MOZART: The Reign of Love by Jan Swafford (Harper, 810 pp., $45)
Jan Swafford makes it clear in the introduction to his admirable "Mozart: The Reign of Love" that things weren't all so bad for genius composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. "I believe the only profound tragedy in Mozart's life was his early death, when he was on the verge of a new plateau in his art and, incidentally, on the verge of real prosperity," he observes.
Swafford, a composer who has written biographies of Ludwig von Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and Charles Ives, calls Mozart "the sanest, most gregarious, least self-flagellating" of his subjects, fundamentally a happy man.
And a funny one, too, as shown through his correspondence, from which Swafford quotes generously. Victorians of all eras have been shocked by Mozart's letters, and many were suppressed or censored until recently. And yet they are prose marvels that could have come from Henry Fielding; Swafford calls them "effervescent, hilarious, sometimes so obscene that they could clear your sinuses."
All prodigies learn by imitation, but Mozart's absorption was so immediate and inexplicable that his father made a note of the date. Led to the keyboard on the evening of Jan. 24, 1761, three days before he turned 5, he astonished his family by playing a piece that his older sister had been working on for days. Within half an hour, he played the piece again, and by then he had it memorized. Before he was 7, he played for royalty in Munich, Prague and Vienna; he wrote his first symphony at the age of 8.
By the time he was in his late teens, Mozart had written half a dozen operas, two of which are still part of the extended repertory. Before he was 30, he had perfected the string quartet, dedicating the last six of his 23 such compositions to his mentor Franz Joseph Haydn, who recognized that the young man had already surpassed him. And then there are the symphonies and the concertos, those astonishing late operas, as different as can be but immediately recognizable as creations that could only be by Mozart.
This is an excellent book for both musicians and the general reader. The story is told in a lively, knowing style, without written-out musical examples but shot through with unfailingly erudite and impassioned discussion of the composer's work. Only toward the end do we feel the huge absence that would be left by Mozart's death — and Swafford's evocation of the moment the composer knew he was dying is appropriately terrifying.
And yes, Mozart was indeed interred in what was called a "common grave," but that was in accordance with the Viennese custom of the time. Nobody seems to have followed the cortège to the burial, which was outside the walls of the city (also by custom) — three long miles away on rough roads to St. Marx Cemetery. But Mozart's sublimity was already recognized and his music was playing, through Vienna and then Europe and then throughout the world, where we may hope, even in such troubled times, that it will always be playing.