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Mozart: A Cultural Biography

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This major work, the result of years of careful study and analysis, places Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's life and music in the context of the intellectual, political and artistic currents of eighteenth-century Europe. The result is a fresh interpretation of Mozart's genius, as Robert Gutman shows the great composer in a new light. With an informed and sensitive handling, Mozar This major work, the result of years of careful study and analysis, places Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's life and music in the context of the intellectual, political and artistic currents of eighteenth-century Europe. The result is a fresh interpretation of Mozart's genius, as Robert Gutman shows the great composer in a new light. With an informed and sensitive handling, Mozart emerges as an affectionate and generous man with family and friends, self-deprecating, witty, and winsome but also an austere moralist, incisive and purposeful. The major genres in which Mozart worked-chamber music, liturgical, theater and keyboard compositions, concertos, operas, symphonies, and oratorios-are unfolded to reveal a man of luminous intellect. Mozart is an extraordinary portrait of a man and his times and a brilliant distillation of musical thought.


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This major work, the result of years of careful study and analysis, places Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's life and music in the context of the intellectual, political and artistic currents of eighteenth-century Europe. The result is a fresh interpretation of Mozart's genius, as Robert Gutman shows the great composer in a new light. With an informed and sensitive handling, Mozar This major work, the result of years of careful study and analysis, places Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's life and music in the context of the intellectual, political and artistic currents of eighteenth-century Europe. The result is a fresh interpretation of Mozart's genius, as Robert Gutman shows the great composer in a new light. With an informed and sensitive handling, Mozart emerges as an affectionate and generous man with family and friends, self-deprecating, witty, and winsome but also an austere moralist, incisive and purposeful. The major genres in which Mozart worked-chamber music, liturgical, theater and keyboard compositions, concertos, operas, symphonies, and oratorios-are unfolded to reveal a man of luminous intellect. Mozart is an extraordinary portrait of a man and his times and a brilliant distillation of musical thought.

30 review for Mozart: A Cultural Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Mark Bachmann

    I've rarely had such sharply ambivalent reactions to a biography as I did to this one. Let me try to explain what I mean, and I'll start with the downside. First of all, long stretches of the book are close to being unreadable if you lack familiarity with 18th century central European history and geography, and don't stand already on intimate terms with the corpus of Mozart's work. The difficulty is compounded by Mr. Gutman's writing style, which is given to serial convolutions. Any one of his lo I've rarely had such sharply ambivalent reactions to a biography as I did to this one. Let me try to explain what I mean, and I'll start with the downside. First of all, long stretches of the book are close to being unreadable if you lack familiarity with 18th century central European history and geography, and don't stand already on intimate terms with the corpus of Mozart's work. The difficulty is compounded by Mr. Gutman's writing style, which is given to serial convolutions. Any one of his long sentences can contain as many as five references to people, places, historical events and musical works that will be utterly obscure to people, like many of us, who lack a scholar's grounding. The complexity problem is further aggravated by Gutman's proclivity for covering EVERYTHING in Mozart's short life. Mozart himself, as well as his father Leopold and his sister Nannerl (a nick-name), were compulsive letter-writers and diarists, and for parts of the story it is thereby possible for a diligent biographer to construct literally a day-to-day account of Mozart's comings and goings. In places, Gutman seems determined to do exactly that. For me at least, his obsession with minutia often obscures substance. And as if the minor details of Mozart's life don't provide enough diversion for Gutman, he writes like a frustrated historian - as opposed to simply a biographer - in the sense that he wastes no opportunity to strike off on long detours into 18th century social mores and the arcane and troubled politics of the late Holy Roman Empire. This is all interesting stuff, and none of it is irrelevant to Mozart's life, but it adds so much material that the book's focus becomes unwieldy. It's subtitle "A Cultural Biography" should be read as a tipoff that Gutman's ambitions here go beyond the confines of the composer's life story. All this aside, however, I have to say that I've rarely read a biography - and I read a lot of them - in which I felt the author channeling his subject so deeply as this one. Gutman seems possessed by Mozart's spirit, and his drive to re-create every thread of the composer's life obviously stems from his own total immersion. And the literary quality of this book is actually quite high, despite the author's predilection for obscurity and circumlocution. There's a poetic quality to his style that I often found carrying me along pleasurably enough even in passages where I had little idea what he was talking about. With some effort, you can plow through the density and really experience the story that's being told here. And what a story it is! 'Genius' is an over-used and ill-defined word, but if it can be fairly applied to anyone, Mozart is surely the fellow. Already famous around Europe as a musical prodigy by age six, Mozart seems to have been born into this world pre-wired to produce extraordinary music. His father Leopold was a competent, if seemingly unremarkable, composer in his own right, employed as a court musician at the Archbishopric of Salzburg, then a backwater principality within the Holy Roman Empire. Leopold's aspiration exceeded both his talent and his modest financial means, and he was forever scheming ways to advance his middling social status and achieve financial independence. He had enough of a musical eye that he knew what he had in young Wolfgang before the boy was even out of toddlerhood. Leopold might have had cause to envy a son whose talent he knew would quickly eclipse his own, but envy seems to have been farthest thing from his mind. What Leopold did was to take ferocious hold on the ticket fate had now dealt him. The royal courts and wealthy bourgeois salons of Europe were crazed for music, and seeing his opportunity, Leopold became the eighteenth century equivalent of what we might today call a 'stage mother'. Leopold taught the boy and then marched him around Europe "like a trained bear" in Gutman's words. In addition to being a child, Wolfgang was oddly small of stature and seems to have exuded the aura of a magical doll, not only performing with precocious grace but composing and improvising like a master. Whatever his own limitations as a musician, as a promoter father Leopold came into his own special genius. He strategically exposed his son to those potential patrons most able to advance a musical career, and the plan worked. Mozart's fame fed on itself as princes and the rising bourgeoisie of Europe competed for the presence of the freakishly talented little boy in their salons and concert halls. Leopold knew that a crisis point loomed as Wolfgang approached young adulthood and the novelty of the prodigy act began wearing thin. Europe was full of talented musicians, and Mozart seemed temporarily in danger of become simply one among many. Europe's aficionados, however, were watching the young man and became increasingly aware of something phenomenal underway as his talent matured. Audiences responded too, and Mozart became a focus of popular adulation. He worked across musical genres and placed what would become his mythic stamp on the operatic, symphonic, choral and other forms. He produced a prodigious quantity of work, as if frenzied to get everything out of himself in defiance of what would be a short lifespan. He seems to have had the amazing ability to compose complete pieces in his mind, remember them in detail and transcribe them quickly once paper and ink were at hand. As a result, when not socializing, he worked more-or-less continuously even when seemingly resting or engaged in other activities. Mozart was no artistic introvert, however. The arrogant prankster portrayed in the 1984 movie Amadeus (adapted from an earlier play) was a caricature of his personality but not a baseless one. He had a highly active sex drive and worried about syphilis, incurable in his day, for much of his adult life. He displayed an utterly disgusting sense of humor, documented in his letters, that was given to graphic scatology and the crudest forms of sexual imagery. But he was also a lofty romantic. He had a deeply loving attachment to his wife Constanze and had once courted her older sister too in the head-over-heels, lovesick style so often affected by eighteenth century suitors. A significant portion of this book is devoted to the all-important relationship between Mozart and his father. Mozart respected his father's musical and professional judgment, and he continued to accept guidance from the older man for much of his life. However, since late childhood Mozart had in fact needed little help with his music, and by early adulthood his own talent for self-promotion began making his father's role as stage manger redundant too. If anything, Leopold had become an impediment, since his transparent social-climbing often irritated aristocratic patrons. Leopold eventually retired back to Salzburg, never rising above the level of deputy Kapellmeister in the Prince-Archbishop's orchestra. He passed on to his son a proclivity for social insecurity and paranoia, with both men often attributing professional setbacks to hidden machinations among their enemies. Leopold had worked hard to stymie Wolfgang's early relationship with his wife, considering her family's social status - actually more-or-less on par with his own - as insufficiently elevated to satisfy the ambitions he had for his son. Biographies show a lot about the terror which disease held for people of earlier eras, and also about the futility of early medical science, which by the eighteenth century revolved around crude iatrogenic remedies like bleeding and purgatives. Mozart was sickly and had apparently been close to death from disease on several occasions but somehow survived the medical attention he received. His terminal illness struck finally in the fall of 1791 when he was in Prague, and he succumbed in December. Modern researchers have never agreed on the nature of the disease. Gutman goes to great length to dispel the romantic mythology that has over the years imbued accounts of Mozart's final days. He was indeed working on his lugubrious Requiem Mass at the time of his death, but it was a commissioned work, and there seems to be no reason to believe it reflected a premonition. And it's anonymous patron was not a malicious Salieri, as portrayed in Amadeus, but a pretentious noble intent on passing the work off as his own. For all his success, Mozart had never achieved financial independence, and he seems happy enough for the right fee to have collaborated in the tawdry scheme. He was just short of his thirty-fifth birthday when he died, surely a shooting star if ever there was such a thing. I recommend this book, but only to people willing to invest a great deal of effort in reading it. It all you want is Mozart's life story, there are more accessible biographies available.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bill W

    This book reflects an incredible depth and breadth of scholarship. It reads like the culmination of a lifetime of historical research. It is remarkable how Gutman weaves together so much historical information, direct quotes from correspondence, philosophical, musical and political trends to illuminate Mozart's world in amazing detail. Gutman convincingly dispels the Mozart mythology and paints a brilliant picture of a real person with a miraculous talent in a loving but dysfunctional family. The This book reflects an incredible depth and breadth of scholarship. It reads like the culmination of a lifetime of historical research. It is remarkable how Gutman weaves together so much historical information, direct quotes from correspondence, philosophical, musical and political trends to illuminate Mozart's world in amazing detail. Gutman convincingly dispels the Mozart mythology and paints a brilliant picture of a real person with a miraculous talent in a loving but dysfunctional family. The book is dense and a project to read. The 200 pages of background information is a big up-front investment. But it is completely worth it. It is hard to imagine what life was like in the turbulent late eighteenth century Europe. Gutman does a good job setting the stage. Mozart's accomplishments are even more astounding when understood in context. I thought Gutman expertly presented both sides of Leopold Mozart. He was simultaneously Wolfgang's greatest asset and biggest obstacle. Leopold was a great music teacher, author of one of Europe's most widely known method books for violin, loving husband and father, witty and knowledgeable but also a cynical and pretentious manipulator with self-destructive tendencies. The death of his wife Anna Maria seems to have irreparably poisoned his relationship with his son. Gutman's treatment of Wolfgang's devotion to his wife Constanze, often in his own words, is especially moving. I valued Gutman's tender description of their relationship and the central role it played in Mozart's triumphant successes. Far from the unknown, ignored and destitute genius portrayed in movies, Mozart ended his life fabulously successful, with many friends and supporters, a beautiful and happy family and big plans for the future.

  3. 5 out of 5

    David Szatkowski

    This is an excellent, incredibly well researched biography. The author gives serious credence to Mozart, his family, and time. I would recommend it for lovers of music history, Mozart, or European history in general. The book reads more like a college lecture than a biography.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Darien Springer

    Staggeringly intricate and often fascinating, Gutman's encyclopedic biography of Mozart's life is both absorbing and unwieldy in equal measure. Parts of the book are a deep dive in to the complex politics in Europe in the late 18th century while other parts of the book are a more intricate look at the characters of Mozart and his father Leopold. When Gutman is obsessively detailing every nuance of European culture and politics, the book is hit or miss. Sometimes the detail is interesting but oft Staggeringly intricate and often fascinating, Gutman's encyclopedic biography of Mozart's life is both absorbing and unwieldy in equal measure. Parts of the book are a deep dive in to the complex politics in Europe in the late 18th century while other parts of the book are a more intricate look at the characters of Mozart and his father Leopold. When Gutman is obsessively detailing every nuance of European culture and politics, the book is hit or miss. Sometimes the detail is interesting but often the density of material (and proper nouns) is so great that a layman like myself is buried in incomprehensible developments. A historian of this period in time and musical history would no doubt find the historical sections much more fascinating. To me, the obsession with detail often made the book lose focus and also my interest. When Gutman was exploring the complex love-hate relationship between Mozart and Leopold, however, the book shined. The biggest problem with Mozart: A Cultural Biography is that there is no unifying theme or idea. You would think Mozart would be the binding agent but most of the book seems more concerned with what was happening around him. Theoretically this is fine, but I wish Gutman had eliminated some of the complexity for the sake of readability. Having a thousand often unrelated details at me just makes me want to glaze over which I often did when reading this mammoth text. Focus allows for better retention. As it is, perhaps this book is meant for scholars of that era. I still appreciated the fascinating trip through history that Gutman took me on.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jenny Brown

    This is a brilliant biography all the more interesting to an American reader because of the richness of the portraits it paints not only of Mozart but of the Central European world he lived in. The one issue I had with the book was the long digression into the history of 18th century opera that dominates the first part of the book and which probably made a lot of would-be readers give it up. The essay would be stultifying to anyone but a few students of the history of opera. And it's very long. This is a brilliant biography all the more interesting to an American reader because of the richness of the portraits it paints not only of Mozart but of the Central European world he lived in. The one issue I had with the book was the long digression into the history of 18th century opera that dominates the first part of the book and which probably made a lot of would-be readers give it up. The essay would be stultifying to anyone but a few students of the history of opera. And it's very long. But once Gutman gets that out of his system, the story clips along at a reasonable pace and the wealth of details Gutman gives us paint a fascinating picture of Mozart growing both as a man and as an artist. Most interesting is the way the Gutman disposes of the usual image we have of a depressed Mozart dying in a garret. The author makes a very good case that Mozart's prospects had never been rosier than in the years before his death and that he was quite well off. Indeed, the fact that he was wealthy enough to afford a carriage within months of his death--something well out of the range of even upper middle class people at his time--suggests that Gutman's case is strong. The protestations of poverty had more to do with the needs of his wife to draw patrons after his death. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves well written biography and who would like to expand their knowledge of European cultural history. Just skim the chapter on the history of Opera and move on to the good stuff!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    A fabulous biography. In particular the exchanges from letters between Mozart and his father show the young composer's struggle to assert his independence. Gutman is very good at allowing Mozart to be less than an angel (as he's so often portrayed) during his stay in Paris and his peregrinations on the road back to Salzberg -- in this sense it's a very realistic portrayal of a young man enjoying the freedoms that young men still indulge in today and facing the wrath of his father for doing so. A fabulous biography. In particular the exchanges from letters between Mozart and his father show the young composer's struggle to assert his independence. Gutman is very good at allowing Mozart to be less than an angel (as he's so often portrayed) during his stay in Paris and his peregrinations on the road back to Salzberg -- in this sense it's a very realistic portrayal of a young man enjoying the freedoms that young men still indulge in today and facing the wrath of his father for doing so.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Scott

    Very good. An encyclopedic, highly detailed view of Mozart, placing him squarely within the post-Enlightenment era. Unlike the character in Amadeus, Mozart could be a stern moralist. Much of hos life was dominated by his relationship to his ambitious father. My criticism is that you don't really finish feeling like you got to know Mozart. Very good. An encyclopedic, highly detailed view of Mozart, placing him squarely within the post-Enlightenment era. Unlike the character in Amadeus, Mozart could be a stern moralist. Much of hos life was dominated by his relationship to his ambitious father. My criticism is that you don't really finish feeling like you got to know Mozart.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Hubert

    Touted as a "cultural biography" I think it tries to hard to straddle culture and biography. I would have preferred more of one or the other. Touted as a "cultural biography" I think it tries to hard to straddle culture and biography. I would have preferred more of one or the other.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Justin Boogaerdt

    Mozart is a part of education, of movement, of being. He was a musical philosopher, he thought with music. We can only appreciate his talents and wonder at his marvelous combinations of pitch and rhytm. also listen to: Mozart - Marriage Of Figaro - Overture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikQNF... The Magic Flute: Overture - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vwub-... Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488 [complete] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMYjG... Mozart - Symphony Mozart is a part of education, of movement, of being. He was a musical philosopher, he thought with music. We can only appreciate his talents and wonder at his marvelous combinations of pitch and rhytm. also listen to: Mozart - Marriage Of Figaro - Overture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikQNF... The Magic Flute: Overture - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vwub-... Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488 [complete] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMYjG... Mozart - Symphony No. 41 in C, K. 551 [complete] (Jupiter) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnK3k... MOZART - The best violin concertos No. 1, 3, 4, Adagio - Classical Music to Study 1 hour ♫♪ HQ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFekm...

  10. 5 out of 5

    Sharon Barrow Wilfong

    Mozart: A Cultural Biography is the third biographical work I've read on the composer, including the letters which are probably the most revealing. So far this is the best. It is a scholarly work and quite exhaustive. Not only does Gutman provide the chronology of Mozart's life but he fills in the back drop: what was going on politically in Austria and Europe, who were the leaders, what philosophical movements were growing such as the enlightenment, and how that ran up against a population that w Mozart: A Cultural Biography is the third biographical work I've read on the composer, including the letters which are probably the most revealing. So far this is the best. It is a scholarly work and quite exhaustive. Not only does Gutman provide the chronology of Mozart's life but he fills in the back drop: what was going on politically in Austria and Europe, who were the leaders, what philosophical movements were growing such as the enlightenment, and how that ran up against a population that was still devoutly Catholic. Not much is spoken of the Reformation but perhaps that didn't come into play in Mozart's life. What this book provides is a much more thorough picture of the life of one of the greatest composers known to the world. Gutman accomplishes this on a external as well as internal level. We see how the political landscape and leadership affected Mozart's thinking as well as his career. The Enlightenment with it's vocal supporters such as Voltaire, Spinoza, Kant, Descartes etc..were gaining ground and influence, culminating in the French Revolution, had an impact on his career since the Esterhazy house of Austria became panic-stricken over the assassination of the Prince's cousin, Marie Atoinette. Prince Esterhazy as well as the Royal leaders of all Europe suddenly became preoccupied with any possible threat to their positions. For the rest of my review, cut and paste the following link: http://sharonhenning.blogspot.com/201...

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kristine

    I love Mozart and tend to read most anything written about him, however this very long biography opened my eyes to what was going on in and around the European countries where Mozart visited while he was trying to make a name for himself, some of the struggles he had in Salzburg, and with his father. It was a very interesting book with tons of footnotes for learning even more.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Dolores

    I read this book or rather slogged through it. Despite the subject matter, I found that it came across as very dry and boring.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Laika Coleen

  14. 5 out of 5

    Anna Rossi

  15. 5 out of 5

    Mitch

  16. 5 out of 5

    Alexa Segur

  17. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

  18. 4 out of 5

    J. Bhardwaj

  19. 5 out of 5

    Genevieve Raas

  20. 5 out of 5

    Alberto

  21. 4 out of 5

    Heidi Harkins

  22. 4 out of 5

    Shehan Diluka

  23. 5 out of 5

    Katherine

  24. 5 out of 5

    Rafif

  25. 4 out of 5

    Alivia Jones

  26. 5 out of 5

    Bill

  27. 5 out of 5

    Yasemin Arasan

  28. 5 out of 5

    Austin Shaver

  29. 4 out of 5

    Seth Winterhalter

  30. 5 out of 5

    Anthony Sculimbrene

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