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Mozart by Johnson

by Jay Nordlinger

Mozart: A Life, by Paul Johnson (Viking, 176 pp., $25.95)

Paul Johnson, the British historian, has written many big, magisterial books: A History of Christianity, A History of the Jews, Art: A New History, and so on. Modern Times, his history of the 20th century, has shaped the thinking of countless readers. I was pleased to learn, last summer, that a young friend of mine was required to read Modern Times before beginning an internship at the Wall Street Journal.

In recent years, however, Johnson has been writing slender books, brief biographies, and gems they are: Johnson can paint on canvases large and small; he can compose Brucknerian symphonies and graceful minuets. Those “minuets,” the recent biographies, have been on Churchill, Jesus, Socrates, Darwin, and now Mozart.

Vikram Seth, the Anglo-Indian novelist and poet, once wrote, “Music to me is dearer even than speech.” I believe the same may be true of Johnson. Music is higher than speech, or at least a departure from it. There is an old saying, hard to trace: “Music begins where speech leaves off.”

At lunch one day, Johnson asked me, “Which do you consider the greatest of Bruckner’s symphonies?” (speaking of those). After some hemming and hawing, I said the Ninth, the last one. It is incomplete — the composer died before he could finish it — but it is complete in a sense: It sums up all of Bruckner’s life and work and thought. Johnson beamed and said, “I agree.” Seldom have I been so happy to have given the “right” answer.

By the way, Bruckner dedicated his Symphony No. 9 to “God the Beloved.” That is a hard dedication to beat. Johnson dedicated his biography of Jesus in a touching way: “To my mother, Anne Johnson, who first taught me about Jesus.”

In my kitchen, there is a painting by Johnson, of an abstract nature. “Listening to Schumann,” it’s called. Johnson also listens to Mozart. Last year, he was a “castaway” on Desert Island Discs, the BBC program that asks guests to name music they would take with them to a desert island. The first piece that Johnson named was Ave verum corpus, Mozart’s brief, sublime motet. (He also named Kern & DeSylva’s “Look for the Silver Lining,” sung by Margaret Whiting.)

Since his death in 1791, Mozart has had many biographers, one of the first of whom was Georg Nikolaus Nissen, who married Mozart’s widow. If you want extensive and scholarly writing about Mozart, you can go to Alfred Einstein and Stanley Sadie, to give two examples. If you want multiple volumes on Churchill, you can go to Martin Gilbert. But Johnson distills these men (and others) to their essence. Interestingly, he does not feel slight. To take this latest book, he packs a lot into his pocket Mozart.

Let me caution you that, if you want to find Mozart, you will not find him in Peter Shaffer — the playwright who wrote Amadeus, which was turned into a hit movie. That may be an enjoyable tale, but it is a fiction from beginning to end.

Mozart’s father, Leopold, a musician himself, regarded his young son as a miracle — quite literally, a miracle. Johnson quotes him to this effect. It is hard to fathom Mozart’s ability. Some years ago, I did a public interview of Benjamin Schmid, an Austrian violinist. I asked if he did not agree that Bach was the greatest composer. Probably, he said — “but Mozart may have been the most talented.” I thought that was an interesting and just way of putting it.

He lived a fairly short life, Mozart did. He was a month and three weeks shy of his 36th birthday when he died. (With Mozart, every moment counts.) But he had a wonderful, full, and productive life, as Johnson says. He started composing when he was about five; he kept going until the last breath. And “those thirty years were crammed with creation.” (That is a typically felicitous Johnsonian phrase: “crammed with creation.”)

On the first page, and throughout the book, we glimpse Johnson’s breadth as a historian and man of culture. He says that Mozart’s life, short as it was, “spanned the end of the Enlightenment, the American Revolution and the birth of the United States of America, and the beginning of the French Revolution.” A few pages later, he cites George Washington and Napoleon, both of whom are subjects of other Johnson biographies. Still later, we get apt references to Leonardo, Vermeer, and Victor Hugo.

And here is Johnson in the course of describing Mozart’s last three symphonies, which are diverse as well as mighty: “Imagine symphonies being written, respectively, by Falstaff, Keats, and Lincoln!”

Johnson argues that some of what people “know” about Mozart is wrong. Mozart’s life, though short, and acquainted with grief, was not especially tragic. Mozart had troubles with money, yes, but he was far from poor and in fact lived very well. Furthermore, people make too little of the religious element in his life: He was a religious man (as well as a Mason).

I had expected Johnson to write as a generalist, and a brilliant generalist, but often he comes across as a music scholar. Frankly, there is too much technical information about instruments for my taste. All through his writing life, Johnson has shown an uncanny ability to slip into the skin of his subject. When he writes about economics or warfare or music, he writes from deep understanding.

For a long time, David Pryce-Jones and I used to say, “Paul is a kind of genius.” At some point, however, we dropped the qualifier “kind of.” To look over his bibliography is to be reminded of what this mind can produce, and has. He can write about “modern times,” sure — but also about ancient Egypt. He can write about politics, sure — but also about cathedrals. He can write about Hitler and Pol Pot — but also about Mae West.

In his current book, he says, “It is an extraordinary fact that Mozart, despite his enormous output and the speed at which so much of it was composed, is never guilty of a serious lapse of taste.” Much the same can be said of Johnson. And we have not mentioned, at this juncture, his political importance. He is a major voice against tyranny and for liberty. In 2006, a leader from across the ocean, George W. Bush, hung the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck.

More than once, when reading the Mozart, I thought, “This could apply to the author as well.” In fact, I thought it regularly. I will provide just a few more examples. Johnson writes that Mozart “had the great gift of being able to start as soon as he sat down to write, as well as terrific powers of concentration. Worry about what he had written was unknown to him, and there was never a case of endless revision in his entire oeuvre.”

Mozart liked the high and the low, an exalted Mass and a ribald joke. “Nobody took music more seriously,” writes Johnson. “Nobody got more jokes out of it.” Mozart had “brief spasms of hot temper and outbursts of grievances,” but these were “mere cloudlets racing across a sunny view of life.”

In his final paragraph, Johnson writes, “He had misfortunes and many disappointments in a life of constant hard work lived at the highest possible level of creative concentration. But his warm spirit always bubbled. He loved his God, his family, his friends, and above all, his work — which he equated with God-service.”

I do not say that Johnson is Mozart, or a Mozart. No one is. I do say that he understands this little Salzburger, intimately.

That final paragraph appears in an epilogue, and the epilogue is followed by an appendix, which consists of an essay titled “Mozart in London.” It is by a son of Johnson’s, Daniel Johnson, who is the editor of Standpoint, the monthly political and cultural journal. This essay is an adornment as well as an appendix — sort of a learned after-dinner mint.

Speaking of treats, Paul Johnson records this, in his biography of Mozart: After a stretch of difficult work in Paris, Mozart walked to the “famous ice-cream parlor in the Palais Royale, where they served the best tutti-frutti in the world, and treated himself to one.” The parlor is no longer there, says Johnson. But in the same space is a restaurant that serves “excellent ices,” and “if I live to finish this book satisfactorily, I shall eat one there in honor of Mozart.” He has. And the ice was excellent, he told me.

There are more books in the pipeline: At least three have been written, and await publication. I suspect Johnson will be eating celebratory ices for years to come.

One more word concerning him and music — and Brahms this time, not Mozart. I interviewed Marilyn Horne, the great mezzo-soprano, five years ago on her 75th birthday. I asked her what music she was feeling especially close to. Brahms, she said. “He makes me feel good” — and there she put her finger on an important point: the warm, humane, consoling quality in Brahms. He makes you feel good. He is on your side. This same quality exists in Johnson’s books and articles, even when the subject is unpleasant.

Mozart is pleasant, and after you read this biography, you might listen to the piece that Johnson considers the most perfect Mozart work of all: the Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622.

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