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In his lifetime, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart didn't have the best of luck with his patrons. One of them, Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg, actually had his chamberlain kick the composer in the ass to signal the end of his employment. Mozart has been luckier, however, with his biographers. In the last 20 years alone, he has been the subject of two fine books: Maynard Solomon's meticulous study, which slides Mozart's rather mystifying psyche under the analytic microscope, and Wolfgang Hildesheimer's more sardonic effort, in which the author seems determined to strip every last bit of romantic varnish from the traditional portrait.
Now Peter Gay joins the party with his own brief life. Weighing in at 177 pages, Mozart will never displace its deep-focus predecessors. But it's a delightful introduction to the composer, whose entire existence was, as Gay puts it, a "triumph of genius over precociousness." It's one thing, after all, to knock 'em dead at age five--at which point the waist-high Mozart was already a keyboard virtuoso. It's quite another to keep developing at the same prodigious pace. "A child prodigy is, by its nature, a self-destroying artifact: what seems literally marvelous in a boy will seem merely talented and perfectly natural in a young man. But by 1772, at sixteen, Mozart no longer needed to display himself as a little wizard; he had matured in the sonata and the symphony, the first kind of music he composed, and now showed his gifts in new domains: opera, the oratorio, and the earliest in a string of superb piano concertos."
Gay gets in all the essentials: Mozart's mind-blowing maturation, his family life, his weakness for billiards, and (of course) his seriously scatological style as a correspondent. Like Solomon, he takes an Oedipal approach to Wolfgang's perpetual head-banging with his overbearing father. And like Hildesheimer, he's at pains to scotch certain cherished myths--the mysterious figure who commissioned the Requiem, for example, turns out to be no otherworldly harbinger of death but a chiseling wannabe who hoped to pass off the finished product as his own work. Perhaps best of all, Gay never goes sublime on us. His portrait is attractively level-headed, and at one point he's even modest enough to knock his own metaphors for their puerility. Here, surely, the author is being hard on himself. But he's right about one thing: as far as artistry goes, this former child prodigy does make children of us all. --James Marcus [via]