About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mozart for real

After reading two novels about Mozart (see here and here) I decided to switch to biography to see if I could find answers to my questions about what was true and what was fiction created by the authors. The book I chose was Mozart's Women by Jane Glover. I found this while searching on Amazon for books on Mozart; Jane Glover is the music director of Music of the Baroque here in Chicago, so I ordered it. I highly recommend this book. Glover's theme is Mozart's relationships with the women in his life, including opera characters, and his enlightened attitude toward women. She includes a lot of fascinating and in-depth biographical information and thoughtful discussion of Mozart's works and his process of writing music, in particular opera, as it developed over his life.

An interesting aspect of biographies is that they're not "the truth," but are actually a reflection of the time they are written in and the viewpoint of the author. When I first studied Mozart as a college music student, what I picked up about Mozart was that he was an incredible genius who was so removed from the world that he would never be touched by anything -- not by the scenery while traveling, not by the death of his children. The evidence for this was in the music he wrote. His father Leopold was a great man, though a lesser musician than his son, who gave up much to nurture this extraordinary talent. Constanze was a careless ditz, and it was a tragedy that Wolfgang had married her. Then came Amadeus, the play and the movie, and the popular view of Mozart became one of naive  potty-mouthed, immature, musical genius.

Glover agrees with other current biographers and paints Leopold as overbearing and unwilling to let go as Wolfgang grew up. Constanze was playful and a good partner to Wolfgang, and she turned out to be a smart manager, though she took over the finances too late to make a difference to her husband. Glover is clearly outraged by the unfair treatment Wolfgang's sister Nannerl received. A very talented musician, she toured with her brother until she was 19. At that time her father kept her home while Wolfgang continued his extraordinary career. This was in spite of the fact that a number of talented women at the time had successful musical careers as singers, pianists, and teachers.

Wolfgang Mozart himself is depicted as a serious musician, as well as an extraordinary one. He was extremely social and had a wide circle of friends all over Europe. An aspect of his musicianship and personality that surprised me was that he was known for his kindness and patience in working with the singers in his opera productions, including older singers who struggled with the parts he had written.

I was fascinated by the discussions about the writing of the operas and subsequent productions. Mozart was very involved in the libretto, working in partnership with his librettists, and expressed strong opinions about the themes and drama of the stories. The operas that he wrote with Lorenzo Da Ponte -- The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte -- were real partnerships that changed opera forever. Both the themes and the music were unlike other operas of the time, which seemed to have fallen into patterns that everyone expected. For example, composers wrote in a way that encouraged applause at the end of the overture and arias. In Abduction from the Seraglio, Mozart blends the end of the overture into the beginning of act one, removing the opportunity for applause. Likewise, the arias are woven into the dramatic action, focusing the audience's attention on the drama and reducing the chances of applause.

In music school, students study works of the past as fixed entities. While there are new, radical productions of operas and sometimes older works are adapted into new pieces, I always thought of the composer's original work as existing in an original fixed form. As musicians, we often think about honoring the composer's intentions by following what's in the score and learning about convention of the time. It was eye-opening for me, then, to read that Mozart regularly rewrote parts based on his singers' abilities. In some cases he had to make parts easier, for older or less talented singers. In other cases he added new arias to please a singer who wanted a bigger role. So this means that there are multiple versions of how some of his operas can be performed? I'm not that knowledgeable about opera, so I wonder what directors do with these choices today? Is there now a standardized version of each opera?

It appears that Mozart's Women contains so much interesting information and is such fun to read that I forgot my original intention of sorting truth from fiction. I did pick up some ideas that the Weber family was somewhat different that they were portrayed in Marrying Mozart. Mozart's Women paints a happier picture overall of the family than the novel does.

There is more to read -- fiction and nonfiction. That Mozart fascinates us is clear from the amount of other works generated by him and his life.

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