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'Mozart: The Man Revealed' explores a life infused with as much drama as any opera

Biographer John Suchet does not look closely at Mozart's extraordinary musical creations, but he does provide an engaging glimpse into the life of a remarkable young man and his world.

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Mozart: The Man Revealed
By John Suchet
Pegasus Books
288 pp.

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He had a domineering father, used filthy language, and had a penchant for behaving inappropriately. Over the years, his conceit and egotism would cause a string of problems in his personal and professional life. And no, we're not referring to any politician of either party. We’re talking about Mozart.

That’s correct. The man considered the most gifted composer in the history of Western classical music possessed an array of off-putting personal qualities, including a lifelong inclination to engage in “bathroom humor,” the details of which cannot be presented in respectable publications like The Christian Science Monitor.

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While Mozart had his delightful and even charming side, it is mind-boggling to realize that the man who created such sublime music repeatedly penned graphic letters – usually to women – about a variety of unappealing bodily functions. However bizarre, the composer of "Don Giovanni" was rather a tasteless boor, even by the different standards of the eighteenth century. Go figure.

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Despite his peculiarities, from the time he was a small boy, Mozart was recognized for his breathtaking musical ability. Indeed, his father Leopold, one of Salzburg’s most talented musicians, realized that both his children, Wolfgang and his older sister Nannerl, were blessed with uncommon musical gifts, which he was determined to nurture, develop, and exploit.

Leopold was their only teacher, and his expectations were grand, especially for the little boy whose genius was clear from an early age, when he began pecking out melodies on the keyboard. The plan, which Leopold tirelessly implemented, was to have his children perform in the salons and palaces of Europe’s rich and powerful, thus providing the family with what they needed to survive. “No money-making opportunity was to be ignored,” writes John Suchet, the author of the engaging biography Mozart: The Man Revealed.

In a life infused with as much drama as any opera, Mozart, who was born in Salzburg in 1756 and died 35 years later in perilous financial circumstances, was lionized throughout Europe before he had reached his teens. Leopold, who recognized the economic potential of his son’s gift, and, to a lesser extent, that of his daughter, used the kids to keep the family afloat. They would go anywhere to make a ducat.

This meant the Mozart children were paraded endlessly across Europe, performing for kings, queens, dukes, duchesses, and even the Pope. Wolfgang, Nannerl, and their enterprising father were often on the move, hawking their musical wares. Among the boy’s notable skills was the capacity to perform brilliantly on the clavier, even when the keyboard was covered with a cloth. Not a bad trick for a six-year-old.

As Suchet, who has written several books on classical music and hosts a morning radio program in Britain, documents in fascinating detail, the Mozarts’ continental expeditions were hardly weekend jaunts. On the contrary, they spent years on the road, plying their craft before Europe’s nobility, who coughed up considerable sums to hear the children perform.

In 1763, the foursome (two parents and two children) embarked on one such adventure, which lasted more than three years and covered thousands of miles. Traveling by coach over horrendous roads, often in frightful weather, the Mozarts visited scores of towns and cities in which Leopold had arranged recitals for Wolfgang and Nannerl, whose playing mesmerized listeners from Vienna to London. Some 70 years after hearing the young genius play, one lucky audience member, Goethe, the iconic man of letters, recalled being entranced by the performance of “the little man with the wig and sword,” the latter given to young Wolfgang by the Empress Maria Theresa.

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As Wolfgang left boyhood behind, his relationship with his father, a key theme of Suchet’s gracefully written volume, became increasingly fraught, the inevitable result of Leopold’s ceaseless professional and personal demands. Whether the young man was seeking a musical position or courting a woman, Leopold did not hesitate to trumpet his expectations. As this lively volume demonstrates, whatever the century, a controlling father is no recipe for contentment.

Much of the book explores Wolfgang’s effort to carve out an existence independent from Leopold, which Suchet traces through the skillful use of personal letters, many from son to father. The letters allow us to hear Mozart’s voice as he tried to make his way in the world. As Suchet rightly notes, they offer “wonderful insight into his character.” At the same time, the musician’s indelicate missives compel one to ask just what drove Mozart’s proclivity to fixate on things scatological.

While "Mozart: The Man Revealed" does not look closely at the splendid compositions this extraordinary musician created, it does provide a memorable glimpse into the life of a remarkable young man and his world. And remarkable he was, as suggested by the reaction of Joseph Haydn, who, upon hearing Mozart’s music, told Leopold that his son was “the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.” Such sentiments, expressed by a man who knew a thing or two about music, must have allowed father and son to feel a profound sense of accomplishment. Perhaps their long struggle was worth it, after all.

Jonathan Rosenberg teaches twentieth-century U.S. history at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center.