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Mozart: A Life

by Maynard Solomon
656 pages
Published: February 1995

Maynard Solomon’s “Mozart: A Life” was published in 1995 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for biography. Solomon co-founded Vanguard Records, has taught at Columbia, Yale, Harvard and the Julliard School of Music, and authored several books including a highly-regarded biography of Beethoven.

Two things are immediately clear when reading this biography: it is built upon a foundation of assiduous (and likely painstaking) research…and it is not for the faint of heart. Solomon’s narrative is neither an easy-to-follow chronological treatment of Mozart’s life nor a particularly colorful one.  Instead, it is fact- and conjucture-dense, thematic and disappointingly dry with a puzzling predilection for psychoanalysis.

Most readers will conclude there is much about Mozart’s life which is simply unknowable but that Solomon diligently unearthed and analyzed every available bit of information. Unfortunately, the resulting narrative too often resembles the transcript of a tedious college lecture with little historical context, too much supposition and speculation, and almost no sense of narrative vibrancy. Very few readers will find the book hard to put down.

Great biographies generally provide robust introductions to a subject’s family as well as his or her most important friends and colleagues. In this case Solomon provides only the barest of disclosure relating to anyone other than Mozart’s father (whose presence throughout the book is pervasive), his sister (who receives her own admittedly excellent chapter) and Mozart himself. His mother and wife receive minimal coverage and his six children rarely appear at all.

Instead, the author exhibits a curious fascination with Mozart’s finances – a preoccupation so unrelenting that one might suspect the author of being a forensic accountant in a past life. But if this unyielding focus on 18th-century accounting appeals to some readers, what they may be disappointed not to find is a thorough and systematic analysis of Mozart’s musical compositions.

In addition, despite its Pulitzer imprimatur this biography fails to paint a cohesive or richly textured portrait of it subject. Readers unfamiliar with Mozart’s life are unlikely to finish this book feeling as though they really understand him or have a good sense of what made him tick. In the end, he seems oddly inert and unexpectedly…uninteresting.

But Solomon’s biography is not without its high points. His focus on Mozart’s relationship with his father, though far too Freudian, is interesting. The chapter on his relationship with his sister and their eventual estrangement is fascinating. And the chapter covering Mozart’s Masonic membership provides revealing insight into his character and motivations. But the pages which explore Mozart’s Zoroastran “riddles” may be the most unexpected and intellectually compelling of the book.

Overall, Maynard Solomon’s “Mozart: A Life” is a fact- and conjecture-rich biography of one of the 18th century’s most creative and unsettled artists. But if Mozart’s life was multi-hued and utterly captivating (as I suspect it was) Solomon almost entirely fails to capture that magic. And in the end his biography of Mozart, which is likely to appeal only to a narrow audience, is disappointingly dry and dull.

Overall rating: 2½ stars