The Bloomsbury critic, Lytton Strachey, was the father of the modern practice of biography-as-assassination. Writing amidst the cynicism caused by the First World War, Strachey’s Eminent Victorians set the model for pathography by taking down four hitherto-beloved 19th century heroes: Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Thomas Arnold, and General Charles (“Chinese””) Gordon. Strachey’s victims’ posthumous reputations have fared rather better than his, in the decades since Eminent Victorians was published in 1921. Still, the Strachean instinct to dissect (and then deride) men and women widely regarded as admirable and noble continues to this day, as do Strachey’s characteristic emphases on emotion, personal relationships, and modernist “authenticity” over talent, a sense of duty, and religious faith.
This literary plague may, in fact, be receding, at least in the United States: think of the admiring biographies of Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and Lincoln published in recent years. One remaining victim of Stracheyism, however, is the man who was arguably the greatest musical talent in history, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. How many people have read his story through the psychoanalytic fog of the 1984 Peter Schaffer/Milos Forman film, Amadeus, in which Mozart is portrayed as a flatulent, borish, man-child genius stalked by a jealous fellow-composer of lesser gifts, Antonio Salieri? It’s all twaddle, and often vulgar twaddle, but at least you can close your eyes and listen to the music.
Which is, as always, sublime. Whenever I’ve visited the slough of despond, Mozart has been an unfailing restorative — as he is a welcome companion in life’s moments of unrelieved joy, and at every point in between. So, as we close this year marking the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, let’s just forget Amadeus and its imitation of Lytton Strachey by way of Sigmund Freud, and concentrate on the music. Herewith, then, a very brief Mozart Sampler, for those interested in meeting a genius on his own terms:
The Operas: They’re time consuming, but it’s permitted to cheat a little by getting the highlights of the main Mozart operas in the Teldec CD “Opera Collection,” directed by Nikolaus Harnancourt. Complement that with one of my favorite recordings, the Mozart opera “Overtures” CD on the EMI label, with Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
The Symphonies: Mozart took the symphonic form as far as it could go before Beethoven dramatically recast it in his Third. So I’d suggest starting towards the end of Mozart’s symphonic production, with #31 (the “Paris” symphony), #35 (the “Haffner”), and #36 (the “Linz”); then move on to #38 (the “Prague” symphony) and #41 and (the “Jupiter”).
The Concerti: Once again, Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields do a brilliant job in two double-CD collections on the Philips label, “Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos.” Then try Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music performing the flute and harp concerto, the flute concerto #1, and the bassoon concerto on a L’Oiseau-Lyre CD, before turning to Hogwood again for the clarinet and oboe concerti on another L’Oiseau-Lyre disc. Those less inclined to authentic instrument recordings can find most of the Mozart wind concerti on a two-disc Decca CD entitled “Mozart Wind Concertos.”
Sacred Music: Whatever biographers say about Mozart’s connections to Freemasonry, I defy anyone to listen to his motet, “Ave, Verum,” and draw any conclusion other than that he was a sincere (if sometimes confused ) Catholic believer. Try the “Ave, Verum” on the Philips CD, “Exsultate Jubilate,” with Sir Colin Davis, the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and Kiri Te Kanawa, which also gets you the “Vesperae Solennes de Confessore” and the “Kyrie in D-Minor.” As for the many Mozart Masses, the “Coronation Mass” is probably the best start for the neophyte, before tackling the unfinished “Great Mass” and “Requiem.”
It’s often said that the angels play Bach on holy days, and Mozart for the sheer joy of it. I couldn’t agree more. One more thing, if I may. Query to Richard (The God Delusion) Dawkins: do you really think Mozart is the accidental, if fortuitous, product of galactic biochemistry?
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.