Selected Letters

Edited and translated by Robert Spaethling
faber and faber,

Mozart’s misspellings (e.g. “thancked”) and poor orthography never blocked the playfulness in his correspondence. Visiting Prague, he created a piggy-Czech.

Freud would have had field day with his penning “seduction” for “abduction”, but most slips were conscious jokes.

Robert Spaethling’s translation has brought out Mozart’s epistolary vivaciousness which his own editorial comments sorely lack. How did Faber’s editors let him get away with “accidentally drown in a boating accident”?

The letters are rich in details of the time, such as public executions. We learn about Mozart’s routine, or lack of one. By six each morning he had finished doing his hair. He claimed to eat very little and to drink mostly water purified by ice or a splash of wine. He disliked the smell of tobacco and could not sleep in coaches. With so many contemporaries predeceasing him, he was lucky to reach 36.

To convince his father, Leopold, of the wisdom of his marriage to Constanze Weber, he confided that, although the “voice of nature speaks in me as loud as in any man, louder perhaps than in some big, robust brute of a fellow”, his dread of damnation and fear of disease had kept him from the whores. He concluded his plea with a reminder that because he had “never had to attend to any of my daily needs, such as linen, clothes, etc., from my very youth – I cannot think of anything more essential to me than a wife”. On this practical basis he selected one, “not ugly, but also not really beautiful – her whole beauty consists of two little black eyes and a graceful figure”.

Mozart repeatedly chastised his wife for flirting which he claimed he was “too bashful” to do. Within the holy state of matrimony, however, he was frank: “Just imagine that little sneak, while I am writing he has secretly crept up on the table and looks at me questioningly; but I, without much ado, give him a little slap -–but now he is even more…; well, he is almost out of control – the scoundrel”.

Even at their most risque, such passages are tame compared with his delight at bums and poo exchanges with his young Augsburg cousin Maria to whom he promised a ‘shit on your nose, so it runs down your chin”. He addressed no one else in this tone. If his scatology were ungovernable, why did he not use it to the Archbishop of Salzburg, who he hated “to the point of madness”?

Mozart became adept at “finesse and cunning”, telling his father what he wanted to hear; signing off, “Forever you most obedient son”, became the biggest lie of all. The boy eventually broke out of his father’s control but not without cost. Leopold blamed Wolfgang for his mother’s death in Paris. He replied to a more than usually vicious shaft of abuse: “I must confess that there is not a single sign in your letter by which I can recognise my father! A father perhaps, but not the Best, the most loving father”.

These snippets and insights would be no more than tittle-tattle had they not concerned a musical genius. The letters are a diamond field of details on particular works. But again, those particulars pale beside the revelation of his precepts. Above all, he was entranced at the thought of becoming a great opera composer, sometimes founding a school of German stage works. As a performer, his passion was for the organ, “the king of all instruments”. We find him agog at the “marvellous effects of flutes, oboes, and clarinetti” in orchestras, which had been loaded with strings.

Although he could weep at hearing his own sonata played, he accepted that, apart from his health, nothing was “more important than money”. To this end, he gave his Paris symphony a loud opening to meet Parisian taste and ended the first act of The Abduction from the Harem very noisily –“so the audience won’t cool off in its applause”. He rewrote to match the talents of his singers. Yet when music-making was unprofitable, he treated his Masonic Lodge as a credit union.

In Vienna, during the 1780s, Mozart saw Antonio Salieri ever intriguing against him, but was won over by the court composer’s “bravos” for a late opera.

Mozart rarely composed as effortlessly as we have been led to believe: “hard work” was his phrase. When melancholic, he could not always make himself  creative so that the Requiem was far from the only commission left incomplete. When he had no time to put pen to paper, he composed in his head.

Mozart’s account of how he wrote letters echoes through his music: “You can see now that I am able to write any I want to, beautifully and wild, straight and crooked. The other day, I was in a bad humor, so my writing was beautiful, straight, and serious; today I’m in a good mood, and my writing is wild, crooked, and jolly. Now it all depends on what you would rather have – you must make a choice between the two because I have nothing in between; it can be only beautiful or wild, straight or crooked, serious or jolly”.


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