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Mozart by Peter Gay
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Mozart (2001)

by Peter Gay

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In the new Penguin Lives series, edited by former New York Times editor James Atlas, Gay's Mozart biography comes with particularly high expectations, given the author's distinction as a historian (he won the National Book Award for volume one of The Enlightenment). There is little new information here, yet Gay's overview of the composer's life and work is lucid and concise. Noted for his studies of Freud and Victorian society, the author clearly knows the Mozart literature as well. His book includes a fine bibliographical essay, in which he admits to leaning on Maynard Solomon's 1995 tome, Mozart: A Life. Gay provides brief glimpses into the social and historical contexts of Mozart's music: changing attitudes toward listening, the economics of composition and new audience sectors. Also notable is the discussion of how well Mozart's works were received and the author's survey of how Mozart was regarded by subsequent composers. Gay offers a straightforward and helpful introduction to Mozart, debunking romantic interpretations of the composer's life.
  antimuzak | May 18, 2008 |
Superlative biography of the eminently superlative musician--another contribution to the readable Penguin Lives series. ( )
  edwin.gleaves | Apr 23, 2006 |
Matching Peter Gay, the historian of the Enlightenment, with Mozart, the composer who perhaps best embodies that period, was an intelligent move on the part of the editors of this series of short lives. Mozart is a book which combines accuracy with enthusiasm and an intelligent sense of how it felt to be an active musician, a loving husband and a good son in a particular time and place.

Gay stresses the problems of Mozart's relationship with his father, who saw his son's talent less as a gift from God to humanity than as a way of ensuring a comfortable old age for himself; it is almost impossible to write a biography of Mozart in which old Leopold comes out well, but Gay makes an effort to see matters from his point of view: "He was Mozart's teacher, collaborator, advisor, nurse, secretary, impresario, press agent and chief claqueur ... mixed motives governed Leopold Mozart's ways with his son. They were darkened by his irrational financial worries and his need to manage Mozart's every move. Yet his laments also sound a tone of real apprehension that goes beyond manipulative mendacity."

Gay is good on the shift in Mozart's career from salaried servant to virtuoso, dependent on public taste; on the marriage to Costanza and on the doomed last months. His Mozart is perhaps less clever than some biographers' and less rackety--but this is a coherent and informative short account in which the music always takes precedence over Gay's psychological readings--without heavy handedness, he periodically reminds us that he is also the biographer of Freud. - -RozKaveney

A biography of the greatest mind in western music by an outstanding historian and biographer.
  antimuzak | Nov 6, 2005 |
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To Leon Plantinga in friendship and gratitude
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The life of Mozart is the triumph of genius over precociousness.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0670882380, Hardcover)

In his lifetime, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart didn't have the best of luck with his patrons. One of them, Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg, actually had his chamberlain kick the composer in the ass to signal the end of his employment. Mozart has been luckier, however, with his biographers. In the last 20 years alone, he has been the subject of two fine books: Maynard Solomon's meticulous study, which slides Mozart's rather mystifying psyche under the analytic microscope, and Wolfgang Hildesheimer's more sardonic effort, in which the author seems determined to strip every last bit of romantic varnish from the traditional portrait.

Now Peter Gay joins the party with his own brief life. Weighing in at 177 pages, Mozart will never displace its deep-focus predecessors. But it's a delightful introduction to the composer, whose entire existence was, as Gay puts it, a "triumph of genius over precociousness." It's one thing, after all, to knock 'em dead at age five--at which point the waist-high Mozart was already a keyboard virtuoso. It's quite another to keep developing at the same prodigious pace. "A child prodigy is, by its nature, a self-destroying artifact: what seems literally marvelous in a boy will seem merely talented and perfectly natural in a young man. But by 1772, at sixteen, Mozart no longer needed to display himself as a little wizard; he had matured in the sonata and the symphony, the first kind of music he composed, and now showed his gifts in new domains: opera, the oratorio, and the earliest in a string of superb piano concertos."

Gay gets in all the essentials: Mozart's mind-blowing maturation, his family life, his weakness for billiards, and (of course) his seriously scatological style as a correspondent. Like Solomon, he takes an Oedipal approach to Wolfgang's perpetual head-banging with his overbearing father. And like Hildesheimer, he's at pains to scotch certain cherished myths--the mysterious figure who commissioned the Requiem, for example, turns out to be no otherworldly harbinger of death but a chiseling wannabe who hoped to pass off the finished product as his own work. Perhaps best of all, Gay never goes sublime on us. His portrait is attractively level-headed, and at one point he's even modest enough to knock his own metaphors for their puerility. Here, surely, the author is being hard on himself. But he's right about one thing: as far as artistry goes, this former child prodigy does make children of us all. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:57:02 -0400)

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A biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, discussing his early genius, and tracing his development as a composer.

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