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Now this is what I call impeccable editorial work! With this volume Mr Eisen has done an outstanding job that ought to serve as an example to many an editor. All too often miserable hacks, dressed-up in the editor's prestigious mantle, make a hash of things: see Pico Iyer and the travel writings of Somerset Maugham (Everyman's Library, 2009). But not here, not with Mozart's letters edited by Cliff Eisen.
The editor has supplied this volume with excellent chronology, fascinating biographical essay about Mozart, most helpful "List of Important People" and "Further Reading". The numerous historical "gaps" between the letters are explained in italicized notes of exemplary lucidity and conciseness.
Each and every letter - and there are well over a hundred of them, mostly by Wolfgang but with quite a few additions by Leopold, all in chronological order - is adorned with copious footnotes that clarify all obscure points. Most importantly, these indicate the Koechel numbers (K. or KV) of Mozart's works that are mentioned constantly (often in a most cryptic way, but one can't expect the composer to refer to a catalogue that was compiled some seven decades after his death).
Stewart Spencer is a well-known and highly respected translator from German (witness his complete translation of Wagner's "Ring") and so far as I can judge he has managed to convey Mozart's mercurial personality with a spectacular degree of accuracy.
As it seems Mr Spencer is also responsible, as credited by the editor, for the excellent index apparatus. In addition to a General Index, you can browse the volume by "Principal Correspondents" and "Mozart's Works" (by both genre and Koechel numbers).
There is also a very helpful "List of Letters" which allows you a bird-eye view of dates, locations, correspondents. One easily sees that in Mozart's early years, especially during his great travels all over Europe, the letters are predominantly Leopold's. Later it is Wolfgang who tells the whole story in his own words. The last letter is something of an exception. It comes from neither of the two principal epistolary contributors, but it is a moving account, apparently first-hand at that, of Mozart's death. The author is one Sophie Haibel, née Weber (a sister-in-law).
The collection aims at readability and continuity, rather than at comprehensiveness. Inevitably there are gaps. But what a marvelous insight is hidden between them!
My only disappointment with these letters is that most (but not all!) references to Mozart's works are very brief and very mundane. Then again, music is to be listened to and experienced, not read about and analysed on paper. These letters are priceless because they give you Mozart's real personality pure and simple - although it is neither.
Harold Schonberg has called Mozart ''Rachmaninoff of the eighteenth century'' and has declared his letters to be ''fascinating''. Indeed they are. What's more, they vividly testify that Mr Schonberg's provocative description is spot on:
"He grew up a complicated man with a complicated personality and an unprecedented knack for making enemies. He was tactless, spoke out impulsively, said exactly what he thought about other musicians (rarely did he have a good word to say), tended to be arrogant and supercilious, and made very few real friends in the musical community. He had the reputation of being giddy and light-headed, temperamental, obstinate. We can look back to all this and sympathise. He was Mozart; he was better than any musician of his time; he did unerringly spot the mediocrity around him (and also the great figures: he had nothing but respect for Haydn), and in his musical judgments he was never wrong. But that did not make things any easier for him while he was alive."
["The Lives of the Great Composers", 3rd ed., 1996.]
Many of Mozart's remarks have become rather famous. You will find these here. For instance, that his 15th and 16th piano concertos (K. 450 and K. 451) ''make you sweat''. The notorious scatological humour, made infamous by the movie Amadeus (ironically this portrait of Mozart is far more accurate than most people think), is also here: ''I'll sh** on your nose so it runs down your chin'', he lovingly wrote to his ''dearest little cousin dozen''.
(For the record, the editor makes it clear - and the letters testify to that - that such scatological humour, whatever one's personal opinion of it, was common among other members of Mozart's family and indeed in the whole Salzburg of his time. Maria Anna, Wolfi's mother, once finished an affectionate postscript to Leopold with ''Addio ben mio'' and then ''stick your tongue up your crack. And sh** in your bed.'')
If Mozart's music has some sort of mysterious power over you, you absolutely must read his letters. They give a portrait of such clarity and vividness, indeed an almost hectic brightness, that you don't really need anything else. Everything's here: from Mozart's unerring musical judgments to his naughty confessions to sweet cousins, from the white heat of composition (the famous passage about Belmonte's aria) to the frustration of opera commissions, productions and the art of ''tailoring'' arias for certain singers. And there is another unforgettable line from Amadeus which, even if it did not exactly happen, was certainly true to life:
"- Mozart, you are not the only composer in Vienna.
- No. But I'm the best."
Of course every serious admirer of Mozart should see Milos Forman's magnificent movie (together with Peter Shaffer's not so magnificent but still terrific play) and read David Weiss' masterful novelised biography Sacred and Profane (1968). The moronic dismisal of these works as ''fiction'' will never do. Yet they are fiction and should naturally be read with great caution.
But Mozart's letters are neither fiction nor in need of any caution while reading. Throw all of it (the caution, I mean) to the wind and immerse yourself into Mozart's exhilarating mixture of ''sacred and profane''. His letters are an exact reflection of his mind and his music. And about the latter Deryck Cooke has the last word:
"In fact, the only thing that Mozart's music lacks is what the twentieth century declares it to consist of entirely - purity. It is not pure at all, as Palestrina is pure. It is far too human for that."
PS. The collection Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life (2000), translated and edited by Robert Spaethling, is also excellent. But in no way does it supersede the work of Messrs Eisen and Spencer.