One of the best classes I ever took was called Music in the Middle Ages. It was my senior year at Eastman and the course was taught by Dr. Hendrik van der Werf. I learned a lot about medieval music, but the most important lesson was one that was more universal. Dr. van der Werf taught us to think critically about all the historical information and commentary we were reading, even when it was written by experts in the field. His big question always was: how do you know? Are you sure you know? What are you basing your ideas on? In the case of the middle ages, he pointed out that we use the music that has survived to draw conclusions. We don't know how much music originally existed, so we can't know how much was lost over time or what percentage of the original amount what we have is. Do we have 50% and 50% is lost? Do we have only 10%, or 75%? We don't know. We could be missing music that would throw a very different light on music in the Middle Ages. The message was, any conclusions we make from the existing evidence, including the artwork of the time, must be provisional and subject to rethinking.
This idea of examining evidence and also thinking critically about it obviously applies to many parts of life - politics, advertising, all those scientific studies that turn out to have been funded by an interested industry. However, I have been thinking about Dr. van der Werf's concept in relation to the Mozart biographies I have been reading.
I was impressed with Maynard Solomon's biography of Mozart and his use of primary documents in making his points. I also thought that Jane Glover solidly supported her points with the use of letters and scores. But even as I read them, I wondered about how they used the letters of the Mozart family. The letters are so extensive and nearly everyone who uses them only quotes bits, often the same letters over and over. Even if you get a book of the letters, they aren't all in there because there are so many.
One lesson I got from reading this was how broad and minutely detailed the historian's work is. Simultaneously! For an example of the minute details, Halliwell includes a long explanation of how Leopold and Nannerl communicated after her marriage and move to St. Gilgen, while Leopold remained in Salzburg. The two tradespeople who carried letters and parcels back and forth are identified and details about them are given, as well as the particular days and times they would come and go. How Leopold would quickly shop for Nannerl's requested items and send a response is also documented. It is an unexpected look into the 18th century. There are also highly detailed sections on the medicine of the time and smallpox, which crosses over into religion and the state of vaccines.
Echoing the problems of studying the Middle Ages, quite a few of the letters have been lost. We know this because in some cases the replies still exist. Scholars have actually worked out a chronological sequence of letters, giving numbers to both existing and missing letters, though there are missing letters that haven't been entered into this system.
I came away from Solomon's biography thinking that Leopold Mozart was a tyrannical control freak who interfered with both of his children's lives and happiness and that Wolfgang was a visionary musician with reasonable plans who finally had to escape from his family in order to write the music he needed to write. After reading Halliwell's look at the Mozart family (which is not a biography of Wolfgang Mozart) I had a more nuanced view of both men. Leopold had valid concerns about some of his son's plans, based on his own experiences touring with the family, for example. Wolfgang was neither an eternal child, as some writers depict him, but neither was he always kind and sensible. Does Halliwell draw her own conclusions, like other biographers? Yes, but as I read the book, it was always clear to me when she was giving her own opinion or interpretation. For example, she presents quite a bit of evidence that Leopold loved Nannerl and was a good father to her, as opposed to some other authors who present him as carrying little about her and her musical education. On the other hand, when the Mozart family arrived in Vienna during a smallpox outbreak, Leopold took Wolfgang and fled to a safer location. Halliwell states that the conclusion that Leopold valued Wolfgang above Nannerl appears unavoidable.
Author bias in biography is inevitable. Just as a reader needs to consider the source of the information being presented, so he or she also needs to be aware that no author is completely neutral. I find that this makes reading biographies more interesting. It's another layer to consider.
The Mozart Family: Four Lives in a Social Context is a wonderful book for learning more about the time and place of the Mozart family. Next - did people have more fun in the 18th century?