Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

‘Mozart; The Reign of Love’ by Jan Swafford

cover of book; photo by Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Many myths and legends have been woven around the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the musical genius who burst upon the world stage as a five-year old prodigy in 1761, when his father, Leopold Mozart, toured the capitals of Europe with him and his sister, introducing them as ‘a miracle.’

The author of this account of Mozart’s life, Jan Swafford, is both a writer and a musician, giving him insights into aspects of Mozart’s work that go beyond those of most biographers. Thus, in addition to having read all the correspondence, diaries and contemporary accounts of Mozart’s life, including the letters written by his father during their various tours, as well as the letters written by Mozart himself, whether to his father, his wife or various other individuals, Jan Swafford has been able to analyse and discuss in depth all Mozart’s musical scores. The result is this long and detailed account of Mozart’s life and work, casting new light on the character of the man whose prodigious output came to an abrupt end with his untimely death at the age of 35 in 1791,

The book starts with an account of the scene in the Mozart household where Wolfgang’s sister, nine-year old Nannerl, is sitting at the family harpsichord, working on a piece of music her father, himself a musician and pedagogue, has given her to learn. Her little brother, four-year old Wolfgang, watches in fascination and when she has finished playing, he jumps up, sits at the keyboard and reproduces the notes his sister has been playing. The astonished father notes this on the page of music and goes on to make a record of other pieces of music little Wolfgang manages to master in short order. Leopold Mozart realised that his ‘miracle’ child could also become a paying proposition. With a resourcefulness unequalled ini the musical world, Leopold organised a tour of European capitals for his children at which they were feted and applauded wherever they went.

“I can compose as easily as a cow piddles,” young Wolfgang wrote to his sister at one point, and his ability to compose and improvise at the keyboardand quickly earned him a reputation throughout the musical world. Life on the road soon became second nature for the Mozart family, despite Leopold’s obligations to the ruling establishment in their home-town of Salzburg. Medicine was not very advanced at that time, consisting mainly of bloodletting, erroneous diagnoses and unsavoury concoctions purporting to be medicine, so that travelling exposed Wolfgang to various illnesses. After contracting a form of rheumatic fever as a child, he seems to have suffered from repeated bouts of it at various stages of his life, weakening him physically and stunting his growth. Nonetheless, his spirit remained undaunted and the drive to compose music, whether for private performance, chamber ensembles or larger orchestras remained at the forefront of his activities. Many of his keyboard concertos were written to be performed by him at concerts aimed at augmenting his income.

Commissions for operas were one of the prime sources of incomce for musicians who, like Wolfgang, were not employed on a regular basis by a royal court or ecclestiastical body. Thus, in 1767, aged only thirteem Wolfgang wrote his first opera, ‘Sebastien and Sebastienne,’ going on to write several others while still a teenager, using subjects and librettos provided by Italian writers such as Marco Cotellini, Metastasio and others.

In 1780, aged 24, Wolfgang conducted the first performance of his opera, ‘Idomeneo,’ written in the grand Italian style, and in 1782 he moved to Vienna, getting away from provincial Salzburg and his domineering father. He courted and married Constanze Weber, a singer whose sister Aloysia was a renowned soprano with whom Mozart had once been in love. At this point he wrote the Singspiel (German-language opera) ‘The Abduction from the Seraglio,’ according to a libretto by Johan Gottlieb Stephanie featuring the theme of Turkey and Turkish-style music which was popular at the time.

Throughout his life Mozart continually composed serenades, divertimentos, symphonies, concertos and church music at a rapid rate, tending to focus on his operas to an increasing extent. This trend accelerated after he first collaborated with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, leading to his stellar operas ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ (1786) followed by ‘Don Giovanni’ (1787) and ‘Cosi fan Tutti’ (1790). In addition, in the last year of his life, as well as various pieces, concertos and ensemble pieces, he composed another opera in the granr Italian style, ‘La Clemenza di Tito’ (1791). His last opera, the Singspiel, ‘The Magic Flute’ (1791), used the libretto of his friend and the manager of a theatre in Vienna, Schikaneder. In the last year of his life Mozart was working at an intense pace, working incessantly to produce one masterpiece after another, and although he was suffering from deteriorating health, he continued working to his very last breath.

Jan Swafford analyses and dissects the text and score of each opera in great detail, giving the reader fresh insights into the works, each one a masterpiece in itself. His analysis of key shifts is lost on this particular reader, I’m sorry to say, but Swafford’s understanding of the intricacies of the various plots as well as of the psychological and musical underpinnings of each character, vocal ensemble and orchestral accompaniment is unparalleled in my experience of any account of a composer’s life and work. Of course, the best way of reading the book would be to listen to each piece described, but this wasn’t possible in my case. The overriding aspects of Mozart’s life, according to Swafford were his joie de vivre, his deep affection for his wife, and his constant drive to compose music.

Swafford describes Mozart’s final illness and death, citing the tributes by his contemporaries to show the reader the effect this had on those around him. Schikaneder was found walking around crying, Joseph Haydn in London mourned that no one would be able to surpass Mozart for hundreds of years. Public memorials were held in Vienna, Prague, Kassel and Berlin. The largest memorial, attended by some four thousand people, was held in Prague, where Mozart was particularly beloved, and an account in the paper read: “There was profound silence during the ceremony, and a thousand tears flowed for our Mozart, whose heavenly harmonies so often moved and filled our hearts…”

The Requiem that Mozart had been commissioned to write by an unnamed visitor was finished by his pupil and amanuensis, Sussmayr, according to sketches and ideas that Mozart had outlined to him in his final illness and on his deathbed. Mozart’s wife, Constanze, outlived him by over fifty years. In addition to the Requiem, when he died Mozart had been working on a horn concerto, a violin sonata, a string trio and a string quartet, a Mass and various other pieces. In the last year of his life Mozart had earned relatively well and his prospects for the future were favourable. His widow managed to support herself at first by giving recitals of arias he had composed, and at a later stage by selling his manuscripts and correspondence, which left her a wealthy woman. She later remarried.

About the Author
I was born and brought up in England. I am a graduate of the LSE and the Hebrew University. I have lived in Israel since 1964. I am an experienced translator, editor and writer.