Remembering Amadeus

Several books being published for the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth reveal forgotten facts about the great composer.

mozart book 88298 (photo credit: )
mozart book 88298
(photo credit: )
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27, 1756 - December 5, 1791) was not only famous in his own lifetime but remains one of the most recognizable musical names of the 21st century. Although he passed away at the young age of 35, his prodigious output had a deep influence on succeeding generations of European composers, especially Beethoven, Rossini, Tchaikovsky and Mahler. That influence remains strong, especially this year, as orchestras around the world gear up to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth. The publishing world is no different - there are many interesting books about Mozart slated for release to coincide with the 250th anniversary. Biographies of Mozart and analysis of his compositions began to appear just a few years after his death in 1791. Since then, thousands of books have been published about every facet of his life and music, have made him one of the most scrutinized figures in history. Below is a small selection of the new offerings: * Mozart's Women: The Man, the Music, and the Loves in His Life by Jane Glover (Harper Collins, 2006, 416 pp, $27.95) is a biography of Mozart focusing on his relationships with the women in his life - his wife, mother, relatives and the various singers he worked with. The author is herself an accomplished conductor of 18th-century music, and her insights combined with the book's unique focus make Mozart's Women stand out as a biography. * Although Mozart died quite young, he was in the public eye since he was a young child, and this background is the focus of Mozart: The Early Years, 1756-1781 by Stanley Sadie (Norton, 2005, 624 pp, $35). Sadie (who recently passed away) was the editor of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a standard reference. This book, his last, is the first new biography of Mozart in 60 years and takes advantage of newly organized reference material, especially the collected letters of Mozart's demanding father, Leopold. * How many artists have a whole encyclopedia devoted to them? The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia (Cambridge University Press, 2005, 638 pp, $175) is a hefty volume which aims to become the standard reference book on Mozart. Extensively cross-checked and indexed, this tome takes advantage of all the latest academic research to provide detailed and comprehensive entries on every person, place or thing involved with the composers life. * A new general biography, Mozart by Julian Rushton (Oxford University Press, 2006, 352 pp, $30) aims to inform and educate the lay reader about the life of our birthday boy. It's a needed task - many of the works devoted to his life are written for academics, musicologists or musicians. Mozart does contain musical examples and other points of interest for the musician, but the bulk of the book is a well-researched examination of his life and times, again taking advantage of the latest scholarship while making it accessible to everyone. * On a more tangential note, Anthony Holden's The Man Who Wrote Mozart (Weidenfeld, 2006, 238 pp, 18.99) explores the life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, an Italian librettist (writer of words for an opera) who collaborated with Mozart on three of his operas. Da Ponte was born Jewish in the Venice ghetto of Ceneda; his given name was Emanuele Conegliano. After his mother died, his father remarried a Catholic girl, and the entire family converted to Catholicism and changed their names. Da Ponte was an often penniless adventurer whose life revolved around poetry, music and the gentler sex. He had a penchant for getting involved with married women - he was a friend of the legendary Cassanova - and several times had to relocate at the request of the authorities. As a librettist he collaborated with many important composers of the day, but his work with Mozart, on works such as The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cos fan tutte, would become his most memorable endeavor. These three operas are considered to be not only the best of Mozart's operatic works, but are counted among the great masterpieces of the genre. After many misadventures he eventually emigrated to America, where he tried various business ventures without success. Eventually he was appointed the first professor of Italian at Columbia University, and he oversaw the triumphant premiere of Don Giovanni in the New World. He had an impact on the early cultural life of the States by bringing many Italian opera companies and singers to perform in New York. He died at age 90 and lies in an unmarked grave in Calvary Cemetery in Queens. It turns out that many of the things we think we know about Mozart - his rivalry with the composer Salieri, his ultra-extravagant lifestyle leading to poverty - are nothing more than suppositions popularized by the movie 1984 Amadeus, which was based on a play by Peter Shaffer of the same name. Others - his fantastic abilities as a child, the awe he inspired in his contemporaries - are not. Given the plethora of new material and celebrations, anyone interested in deepening their knowledge of this giant of music should find the task easier this year.