780: Mozart by Paul Johnson

by Gerard


780.92: Johnson, Paul. Mozart: A Life. New York: Viking, 2013. 155 pp. ISBN 978-0-670-02637-1.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 700: Fine Arts and Recreation
  • 780: Music
  • +092: Biography

Paul Johnson’s new biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is certifiably adjective-y. It’s short, sweet, inspiring, exasperating, jam-packed, opinionated, whimsical (at times), terse, and fun. For the most part, it’s a straightforward chronology of Mozart’s life and work. He only lived for 35 years (1756-1791), but produced the most interesting, most complex, most wonderful pieces of classical music in history. Starting at age five, he composed over 600 works, ranging from masses to concertos to operas to choral pieces to symphonies and everything in between.

One of the more amazing aspects of Mozart’s compositional history was his need to understand instruments from the inside out. He would learn everything about an instrument’s construction, then learn to play it, then learn which individual instruments were better than others and appropriate them for his orchestra, and then compose with only those instruments in mind. When he learned the violin, he quickly wrote five stunning concertos. When the clarinet was being perfected in the late 1700s, he sought out the best player and composed an intriguing concerto before his death. And so on and so forth.

Johnson’s biography is dutiful and has a lot of information, but at times is too chockablock with information to really get a fully fleshed out sense of the man behind the music. He does a great job, however, of trying to set some of the record straight with regards to previous tales of tragic hubris and indebtedness. It’s clear that Johnson has a great love of classical music and tries very hard to not use a lot of jargon. This book made we want to go out and immediately get tickets to a symphony (but sadly, I have more books to read). If you’re at all interesting about Mozart, this will be a very good place to start. A quick, concise, and engaging read.