A Cultural Biography

By Robert W. Gutman

Harcourt Brace. 839 pp. $40

Reviewed by Martin Kettle

In November 1780, the 24-year-old Mozart arrived in Munich. He was on the threshold of full personal maturity and lasting artistic greatness. The child-prodigy years lay far behind. His mother was two years dead. His relationship with his father, Leopold, who remained in Salzburg, was at last becoming one between equals. He was writing orchestral, instrumental and vocal music of new eloquence and depth. He travelled to Munich for the most important commission of his life so far. He had come to complete his opera "Idomeneo," which was to receive its first performance at the Elector of Bavaria's theater at the end of January 1781. "All that will follow turns upon this," Leopold Mozart predicted.

In Robert Gutman's new biography, these winter weeks in Munich are the watershed of Mozart's personal and artistic development. In this account, "Idomeneo" is Mozart's pivotal work, and Gutman duly lavishes upon it the most extended and eloquent analysis that he devotes to any of the composer's compositions. Although some of Gutman's claims about this period are speculative, most are persuasive. If nothing else, therefore, Gutman's biography should help to broaden still further the modern revival of interest in Mozart's sumptuous Munich masterpiece.

"Idomeneo" was the vehicle of what Gutman calls Mozart's "new aesthetic course." Though its text is in Italian, "Idomeneo" is clothed, says Gutman, in an "unremittingly German sound" that shows Mozart's long-maturing debt to Johann Christian Bach. Though the conventions of "Idomeneo" are those of traditional opera seria, Mozart bestowed a new spontaneity and humanity upon them, never more so than in the quartet "Andro ramingo e solo" ("I shall wander forth alone"), which, like the opera itself, was to hold a special place in the composer's heart for the remainder of his days. When he sang the quartet to himself in later years, Mozart was moved to tears.

Yet the breakthrough that Mozart achieved in Munich that winter was not solely aesthetic. It was also psychological and personal. And it was embodied in a personal trial of irresistible symbolism. As his composition of "Idomeneo" drew toward its end, Mozart suddenly hit one of his rare periods of creative block. "I passed 14 days without writing a note because I found it impossible to do so," he confessed. Gutman speculates that the explanation for this exceptionally unusual stemming of the Mozartian flow lies in the composer's relationship with Leopold (whom Gutman generally treats very sympathetically). Mozart had become stuck at the point in the score where the opera's hero, Prince Idamante -- Mozart's ideal self-image, says Gutman -- must overcome his fear of the sea-monster terrifying the kingdom of Crete in revenge for King Idomeneo's decision to spare his son's life. To free himself, Mozart had to come to terms with this oedipal challenge "and let Idamante's sword slay the monster-father."

It is true that Mozart's relationship with his father was never the same after 1780-81. The change is marked, as Gutman observes, in the reversal of roles in the letters that continued to pass between father and son as Mozart prepared for his new opera's first night. Aesthetically independent at last, Mozart was about to become his own man. Vienna beckoned him, and with it the famous breach with Salzburg's Archbishop Colloredo. Freedom from Salzburg meant artistic freedom, but it also meant freedom from Leopold. Freedom from Leopold meant marriage to Constanze Weber and ushered in Mozart's golden and, as it was to prove, final decade.

Most books about Mozart tend to concentrate on these later Vienna years at the expense of the preceding ones. That is hardly surprising, in view of the astonishing musical fruits of the final decade -- among them six more completed operas, 17 piano concertos, seven symphonies, 10 string quartets, not to mention the celebrated Requiem. Gutman's biography is an exception, as the emphasis on Munich and "Idomeneo" suggests. But this is not in any sense merely a book about the young Mozart. The structure, indeed, closely mirrors Mozart's own life. The Vienna years occupy less than the last third of Gutman's book, just as they occupied less than the final third of Mozart's own 35 years. Likewise, we are nearly a third of the way through Gutman before he pauses for the first time to analyze any of Mozart's compositions at more than passing length -- the 11-year-old's 1767 oratorio setting of "Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots."

But then, by the time he was 11, Mozart himself was also nearly a third of the way to his unmarked grave. As a result, Gutman provides the most balanced account of Mozart's life so far. But he has, to some extent, sacrificed the music in the search for the man. Mozart's works tend to flash past in something of a compressed blur, with the exception of the operas. This is not necessarily a hostile point. All biographers of composers must confront this dilemma in some form, and it is particularly acute in the case of Mozart, when only a handful of readers can be expected to have instant recall of more than 600 compositions.

But there is also a philosophical as well as a practical issue here. In the case of Wagner, about whom Gutman wrote a famous book some 30 years ago, the life and the music are so powerfully intertwined that the one is barely imaginable without the other. Mozart, on the other hand, sometimes appears to be at the opposite end of the spectrum. For many, especially those influenced by the "holy fool" version depicted in Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus," Mozart is the embodiment of a composer whose life is marginal, at best, to his artistic achievements. Gutman's book is above all an extremely erudite and lucid counterweight to this approach. It works hard to place Mozart in his time, to show that Mozart came from Germany (at least in a cultural sense) rather than God, and readers must be prepared to master no little amount of 18th-century European political and cultural history in order to follow Gutman's account. The result is a Mozart who is more Wolfgang than Amadeus, a stupefyingly gifted musician who, nevertheless, was capable of everyday work, a universal genius with a defecation obsession and, significantly in view of what Gutman calls the "guttering candle of Mozartean myth," a composer who, when he died, was at the very height of his powers and full of plans for a journey not to Elysium but to London.

Martin Kettle is the U.S. bureau chief of the Guardian newspaper of London.