In recent years our biography machine has been calibrated to extra large, turning out fat works which sought to suggest, through sheer weight of words, both the magisterial stature of the subject and the insatiable curiosity of the author. Dickens, Tolstoy, Woolf, Lawson, Jenkins, Shaw, Botham - if they couldn't run to 600 pages, they weren't cutting the mustard. They seemed almost modelled on those roomy 19th-century novels that no one wrote any more - compendious family sagas taking us from the cradle to the grave - and they swaggered in the bookshops. But fashions change. Someone has twiddled a knob on the machine, and the brief life can once more be glimpsed on the production line. It would no doubt be too much to attribute this to a fin-de-siecle reflex, though it does recall Lytton Strachey's concise essays on eminent Victorians, but perhaps there is some summarising impulse in the air, a hunger for brief histories of times past.
Weidenfeld certainly seems to think so. In a series of trim "Lives" it is energetically reviving the attractive idea that life can be a short story. As assignments, the books do not require endless years of labour, so they have the effect of tugging biography out of the hands of specialists and giving it to distinguished authors from other fields. They can be written, rather than merely researched. It is a refreshing initiative, which has paid off handsomely in this crisp new life of Mozart.
Mozart has attracted a handy number of biographers already - Alfred Einstein, Brigid Brophy, Wolfgang Hildesheimer, H C Robbins Landon, Maynard Solomon and many others. And the explosion of Mozartiana in 1991 - the 200th anniversary of his death - tried the patience even of fans. Five years after Mozart died, a tasteful silver coin was struck in Vienna. Two hundred years later there were chocolates, underclothes, cafes, bars, trains, hotels and God knows what else. So this is hardly a necessary book. But as Mozart's music continues to stream through our lives, his remains a magical story, well worth a fresh pop. Gay tells it with purpose, clarity and a proper sense of amazement.
As a psychological historian, the author of works on Freud, the enlightenment, Victorian Europe and Nazi Germany, Gay is well equipped, we might think, to give us a new angle on the mentality of Mozart's amazing music. He begins boldly, taking his abbreviated brief to heart in a snappy first sentence: "The life of Mozart is the triumph of genius over precocity." This upends in a flash the cherished cartoon image of Mozart as a musical god who tumbled into the world fully formed. As Gay suggests, he was a genius not because he was a child prodigy, but because he overcame the trauma of being one. "A child prodigy," he writes, "is by its nature a self-destroying artefact: what seems literally marvellous in a boy will seem merely talented in a young man." Mozart was not stunted by his precocious childhood. He grew and grew. His greatest works - the three last symphonies, the famous operas, the Requiem - were written in what turned out to be his declining years.
Genius is hard to define, but in Mozart's case no other word will quite do, and Gay wastes no time deploying it. It is not only a matter of the unbelievable range and felicity of the music - Haydn was prolific, too. Rather, there is that special Mozartian tone, a governing expressive note so quick and insistently delicious that it makes us dizzy. Sometimes the music seems to struggle to escape this almost oppressive harmoniousness, and at these moments we can almost hear Mozart trying to muck it all up. But some abiding musical spirit - some genius - always asserts itself. It sometimes feels almost apologetic, as if he's sorry but he can't help it. He doesn't berate us; on the contrary, he is a true dramatist. In his operas the insincere love songs - for Don Giovanni, say, or for the tricksters in CosI Fan Tutte - are just as gorgeous as the heartfelt ones. With Mozart, there is always a sense of something mercurial, something quicksilver and hard to read.
He has sometimes been thought tinkly - he plays well in old people's homes, dental surgeries and supermarkets and has invaded the telephone system, popping up in the gaps where we're asked to hold. But for two centuries now he has never been unpopular, and people who fall in love with Mozart tend, if they're honest, to find all other music - even the greatest - slightly diminished and lesser. I mean, Beethoven, fine, but look: one opera, five piano concertos, nine symphonies. Mozart, in contrast, once wrote that writing church chorales was so easy "one could easily do half a dozen a day". And his brilliance is never tinged with bombast. It only helps that some dislikeable prima donnas have missed the point. Glenn Gould called Mozart "a bad composer who died too late rather than too early", and Maria Callas swore that "most of Mozart's music is dull". Sentiments like this incline Mozartians merely to ignore their own immodest trillings.
Gay is obviously a fan of this devoted sort. When he writes that Mozart "shook immortal music from his sleeve" he adds a line to the pantheon of quotable tributes to Mozart's outsized gifts. Surprisingly, as if wary of seeming to lean too heavily on his Freudian knowledge, he goes along happily with the Amadeus cliche of Mozart as a man locked in immortal combat with his father. It seems a reductive metaphor for such an intense relationship. If ever there was a daddy's boy, Mozart was it. But Gay, elegantly filleting the correspondence between Mozart and his father, presents their relationship, slightly boringly, as a "duel".
This is almost corny. Five of Leopold's seven children died as babies, and his wife died when Wolfgang was young. So he invested himself entirely in his most dazzling creation, his extraordinary son. He saw Wolfgang as the best part of himself, was agonised by the tearing away of adulthood, and became sour and needy. Gay recounts how he opposed his son's marriage, expressed no interest in Wolfgang's children and bombarded him with martyrish pleas to come home to Salzburg. But he portrays it as a bad, rather than simply as a sad, story. In modern terms, Leopold was a tennis dad, no longer welcome on the circuit, moping bitterly at home, wishing that things could go back to being the way they were when his fantastic boy - the boy who started composing when he was five - really was a boy.
Perhaps, in this case, the brief form has led Gay to be more clipped than he would wish. It tilts the book slightly in the direction of being simply the Ladybird Book of Mozart. Perhaps it would have been grander had Gay given freer rein to his own enthusiasms and feelings on the matter; as it is, he is modest and deferential, discussing counterpoint and symphonic style a little obediently, like someone reluctant to be thought an impostor. He need not have worried. His story is swift and measured: welcome proof that though art is long, lives can indeed be short.