(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Great figures attract myths. Every child knows the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. Mention Edgar Allan Poe, and people at once envision a slightly mad drunk and drug addict. Thanks to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonais (1821), Keats has been seen as a pale, sensitive youth too frail to survive a bad book review. One would have to go far, however, to find anyone whose life has been more distorted than Mozart’s. Everyone knows the story. Ignored by an obtuse Austrian court and an indifferent public, he struggled with poverty throughout his decade in Vienna. His wife, Constanze appreciated his genius no more than any other of her compatriots. Concerned only with her own comfort, despite the family’s financial difficulties she insisted on expensive vacations at Baden, where she carried on an affair with Mozart’s pupil Franz Xaver Silssmayr. What little support Mozart received came from his fellow Freemasons, but after he exposed their secrets in Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) in 1791, they too abandoned him. Antonio Salieri, kapellmeister to the emperor, recognized but feared Mozart’s great abilities and therefore blocked every avenue of advancement. Driven by envy, Salieri finally poisoned his rival, who was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave; Mozart was so obscure by the end of 1791 that no one attended the funeral. After his death, Constanze, knowing and caring nothing about her husband’s compositions, sold off his manuscripts by the sheet to the highest bidders, thus dispersing his work.

Such are the outlines of the received life of Mozart, presented most egregiously in Peter Shaffer’sAmadeus (1979) but available in purportedly nonfictional accounts as well. Unhappily for lovers of romantic tales about neglected genius, this version of the biography is utterly without foundation. In his new book, a successor to his biography of Salieri, Braunbehrens has set out “to remove the patina, encrustations, and later deposits from Mozart’s monument.” The character that emerges from Braunbehrens’ pages is not a melodramatic hero but a fascinating, resourceful, and often enigmatic human being.

Among the misconceptions this study removes is that of Mozart’s poverty. As court organist for Count Hieronymus Colloredo, Archbishop of Salzburg, Mozart was earning 450 florins a year in 1780. The sum was not generous, but it was more than a schoolteacher would have earned. In 1790, Friedrich Schiller received less (400 florins) as a professor. A number of factors influenced Mozart’s decision to leave the archbishop’s service and remain in Vienna. Mozart wanted to write operas, but Salzburg had no opera house. He was in love with Constanze Weber, who was living in Vienna. He sought independence from a demanding employer, and, much as he loved his father, at twenty-five the young composer may well have wanted to put some distance between himself and Leopold. High on any list of reasons was also the desire to earn more money. Even in 1781, when he had only one student for most of the year and initially lacked important contacts (he had not been to the Austrian capital since 1773), he earned at least 962 florins. A detailed account of his income thereafter shows that except for 1786, he never made less than a thousand florins. All the sources of his income are not known; he might have earned far more, perhaps as much as two or three thousand florins a year. He was far from impoverished at his death; indeed, 1791 was financially his most successful year: He received at least 3,725 florins and possibly as much as 5,000.

Why, then, did Mozart toward the end of his life borrow heavily from Michael Puchberg—some fifteen hundred florins between 1788 and 1790? Braunbehrens notes that Mozart never saved money, and, considering the unreliability of banks in the eighteenth century, his extravagance was not altogether foolish. The frugal composer Franz Joseph Haydn amassed a fortune that was rendered worthless by the inflation that struck Napoleonic Europe in the early nineteenth century. Still, without money in reserve, Mozart had no resources to fall back on if his income fell or if unexpected expenses...

(The entire section is 1696 words.)