[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
THE LIFE OF MOZART
Edward Holmes (1845)
Folio 1991; half red cloth with gold lettering and red silhouette on gold on blue cloth front with red slip-case.
For this blessing, I daily thank my Creator, and from my heart wish it participated in by my fellow-men.
Is there any point in reading lives of the great artists? What we know about Shakespeare can be comfortably set out on an envelope, and none of it tells us anything at all about King Lear. It was a drama in verse – what can fact or fancy in prose tell us? Does it help to know that Michelangelo had a fight with a pope or that Beethoven went deaf? Perhaps; but if you read too much about Wagner, you may never want to hear him again, and you might swear off Parsifal forever.
Well, there may be something to be said for reminding ourselves that even geniuses are, au fond, merely human, and only one man may have had a better claim to genius than Mozart.
Edward Holmes went to school at Mr Clarke’s Academy in Enfield where a boy called John Keats was a pupil. He learnt music with the very musical Novello family and became something of a music critic. He idolized Mozart, but this book is useful for the letters of Mozart and contemporary reminiscences. This Folio copy is beautifully produced.
In a letter to his father, Mozart says that he played to a count for two days. This one knew how to behave – ‘he always says bravo in those places where other cavaliers take a pinch of snuff…’ He went on to say that ‘on hearing German melodrama, I felt a violent inclination to write.’
The letters contain many references to his love of the German nation, and to his love of the fugues of Bach and Handel. He put several of the fugues of The Well-tempered Clavier into his own handwriting.
According to Mr Hodge, Mozart always composed in the open air when he could. Don Giovanni was said to have been composed on a bowling-green, and the principal part of the Requiem in a garden. In a letter written in a garden, he told how he had arrived in Vienna to find that dinner was served ‘for me unfortunately rather too early’ – 11.30 am! Mozart sat down with, among others, two valets, the confectioner, two cooks ‘and my littleness.’ (He was only about five feet in height.) Mozart told his father that there was ‘a great deal of coarse silly joking’ from which he remained aloof. Perhaps, but we know that Wolfie was big on ‘coarse silly joking’ in a way that may still evoke a mild blush in the matronly glitterati in the concert-hall set. But all this was far too much for the Victorian sensibility of Mr Holmes. Against silhouettes of Mozart, Salieri, Gluck and Haydn, Mr Holmes says: ‘That he whose transcendent genius had asserted its empire over the whole musical world, and who even at this time had put forth unmistakeable evidences of his greatness should be put down to table with cooks and valets, is something to marvel over in this retrospect of Mozart’s chequered existence. But how admirably he bore himself in this situation, silent and grave and keeping aloof from the rude company…’
Here is a trivia question. Name the opera taken from Comedy of Errors. Da Ponte turned it into an opera called Equivoci. The music was written by Signor Storace whose sister played the first Nanette in The Marriage of Figaro, for which Da Ponte wrote the libretto. Mozart wrote the opera in a month. The tradition was that the overture to Don Giovanni was written the night before it was first given, and was first played unrehearsed.
An Irish singer called Michael Kelly played in the first Figaro. He reminisced about Mozart. ‘Mozart told me that great as his genius was, he was an enthusiast in dancing, and often said that his taste lay in that art rather than in music….He always received me with kindness and hospitality. He was remarkably fond of punch, of which beverage I have seen him take copious drafts. He was also fond of billiards, and had an excellent billiard-table in his house. Many and many a game I have played with him, but always came off second best. He gave Sunday concerts at which I was never missing. He was kind-hearted and always ready to oblige, but so very particular when he played, that if the slightest noise were made, he instantly left off.’
Mozart was only thirty-five when he died. He was working on the Requiem, and had composed the Ave verum corpus, possibly the most ethereal sacred music ever written. Einstein said of it that, Mozart had resolved the problem of style. Either work could only have been written by a man of profound Catholic conviction.
We may be allowed to hope that Mozart was at peace with himself when he died. A few years before that, this man beloved of God (amadeus), wrote to his father: ‘As death, rightly considered, fulfils the real design of our life, I have for the last two years made myself so well acquainted with this true friend of mankind, that his image has no longer any terrors for me, but much that is peaceful and consoling; and I thank God that he has given me the opportunity to know him as the key tour true felicity. I never lie down in bed without reflecting that – young as I am – I may never see another day….’ Some hold that those who are beloved of God die young.