(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Like the great composer himself, Maynard Solomon’s Mozart: A Life may be said to suffer from an identity crisis. From one chapter to the next, this massive biography shifts from being a psychological profile of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s relationship with his father to a theoretical analysis of the composer’s musical style to a catalog listing each of his works to a polemic addressing discrete issues in Mozart’s life. Because of its lack of focus, readers of the book are unlikely to gain a clear picture of Mozart either as a musician or as a human being. They will likely come away from the biography feeling as if they have viewed a number of isolated snapshots.

Part of the author’s problem stems from the sheer wealth of material that is now available about Mozart’s life. Aside from the many volumes of letters that were exchanged among members of Mozart’s own family, dozens of books discussing the composer began to appear just before the bicentennial of his death in 1991. Beginning with H. C. Robbins Landon’s excellent 1791: Mozart’s Last Year (1989), major studies of Mozart have included Georg Knepler’s Wolfgang Amade Mozart (translated by J. Bradford Robinson; 1994), Volkmar Braunbehrens’ Mozart in Vienna, 1781-1791 (translated by Timothy Bell; 1990), and William Stafford’s highly influential The Mozart Myths: A Critical Reassessment (1991). Solomon was also anticipated in compiling a psychological profile of Mozart by Brigid Brophy in the 1988 revision of her Mozart the Dramatist (1964) and by Peter J. Davies in Mozart in Person: His Character and Health (1989). Because of the number of studies that have already appeared, Solomon faced great difficulties in discovering new territory to explore.

Perhaps for this reason, Solomon’s book reads better as a reference work than as a biography. All too frequently, the narrative comes to a complete halt as the author pauses—sometimes for pages at a time—to itemize Mozart’s income, the expenses associated with various journeys, the compositions that were written (or even possibly written) in a given year, the composer’s friends, acquaintances, and casual encounters, and the stylistic influences that can be isolated in his works. These passages provide the reader with a torrent of raw information that, if it were better digested, might have given the biography a clearer sense of focus.

Early in the book, Solomon divides most interpretations of Mozart into two major groups: those that idealize the way in which Leopold Mozart taught his young son (thus preserving the myth of Mozart as “the eternal child”) and those that cast Leopold as a villain, a failed musician who tried to suffocate his son’s need for autonomy. Solomon’s biography clearly falls into the latter category. Retreading ground that was first explored in Edward J. Dent’s Mozart’s Operas: A Critical Study (1913), Solomon portrays Leopold as a jealous and bitter man, unable to compose anything of his own after 1762 and eager to make his son dependent on him by any means possible.

Certainly, there is evidence that may be cited in support of Solomon’s view. Leopold’s tendency to exaggerate his debts caused him to pressure Mozart for continued financial support. His interference with his son’s romantic interests may have resulted from his unwillingness to brook a rival for Mozart’s affections and from a sincere belief that no woman would ever be good enough to marry his son. Leopold’s reluctance to allow Mozart to travel alone, even as an adult, may have stemmed from his belief that Wolfgang was still naïve, an overgrown child who needed protection from the seductions of a hostile world. Moreover, no one would deny that Leopold was a stern and restrictive disciplinarian who did not tolerate opposition and from whom Mozart finally fled, loathing Salzburg largely because it held unpleasant memories of his father.

Nevertheless, Solomon’s central premise in this psychological profile remains unconvincing. He reduces the Mozarts to nothing more than a dysfunctional family. Leopold’s cruelty to Mozart, Solomon concludes, derived from a psychological need to relive the estrangement that had once erupted between himself and his own mother. The composer’s flight from Salzburg and his father’s bitter accusations regarding this move were, Solomon insists, remarkably parallel to the way in which Leopold abandoned his mother in Augsburg nearly fifty years earlier. Leopold’s inner compulsion, stemming from his own unhappy childhood, led him...

(The entire section is 1885 words.)