic brothers, got in more debt to pay other debts, and was forced to take assignments he deemed unworthy of his attention.
Gay does a great driving home these core points: paternal influence, debt, and Mozart's crude sense of humor. But he makes many connections with what was happening in Mozart's life and how it connects to the material. Gay tracks Mozart's interest in the Schubert's concertos and his efforts to make his own concerto. He also tracks the history of the Opera, and Mozart's contributions. But I'm most interested in what kind of mind is revealed in the source material? How does it represent his music and his ability to make the most callous critics swoon?
One of the few insights his letters give into the workings of Mozart's mind is that he enjoyed composing in building where people practiced. While in Milan he writes to his sister, "above is a violinist, below us another one, next to us a singing teacher giving lessons, in the room across from ours there is an oboist. That is rather amusing to compose by! Gives one lots of ideas." Its hard to imagine being able to hold so many sounds in your head. But the fact that it could not only be tolerated, but used as inspiration, is really profound. Making the ethereal nature of his music all the more alluring.
Ultimately, I'm impressed that Gay can discuss Mozart comprehensively, the man, his music, and the people in his life in only 175 pages.