Epistolary biography and the letters of Mozart

Epistolary biography and the letters of Mozart

What an ‘epistolary biography’ consists of seems simple enough, it is a biography or account of a life told through the medium of a person’s letters. But immediately some questions arise. Surely it does not consist entirely of their letters, for this would be ‘the letters of X’ rather than any kind of biography, which requires a biographer and their involvement. But how much of an involvement should this be? Is it that the biographer relates the story of the life in the form of an overview and provides just a few extracts or whole letters to illustrate aspects of this? Or is it composed by selections of letters linked by a thread provided by the biographer’s interpretive comments? It would seem that an epistolary biography can take both of these forms or be somewhere in between these ends of a spectrum. But thinking about this in relation to Mozart, and also in relation to the sociological investigation of Mozart’s life by Norbert Elias, raises some issues.

Regarding the many ‘life and letters’ epistolary biographies of Mozart, perhaps most take the form of over-determined interpretations, which many of the authors seem to have caught from previous biographies (not the sources) that provide certainties about the man and his conduct. The gist is that Mozart is said to have had a scatological sense of humour, suffered from a form of Tourette’s syndrome, had a bust-up with his former employer the Archbishop of Salzburg that led him to Vienna and eventual penury, had foreknowledge of his death and wrote his Requiem in that context, there was ‘bad feeling’ if not bad blood between him and Salieri, and so on, all of which are crowded into Peter Shaffer’s film, Amadeus. These claims circulate and re-circulate in the many offerings that exist, some of which date from the 1930s and before, others being more recently published, and only a few of which cover new ground. As well as the above claimed dodgy facts, they often share another characteristic too, which is that the letters (the main sources that remain) are only briefly quoted from, and overall a relatively small number of letters out of the 300 or so written by Mozart himself are drawn on. Of course there are exceptions to this; some such works are extremely good; some are deeply appreciative of the goldmine provided by the extant letters, both by Mozart himself and also wider family letters. Two particularly admirable, but also contrasting, examples are the Everyman Mozart Letters, and Robert Spaethling’s Mozart’s Letters Mozart’s Life.

The Everyman example uses letters that were translated by Lady Wallace and originally published in 1865, with a few linking passages supplied by the Everyman editors, Peter Washington and Michael Rose. There are a large number of letters included, although it is difficult to work out whether they are present in their entirety or if passages have been omitted, and most do not have an opening salutation or closing sign-off. Editorial passages are indicated by using italics and there just a small number of them. There is an editorial paragraph right at the start [p.9], which says that Mozart’s father Leopold recognised him as a musical prodigy from an early age and undertook travels with him and his sister. There is an editorial paragraph soon after, commenting on how the family arrived in Vienna [p.25]. The next editorial paragraph is a commentary on a visit to Paris not being a happy experience for Mozart musically, followed by his mother’s death there [p.120]. The editorial paragraph that follows [p.134] comments on Mozart staying in Paris, contrary to his father’s wishes, and the commissions to write compositions he received. The next editorial paragraph [p.157] comes after performance of the opera Idomeneo, that Mozart received a peremptory command from his employer the Archbishop of Salzburg to go to Vienna, and that not long afterwards this led Mozart to leave his employment. The editorial paragraph that comes next [p.210] describes Mozart becoming increasingly in demand as the performer, writing various important works, but nonetheless being continually short of money, with his requests for financial help recurrent from 1782 on. The next editorial paragraph [p.214] describes Mozart as embarking on his final creative period, producing a string of outstanding work, and with changes in his letter-writing because of his father’s death. The next and final editorial paragraph [p.252] states that Mozart died on 5 December 1791. There are eight such editorial interventions, then. Mainly they take the form of filling the reader in on movements and events that might not be apparent from the selection of letters provided, although some are more interpretational than this. The main examples concern the ‘unhappiness’ description of Mozart’s Paris visit with his mother, and the assertion of ‘recurrent financial problems’ during his time in Vienna, said to have occurred from 1782 on and so for the last nine years of his life.

It is simply not possible to go through Robert Spaethling’s Mozart’s Letters Mozart’s Life in the same way, because this book is organised very differently. For a start, the selected letters are organised in the list of contents into three time-periods – early life, the search for independence, and time in Vienna – with each Part having additional divisions within it, linked to headings provided by particular events or journeys. In addition, as one letter ends and before another begins, there are linking passages setting the scene. This provides a detailed and admirable guide for the reader who wishes to be told what is what, with the net effect being that there is a much more ’biographical’ feel to this book because the voice of the editor is so thoroughly intertwined. The ‘I’ of Mozart and others in writing their letters is repeatedly topped and tailed by ‘I’ of the editor, turning their letter-writing ‘I’ into a ‘He’ whose activities and so on are interpreted for the reader.

What about Norbert Elias’s unfinished book on Mozart? This is very different in its intention, if not as thoroughly different in its execution as might have been expected. It is not concerned with ‘Mozart the musical genius’ considered in individualistic terms. It is focused instead on Mozart as a transitional figure, being brought up in one tradition, that of the court musician as craftsman; but aspiring to something that did not yet exist, a musician focused on composition and not fettered to the requirements of employers who treated musicians as providing a service to their order. Its evidential basis is provided by the Mozart family letters, not in their manuscript originals but in two secondary source publications. The main one Elias draws on are the letters translated into English by Emily Anderson originally in the 1930s in three volumes, but with Elias using the one volume 1980s version that provides some better translations and fuller notes. At the time of him writing, there was also a seven volume collection of letters and other papers in German, but which he used only residually.

Overall, Elias references around 40 letters out of the 300+ by Mozart (and about the same number again family letters) that were known at the time, plus around 20 others, in particular letters by Mozart’s father Leopold. There are significant lengthy quotations  from the letters of Leopold which propel the argument forward, while those  from Mozart himself are referenced mainly later in Elias’s discussion. However, most appear simply as footnoted references, and others consist of just a couple of sentences. In addition, quite large sections of the book do not contain any letter references, while other sections of it have significant numbers of them. All this raises the question of what Elias in an argumentation sense was doing In both components of his book.

So what was Elias doing in them? Ah, that’s for next week!

Last updated:  14 March 2019


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