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Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life: Selected…

Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life: Selected Letters

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Other authors: Robert Spaethling (Editor)

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Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life:
Selected Letters

Edited and Newly Translated by Robert Spaethling

Faber and Faber, Paperback, 2004.

8vo. xv+479 pp. Preface by the editor [viii-xiii]. Index [457-79].

First published, 2000.


A Note about the Translation
Eighteenth-Century Currencies

Part One: The Early Years, 1769–1776
First Italian Journey
Second Italian Journey
Third Italian Journey
Interludes in Vienna and Munich

Part Two: In Search of Independence, 1777–1781
The Journey to Mannheim
Paris et Retour
Idomeneo of the Making of an Opera

Part Three: Mozart in Vienna, 1781–1791
Breaking with the Archbishop
Mozart and Constanze
Success, at Last!
Final Journeys

A Chronology of Mozart’s Life
Selected Bibliography
Index of Names and Places


This book is the older brother of A Life in Letters, ed. Cliff Eisen, trans. Stewart Spencer, Penguin Classics, 2006. Therefore, the following review will be mostly comparative. The long and short of it is that Mr Spaethling’s work, valuable though it is for Mozart fans, has been largely superseded by the more readable and better organised Eisen-Spencer volume.

Both books use basically the same design. It is simple and effective. The letters are printed in chronological order and interspersed with editorial comments about “missing links”. Copious footnotes take care of incidents, persons and musical works not sufficiently clear from the context. Mr Spaethling has the advantage of chapters with fairly extensive introductions to them, but his footnotes are less thorough than Mr Eisen’s.

The biggest difference in the selection is that Mr Spaethling includes only letters by Mozart himself. This makes for a less coherent and less comprehensive story. Mr Eisen includes almost as many letters by Leopold himself, most of them full of fascinating details and dry humour. For example, Leopold’s letters to the Hagenauers (their landlords in Salzburg) from 1762–66 describe the grand European tour of the Mozarts with great liveliness and charm. This is completely missing in Mr Spaethling because he starts with the Italian journeys of the early 1770s. It is nice to have (more than) a few additional letters by Wolfgang, but they hardly add anything essential to the portrait presented by Mr Eisen.

Mr Spaethling’s insistence on reproducing the irregular spelling and capitalisation in Wolfgang’s letters makes for a harder reading. Mr Spencer, on the other hand, kept the spirit without resorting to this dubious procedure. Otherwise both translations are relatively similar. At any rate, Mozart is recognisably the same pungent and witty correspondent. Here is one naughty moment to compare the translations; the ellipses indicate, as pointed out by Mr Spaethling but not Mr Eisen, anonymous censorship. No wonder! This is Wolfgang, the sexual athlete, writing to his wife from Berlin on 23 May, 1789:

Thursday, the 28th, I shall leave for Dresden, where I’ll stay overnight; then on June 1st I’ll sleep in Prague, and on the 4th – the 4th? – I’ll be sleeping with my dear little wife; – Spruce up your sweet little nest because my little rascal here really deserves it, he has been very well behaved but now he’s itching to possess your sweet... Just imagine that little sneak, while I am writing he has secretly crept up on the table and now looks at me questioningly; but I, without much ado, give him a little slap – but now he is even more...; well, he is almost out of control – the scoundrel.

I’ll be leaving for Dresden on Thursday the 28th and shall spend the night there. On 1 June I’ll be sleeping in Prague, and on the 4th – the 4th? – with my dearest little wife; – tidy up your lovely little nest for me as my little knave certainly deserves it, he’s been behaving and wants only to possess your most beautiful... Just imagine the rascal: even while I’m writing, he’s creeping up on to the table and looking at me questioningly, but I won’t stand for this and give a quick slap – but the lad is simply... The rogue is now even more on fire and I can hardly restrain him any longer.

It’s not hard to fill the blanks, is it?

On purely technical grounds, Mr Spaethling’s volume lacks any List of Letters, so you can’t tell at a glance what is included and what not. He doesn’t have separate indexes for names and works either, but his general index is well-done and includes both. The cover is less appealing, and somewhat ironic considering no letters by other members of the Mozart family are included, but the book does benefit from sixteen pages of illustrations. They are all black-and-white and mostly portraits, but the quality is fine and there are two facsimiles of the originals in Mozart’s very neat hand.

One last question should be answered. Does it make sense to acquire this volume if you already have Mr Eisen’s? Well, like I said in the beginning, yes and no. Yes, because it contains a good deal omitted from the Penguin Classics edition. No, because all this material tells you nothing essentially new. But it’s always fascinating to read, and it’s nice to have filled as many gaps as possible. So, I’d say the “yes” is bigger than the “no”. Wouldn’t you be sorry to miss Wolfgang’s sending kisses to his sister’s “rear end if it’s clean”?

In a somewhat fulsome Epilogue, Mr Spaethling makes the curious remark that “it may well be true that Mozart hides behind his words and music”. I should say exactly the opposite. Mozart is revealed in his letters and music as few composers are. Sure, he may have “played games with his correspondents”, and yes, these are private letters that were never intended for publication, Mr Spaethling is right to remind us of these two rather obvious points. But this is missing the point. The letters and the music are not about Mozart’s life in facts and figures. They are about Mozart’s personality, bubbling with fun and sizzling with mischief, yet often shot through with serious, sad and tragic overtones. It’s a very frank picture of humanity that some readers and listeners cannot handle. It is their loss. ( )
  Waldstein | Oct 5, 2017 |
Mozart's honesty, his awareness of his own genius and his contempt for authority all shine out from these letters.
1 vote antimuzak | Jul 26, 2006 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mozart, Wolfgang AmadeusAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Spaethling, RobertEditorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393328309, Paperback)

"A wonderful collection that gives Mozart a voice as a son, husband, brother and friend." —New York Times Book Review

"Mozart's honesty, his awareness of his own genius and his contempt for authority all shine out from these letters."—Sunday Times  (London). " In Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life, Robert Spaethling presents "Mozart in all the rawness of his driving energies" (Spectator), preserved in the "zany, often angry effervescence" of his writing (Observer). Where other translators have ignored Mozart's atrocious spelling and tempered his foul language, "Robert Spaethling's new translations are lively and racy, and do justice to Mozart's restlessly inventive mind" (Daily Mail). Carefully selected and meticulously annotated, this collection of letters "should be on the shelves of every music lover" (BBC Music Magazine). 16 pages of illustrations

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:51 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

These letters span almost 22 years, from Mozart's first journey to Italy as a shy teenager to his final months in Vienna. The translations capture his unique idiom and spirit, retaining the misspellings and inaccuracies of the original German.

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W.W. Norton

2 editions of this book were published by W.W. Norton.

Editions: 0393328309, 0393047199

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