Mozart at the Gateway to his Fortune: Serving the Emperor, 1788–1791
By Christoph Wolff
W. W. Norton & Company; 272 pp. $27.95
Mozart's premature death in 1791 at the age of thirty-five has prompted scholars to use words such as "autumnal" and "valedictory" to describe the works he composed in the last years of his life. Eminent musicologist Christoph Wolff aims to brush away this aura of doom and finality by examining Mozart's last compositions in light of his December 1787 appointment as the imperial-royal chamber composer at the Viennese court, a post that provided a salary with minimal duties.
What if Mozart had recovered from the two-week illness that turned fatal? The composer's energy and optimism, evident in his words from a 1790 letter — "I now stand at the gateway to my fortune" — are both thrilling and unsettling. Wolff speculates that the court appointment, with its guaranteed income, may have encouraged Mozart to live beyond his means. In fact, the letter whose words provide the book's title was written to a creditor.
Wolff analyzes what he terms Mozart's "imperial style" with considerations of the innovations the composer brought to such works as Così Fan Tutte, La Clemenza di Tito, Die Zauberflöte and the unfinished Requiem. Wolff sees a new sophistication and richness of design as a result of Mozart's contact with the works and pupils of J. S. Bach, and with the oratorios of Handel, four of which he arranged for performance.
Die Zauberflöte, called on its title page "Eine grosse Oper," is considered in depth for its ingenious design and concept. The Requiem is assessed, particularly for its expressive use of traditional counterpoint and in light of Mozart's May 1791 contract at St. Stephens Cathedral, which included the stipulation that he would eventually become Kapellmeister.
Well illustrated with artwork and musical examples, the book includes an appendix detailing currency equivalents, food prices, various incomes and the cost of music lessons. Wolff does an excellent job of explaining court politics (especially regarding Salieri and opera production) and the requirements of court and church posts. He makes clear how the Turkish War affected musical life and Mozart's finances, and he speculates on the composer's expensive 1790 trip to Frankfurt for the coronation of Leopold II. We see Mozart's publishing plan as well as his weakness for gambling.
A sense of loss permeates the final chapter, "Music Never to Be Heard," which introduces the reader to Mozart's compositional methods, and to the many works he had completed in his head but not yet notated. These fragments ("composed, just not yet written," in Mozart's own terms) include 140 pieces that were never to be heard as conceived. Manuscript examples and sound files posted online bring these fragments, especially a string trio, touchingly to life.
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