Only the sound of a Mozart opera was heard

Only the sound of a Mozart opera was heard

Last week’s blog marks the beginning of a small side-project on the Mozart letters. This blog continues the discussion.

A gale has been raging for most of last night and into this morning – it is now 08.36 UK time. Looking out of the window, parts of trees are scattered about in a nearby field, debris from goodness knows where is on the porch, and for hours the tempestuous shapes of scuddering clouds and thrashing trees have been dimly glimpsed. But inside the only sound has been the music of Mozart. Woken at 3am by the gale, the hours since have been spent cross-checking the appearance of Mozart and family letters across different editions of these and compiling a detailed list of those that Elias references in his extended essay on Mozart: The Sociology of Genius (volume 12 of the Collected Works). It seemed fitting to have Mozart’s music as both background and foreground.

Elias is interested in the relationship between an individual – Wolfgang Mozart – and society at a point when the relationship between musicians and music on one hand, and patrons and patronage on the other, began to change rapidly in the nexus of German-oriented local states and their nobilities. I’m interested in how Elias uses letters written by Mozart and other members of his family, and the relationship between this and the argument that Elias presents his readers with. This latter seems overly neat: Mozart was caught between the old regime and its patronage of musicians as servants, and the new context of musicianship and genius as later exemplified by Beethoven; his childhood as a musical prodigy led him to seek specialness for his musical gifts later on; his urge to be free of the constraints posed by his employer prince-Bishop of Salzburg was paralleled by his urge to be free of those imposed by his father; his rejection of patronage led to his desire to operate in a free musical market; sublimation rather than repression is the key to his activities; and when appreciation of his free market musicianship declined in Vienna after he had moved there, this was paralleled by the decline in his wife Constanze’s love for him; and he gave up and died. Along the way most bits of mythology (aka untruths) about Mozart are added into the picture, albeit sometimes with reservations.

Of course to an extent this was impacted by the state of Mozart scholarship of the time Elias was writing. But even more so it seems to come from his working method. There are some 1400 extant letters. Only around 56 are referred to. These are concentrated in a small number of time-periods, with all the others ignored. Extracts are provided from a smaller number still. And the references and selections are guided by his interpretive frame, rather than this being deduced from the sequence and chronology of the letters as a set. It is an excellent read, makes many insightful comments, and throws much light on the circumstances of cultural production of the day in that part of Europe. And yet, it’s too neat and there were other things going on. Like, the ‘vanishing’ of Mozart’s sister Nannerl, also an important musical prodigy of the day; there is no evidence at least in the letters that Constanze’s affections declined; and the idea that Mozart chose to die by curling up his toes because his subscription concerts were less popular is just plain weird. And like, Mozart never gave up the search for a patron who would offer security of employment; and he was very aware that public appreciation was fickle but knew his operas remained highly popular.

Where is all this Mozart letters stuff going? At the moment ‘dunno’, but it’s interesting. In particular it’s interesting because it witnesses Elias grappling with how to understand the relationship between the I and the We (or rather, the They) and what happens to this in circumstances of accelerating change that started re-configuring the ratios of power between them. That Elias chooses letters, or rather had to use letters because these are the extant sources, is an enormous bonus for thinking about such matters in relation to the WWW project.

One of the sources Elias used are the English-language translations produced by Anderson in the later 1930s. In fact, he used the one- volume compilation of this, while there is also a three-volume ‘original’, and he did so alongside the multi-volume German-language complete edition of Briefe. I have just managed to buy the three-volumes at a reasonable price and so the next little job in this foray into the Mozart letters is to read the letters in all three volumes, 616 of them. I’ve also bought the one-volume compilation, so there will be much cross-checking involved.

Last updated:  9 August 2018