Marvellous boy

Mozart: a cultural biography

Robert W Gutman <em>Secker & Warburg, 839pp, £25</em>

ISBN 04362749

The principal virtue of Robert Gutman's biography of Mozart is that it does not speculate on any causal link between the composer's inner life and his music's emotive qualities. A work of rigorous investigation and historical accuracy, it presents the circumstances in which an incomparable (and freakish) talent developed into an incomparable composer in 18th-century central Europe. The book is exactly what its subtitle says: a matter of historical and cultural interest providing an account of the prominence of music in the courts of Europe; the proliferation of amateur musicians; the interaction of professionals across the Continent; the vicissitudes of patronage; the disruption of musical production entailed by political upheaval; the influence of trend and popular taste on the compositions produced; the drive to create a German music free from the moribund teaching of the Italians.

All of this is linked by the thread of Mozart's life, from the tour of the child prodigy through the courts of Europe to the unending commissions of the mature composer in Prague and Vienna. Gutman writes concisely on the main developments in style in Mozart's output and the influences behind them, somehow managing to refer in passing to most compositions as and when they were written.

The book, although principally about an individual and his circumstances, has a reassuring authority on the Mozartian opus itself. All of us are familiar with some of Mozart's music; the more educated and trained we become in music, the greater the hold this music has upon us. Gutman, more musically educated than most, must surely have been tempted to break into hopeless eulogising when writing this biography. What he has done, however, is to leave this eulogising to others. Some examples from the book: the writer Friedrich Grimm, on hearing the child extemporise at the keyboard, said he understood how "St Paul had fallen into a trance after his strange vision"; Salomon Gessner, the poet and painter, called Mozart and his sister "the glory of the nation and the admiration of the world"; Karl Theodor, the Elector of Bavaria, heard Idomeneo and wondered "who would have imagined something so great lodged in so small a head"; following his death, newspapers spoke of the "irreplaceable loss" and the composer who "surpassed Orpheus".

Such praise indicates something Gutman is keen to stress: that Mozart was hugely successful in his own lifetime and died of some form of infectious disease at a time when he was full of ideas, domestically secure and inundated with commissions.

This is an excellent biography, perhaps definitive of its kind, mercifully free of odious speculation and banal hypothesis. A biography of Mozart, however, has nothing to do with our experience of his music. To understand why it was said that he surpassed Orpheus, listen to or, even better, play the music - and despair.

Henry Sheen reviews regularly for the NS