For about four months, I was steeped in the Vienna of the 1780s, ‘90s, and early 19th century, researching my latest radio play, meaning I read many books about Beethoven, Haydn, Johann N. Hummel, and Mozart (much less about the latter). It was then with great familiarity and joy I picked up Mozart and His Operas by David Cairns from the library. For better or worse, Cairns seems to believe that Mozart can do no wrong, and his infectious enthusiasm for his subject quickly melts away any doubts about his rather odd writing style, his anecdotal footnotes, and certain inconsistencies of approach. Shrewdly Cairns has chosen to use the operas as a base, much more approachable (at least for an amateur like me) than the symphonies, etc.
My sum total experience with Mozart prior to research was Amadeus (the film and a revival of the play); an English-language version of The Magic Flute in which my then-voice teacher played a spirit, and some subsequent research on the opera for the purposes of fan fic; a recording of Don Giovanni as part of the research for Origins; some of Mozart’s love letters to his wife; and I saw part of Cosí fan tutte on TV in France. I think Cairns’ prime audience has a bit more knowledge of the maestro than that. Having just listened to a ton of Beethoven’s music as well as having read about him, it was going to be tough work for Cairns to convince me of Mozart’s superior genius (to be truthful, I had somewhat fallen in love with him, Beethoven). Cairns doesn’t seek to compare and contrast Mozart with other musical geniuses, which is just as well. He does, however, note that in a post-Romantic, post-modern world, Mozart’s work has often been discounted because “such cheerfulness [that we find in his music seems] a betrayal of the heartache that preceded it.” With Beethoven’s suffering chiefly in mind for producing such colossal works as the 9th Symphony, I know I have always held Mozart’s more ethereal, light-handed scores, well, superficial in comparison. Cairns warns us against such over-simplifications; the darkness of Don Giovanni should be proof enough.
Nevertheless, as raw, passionate, beguiling, and sad as is the genius of Beethoven, Mozart’s life is such that it should be a Todd Haynes film—“the advent of his being—like a visitant from another world.” What was in the water of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the latter half of the eighteenth century that it was breeding such a crowd of intellectual giants? This is a quandary that has fascinated me for years. Nature or nurture? I have myself been compared to Mozart on two occasions for early writing precociousness, but let’s not kid ourselves here. At my age, Mozart wrote his first “real” opera, Idomeneo. Cairns is quick to defend this often-overlooked piece, seen as a slave to convention; Cairns rebuts every point against his beloved Wolfie, ever-cementing Mozart’s god-like status. The only place he grudgingly concedes less than perfection is in some analysis of Cosí and in acknowledging Tito was rather hastily written.
I am likewise fascinated by the fact that Beethoven produced only one opera, Fidelio, while Mozart’s output was always somewhat more (I didn’t know it was seven operas until I read the book, Idomeneo, Abduction from the Seraglio, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosí fan tutte, The Magic Flute, and La Clemenza di Tito, all in Italian except Seraglio and The Magic Flute). Though the book doesn’t get too much into the biographical details—it’s written to celebrate the music, to describe the genesis of the operas as well as analyze them musically and in doing shoot down all their detractors—there are some gems that emerge that I didn’t know about. For example, during a rehearsal of The Magic Flute, Mozart was mistaken for a journeyman tailor (even though, as the book makes clear, he always used a hairdresser and took care in his appearance, quite a contrast to Beethoven). Likewise, I didn’t realize Mozart hated his birthplace of Salzburg so much; he felt much more at home in Vienna, less constricted by its appreciation of opera and less hemmed in by his family, I daresay. There’s a fabulous series of letters from Leopold, Mozart’s father, giving mouth-watering descriptions of Viennese cooking. As was hinted in the Hummel research I did, the Viennese were all on the roly poly side due to their love of food.
There’s an intriguing suggestion by Cairns that Mozart was “oversexed”—we all know from the Peter Schaffer play/film that Mozart was amused by flatulence, bawdy jokes, and giggled like an immature, naughty four-year-old on Ritalin. Or did he? Cairns tries to make the point that Mozart’s family and indeed the times produced people with similar interests/character flaws, and since it was the eighteenth century I tend to put more stock in Cairns that I would otherwise (he’s so desperate, sometimes, to smooth over anything negative said about Mozart!). Which is why the sly hint about being oversexed is intriguing—Cairns says it in context to Don Giovanni, supposing that even if Mozart wasn’t a Don Juan (contemporary descriptions call him a small, but pleasant-looking, flirtatious man) he could certainly imagine himself as one. (Making Don Juan Triumphant the perfect opera for Leroux and Andrew Lloyd Webber to give to the Phantom; Erik is certainly of the frame of mind to imagine himself as Don Juan.) By Cairns’ description of Don Juan, he brings to mind various titillating comparisons (to me, anyway) such as Heathcliff, Satan in Paradise Lost, etc, though I found him rather revolting when I listened to a recording of the opera.
The book is quite entertaining and has certainly made me determined to listen to, if not see, all the operas, armed with a bit more biographical and musical knowledge.