When people we love die young, it becomes difficult to think of them without an overlay of sorrow. If we are fortunate, we learn eventually to remember our lost for who they were in life, rather than through the pain of their departure. But that can take a long time – and, in the case of Mozart, audiences have been captivated for centuries by the sentimental tragedy of a doomed wunderkind, betrayed by life, misunderstood by his contemporaries and laid in what is invariably described as a “pauper’s grave.

Cover courtesy of Harper

Jan Swafford makes it clear in the introduction to his admirable “Mozart: The Reign of Love” that things weren’t all so bad for the composer. “I believe the only profound tragedy in Mozart’s life was his early death, when he was on the verge of a new plateau in his art and, incidentally, on the verge of real prosperity,” he observes. Swafford, a composer who has written biographies of Ives, Beethoven and Brahms, calls Mozart “the sanest, most gregarious, least self-flagellating” of his subjects, fundamentally a happy man.

And a funny one, too, as shown through his correspondence, from which Swafford quotes generously. Victorians of all eras have been shocked by Mozart’s letters, and many were suppressed or censored until recently. And yet they are prose marvels that could have come from Henry Fielding; Swafford calls them “effervescent, hilarious, sometimes so obscene that they could clear your sinuses.” Small wonder that the author “laughed more while writing this book than any of my others, much of the time at things Mozart himself had written.”

All prodigies learn by imitation, but Mozart’s absorption was so immediate and inexplicable that his father made a note of the date. Led to the keyboard on the evening of Jan. 24, 1761, three days before he turned 5, he astonished his family by playing a piece that his older sister had been working on for days. Within half an hour, he played the piece again, and by then he had it memorized. Before he was 7, he played for royalty in Munich, Prague and Vienna; he wrote his first symphony at the age of 8.

The central figure in Swafford’s book is Mozart, of course, but the author is a skilled enough storyteller to create the world he lived in. For those of us given to looking back on other times as tidy, aristocratic and pretty much everything that the 21st century isn’t, Swafford offers a sharp corrective: “All cities stank in those days, the leavings of thousands of horses and tens of thousands of dogs in the walled confines making for a penetrating fetor. A visitor wrote that every street had its distinctive smell and they were all bad. Added to this was the misery of dust that billowed everywhere all the time, a compound of dirt and the dessicated filth of horses and dogs that got into your clothes, your house, your eyes, your mouth, sometimes your very soul.”

And yet Mozart prospered within this world, creating music of ever-blossoming grace and elegance: Indeed, it is partially his own work that inspires our rose-colored vision of his era. By the time he was in his late teens, he had written half a dozen operas, two of which are still part of the extended repertory. Before he was 30, he had perfected the string quartet, dedicating the last six of his 23 such compositions to his mentor Franz Joseph Haydn, who recognized that the young man had already surpassed him. And then there are the symphonies and the concertos and – never to be forgotten – those astonishing late operas, as different as can be but immediately recognizable as creations that could only be by Mozart.

Of the conclusion of “Le Nozze di Figaro,” perfect even within a plethora of perfection, Swafford writes: “In the end there is only love. As it always did in the end for Mozart, love reigns, a love of hearts and minds and bodies.” (Mozart “never forgot the beds and the bodies, for all the trouble they cause,” the author adds wryly.)

Swafford sums it up: “In all its dimensions from inspired libretto to inspired score, in the harmony of character and action and musical realization, in its broad comedy and its bitter human wisdom, ‘Figaro’ is as close to perfect as Mozart ever came, which is to say as close as opera ever came.”

This is an excellent book on Mozart for both musicians and the general reader. The story is told in a lively, knowing style, without written-out musical examples but shot through with unfailingly erudite and impassioned discussion of the composer’s work. Only toward the end do we feel the huge absence that would be left by Mozart’s death – and Swafford’s evocation of the moment the composer knew he was dying is appropriately terrifying.

And yes, Mozart was indeed interred in what was called a “common grave,” but that was in accordance with the Viennese custom of the time. Nobody seems to have followed the cortège to the burial, which was outside the walls of the city (also by custom) – three long miles away on rough roads to St. Marx Cemetery. But Mozart’s sublimity was already recognized and his music was playing, through Vienna and then Europe and then throughout the world, where we may hope, even in such troubled times, that it will always be playing.

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