Book Review: “Mozart and His Operas” — Gift for a God

A worthy present for Mozart on his 250th birthday: an original, sometimes eclectic, and mostly well-written book about the composer and his operas.

“Mozart and His Operas” by David Cairns. (University of California Press)

By Mark Kroll

Mozart mania is back. In fact, it never left and don’t say I didn’t warn you. We are only half way through 2006 and there is no letup in sight, but some of the birthday presents deserve to be opened and enjoyed right away.

One is the new book “Mozart and his Operas” by David Cairns. The author, former music critic for London’s “Daily Telegraph,” starts out on page one with a confession: “Another book on Mozart and his operas may not be needed. I can only say that I needed to write it.” I am glad he did. Although plenty of words have been written about this repertoire, Cairns’s take on the subject is original, sometimes eclectic, and mostly well written. It is also heartfelt. Cairns obviously loves this music, and he wants his readers to feel the same way. The fact that he addressed the book “not to scholars but to musicians and amateurs” makes this latest entry in the Mozart sweepstakes all the more useful, and readable.

Cairns covers the familiar ground for Mozart and his operas efficiently, but there are also moments when readers might find themselves sitting up and saying: “why didn’t I think of that!?” One example is the connection the author makes between Mozart and Shakespeare. Citing a noted Shakespearean scholar, Cairns muses that “Shakespeare’s gift for reading or hearing something and unspringing its unrealized potential is also Mozart’s (if for books we substitute scores),” the artistic creations of both men seeming “to have come from a god and not a mortal.”

Anyone who has seen the movie “Shakespeare in Love” must remember the look on the faces of all the actors, the expression of being in the presence of something godlike, as they stood frozen in place listening to the balcony scene of “Romeo and Juliet” for the first time. The same thing can happen upon hearing a piece by Mozart for the first time.

Cairns’ Mozart is also a universal god. To make this point, he takes the reader to, of all places, the Amazon jungle in the 1950s, where the French explorer Alain Gheerbrant encountered an isolated tribe of Maquiritare Indians. The natives were at first too afraid of the strange visitors to leave their huts, and Gheerbrant tells us that it was only after he played his “beloved Mozart” on his portable record player did the villagers “lose all fear, emerge from their huts and sit peacefully round the gramophone.”

Cairns himself shows no fear in taking on perhaps a more dangerous adversary: the many myths that have been attached to Mozart over the past 250 years. One is the portrait in the movie “Amadeus” of a neurotic or even psychotic composer in a pink wig. Cairns banishes this image, proving convincingly that the real Mozart was “not a manic depressive … not a drunkard or a compulsive gambler and/or womanizer … not an impractical, incompetent child … did not end by losing his will to live and half-consciously destroying himself through a mixture of dissipation and feverish overwork.” Any questions, class?

As for Mozart’s well-known difficulties with his father Leopold, Cairns takes the direct approach by simply asking: “Was Mozart the first or the last son to be evasive and economical with the truth when dealing with an accusing father?” In fact, the author thinks we should be “grateful to Leopold Mozart for teaching his son so well,” and that we should also try to imagine the sense of fear and wonder he and his wife Anna Maria must have felt when they first realized that their little boy was a “miracle which God caused to be born in Salzburg.” Good point. Just what would you have done if your baby put down his bottle and composed a symphony?

Cairns’s writing style is deceptively breezy and light. At one point, he describes a passage in a Mozart concerto in which the “oboe and bassoon echoing the soloist’s four notes” are “as irreverently subversive as Harpo Marx.” However, Cairns’s book is no lightweight. It contains plenty of hard information about Mozart and his operas, and a substantial amount of detailed musical analysis. In fact, I think there is too much analysis for a book addressed to amateurs, while at the same time the absence of musical examples makes the analyses of limited value to musicians.

Quibbles aside, this is a book written by a musician who has lived with Mozart’s music for many years, and loves it so much that he needed to share his accumulated knowledge and passion with his readers. You can feel this up to the very last paragraph, where Cairns mounts one final assault on a Mozart myth — the belief that Mozart was given a pauper’s burial and his body thrown into a communal grave. Cairns the musicologist uses facts to neatly and efficiently dispatch this falsehood, but Cairns the Mozart lover also adds a romantic tribute to his hero: “Maybe, though, the myth is too deeply entrenched ever to be dug up and destroyed: it suits the notion of the … miraculous being who vanished as mysteriously as he had come. … In any case the mortal remains and their whereabouts are not of great importance. What is important, perennially, is not the skull but what was inside it, which lives on in the minds and hearts of unnumbered thousands for whom it is a reason for being alive.”

This book is another reason to enjoy living during this Mozart year.

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