December 05, 2013


Mozart: A Life. By Paul Johnson. Viking. $25.95.

Historical Heartthrobs: 50 Timeless Crushes—from Cleopatra to Camus. By Kelly Murphy with Hallie Fryd. Zest Books. $17.99.

     Many thousands of pages have been written about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the man and his music, abetted by the extensive family correspondence in which Mozart engaged throughout his life. So it would seem the height of folly to try to encompass the story of this towering musical genius in 164 pages – but that is just what Paul Johnson attempts in Mozart: A Life. A noted historian and author of biographies of Socrates, Napoléon, Darwin and Churchill, Johnson plumbs no significant new depths in this short and eminently readable book, but the work will be particularly attractive in its biographical (as opposed to musical) elements to people who know little or nothing about the composer. Johnson manages scene-setting in a few words: “Musicians were exactly in the same position as other household servants – cooks, chambermaids, coachmen, and sentries. They existed for the comfort and well-being of their masters and mistresses. The idea that you took on a composer or performer simply because he was outstanding…was absurd.” And Johnson goes on to explain that the only way to get ahead in the society of Mozart’s time was through “interest,” a word that in the 18th century roughly combined the meaning of “patronage,” “nepotism” and “connections” (although Johnson does not explain it quite that way). The extent to which lack of this form of interest influenced history is explained by quick references to George Washington and Napoléon as well as to Mozart – one of many attractive passages in which Johnson puts something across in a few words that other authors would dwell on at considerable length.

     When it comes to music, though, readers unfamiliar with Mozart may find that the compression of information makes the narrative a bit hard to follow: “Among the best [piano sonatas] are the one in C Minor (K. 457) and K. 576, written for Princess Frederica of Prussia, K. 457 (1784), which is the apotheosis of pianoforte power, the Sonata in F (K. 533), written in 1788, ‘which makes you sweat,’ as Mozart put it, and the one in D, which in places makes the piano sound like a brass instrument and is known as the Trumpet Sonata (K. 576).” In such passages, Johnson’s erudition may get in the way of easy understanding for some readers – although those who do know Mozart will find a series of interesting opinions and insights here. For example, Johnson discusses Beethoven’s timpani effects in his Ninth Symphony in connection with Mozart’s timpani use, commenting that what Beethoven did was “the only case I know of where Mozart missed an opportunity to create a new sound.” And in writing about the opera Idomeneo, Johnson mentions the work’s emotional intensity and suggests that “events in [Mozart’s] life did not transform his music. What did so were events in his imagination.” These are arguable assertions, but Johnson does not take the time to argue them – he is too busy moving on to other matters.

     Quotations from letters by Mozart and those around him are inevitable in any Mozart biography, and there are a number of them here, with even the well-known ones standing out because Johnson places them carefully in context – as when Mozart, discussing The Abduction from the Seraglio, notes that “passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of exciting disgust, and…music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear, but must please the listener…” Also inevitable are discussions of Mozart’s family life, both when growing up and in adulthood, and his eventual sad end – which, however, Johnson suggests was far less tragic than it has often been portrayed as being: Johnson says Mozart was far from a pauper when he died, his burial in a mass grave reflected the custom of the times, and allegations of foul play (such as those against Antonio Salieri) are fantasies, totally unsupported by evidence. More interesting than these assertions are the comments Johnson makes, often almost in passing, about what could be called the Mozart experience; indeed, Johnson writes, “we can never experience the true and full Mozart completely.” One reason among many: “When he was alive, his cadenzas were always wholly or in part improvised. Those he wrote down were never his best work.” This improvisational element of Mozart’s music-making is one of many in the book that could easily be spun out at much greater length, but Johnson is content to make his comments and continue. Along the way, he occasionally indulges in a bit of poetic description, as when he calls the Clarinet Concerto “a golden universe of sound, with ecstatic flashes of pure light.” But he is more often matter-of-fact without being argumentative or particularly intense in propounding his viewpoints. Johnson’s Mozart biography is scarcely definitive, but it covers a surprising amount of territory in a small number of pages, and does so with sufficient skill and sensitivity to delight those who already know Mozart’s life and intrigue those who do not.

     Mozart could well have been included in Historical Heartthrobs, but although a couple of his near-contemporaries, Marie Antoinette (whom Mozart met) and Lord Byron, are in the book, Mozart is not. Perhaps it is just as well. This is a very clever mashup of history and romance that unfortunately is marred by poor writing and/or editing that results in some hilarious errors. It is nevertheless a (+++) book for the sheer effrontery of the presentation by Kelly Murphy and Hallie Fryd. Among the 50 apparently arbitrarily selected historical figures profiled briefly here are ones as obvious as Cleopatra and as obscure as filmmaker Maya Deren. The way they are profiled is what gives the book its character. Each gets vital statistics, a brief life story, and short sections – the heart of the book – called “The Story of His [or Her] Sex Life,” “Why He [or She] Matters,” and “Heat Factor” (on a scale of 1 to 5). The idea is for readers to decide whether they would bed or wed each of these people if given the chance – certainly an offbeat way to make history more interesting and lively. And then each short profile ends with quotations by or about the person. Historical Heartthrobs includes quite a mixture of people: Ada Lovelace (Lord Byron’s daughter and a computer pioneer), Annie Oakley, Mata Hari, Coco Chanel and Leni Riefenstahl are among the women; Nikola Tesla, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Duke Kahanamoku, Bugsy Siegel and double agent Eddie Chapman are among the men. The mixture of very-well-known names with ones that are much less familiar is intriguing, and the inclusion of some obvious people (Cleopatra) is balanced by the omission of others (no Marilyn Monroe). The subtitle is misleading: Cleopatra is indeed the first person in the book (based on date of birth), but Albert Camus is only No. 36; the most recent is assassinated Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto. The “Heat Factor” ratings are arguable and often just plain silly: Fidel Castro is a 3, Jane Goodall a 5, bisexual George Sand a 3.5, Dorothy Parker a 4.5, Wild Bill Hickok a 2, John Wilkes Booth a 1. But these ratings are the most unusual element of the book and will surely be the most attractive for many readers. What is not attractive is the parade of factual mistakes, some of which invite hilarity and appropriate rejoinders. Byron’s Don Juan was “criticized for its apparent immortality”? Umm…that’s “immorality.” George Sand “did not attend Chopin’s funeral in 1848”? Neither did anyone else – Chopin died in 1849. Frederick Douglass made his way in the face of “statues which thralled him”? Were those marble statues or bronzes – or perhaps statutes? One of Eddie Chapman’s two fiancées had “born him a daughter”? That had better be “borne,” unless someone thinks Chapman was transsexual. Even when the errors are howlers, there is a real risk that they may be believed by readers unfamiliar with history or with the specific people discussed in Historical Heartthrobs. The book is clever, offbeat and often intriguing, but it plays too loosely with the facts – apparently quite unintentionally – to be anything more than an amusing curiosity.

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