by Paul Johnson

Hardcover, 2013




New York : Viking, 2013.


"In addition to his many insights into Mozart's music [in this concise biography], Johnson also challenges the many myths that have followed Mozart, including those about the composer's health, wealth, religion, and relationships"

User reviews

LibraryThing member NielsenGW
Paul Johnson’s new biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is certifiably adjective-y. It’s short, sweet, inspiring, exasperating, jam-packed, opinionated, whimsical (at times), terse, and fun. For the most part, it’s a straightforward chronology of Mozart’s life and work. He only lived for 35 years (1756-1791), but produced the most interesting, most complex, most wonderful pieces of classical music in history. Starting at age five, he composed over 600 works, ranging from masses to concertos to operas to choral pieces to symphonies and everything in between.

One of the more amazing aspects of Mozart’s compositional history was his need to understand instruments from the inside out. He would learn everything about an instrument’s construction, then learn to play it, then learn which individual instruments were better than others and appropriate them for his orchestra, and then compose with only those instruments in mind. When he learned the violin, he quickly wrote five stunning concertos. When the clarinet was being perfected in the late 1700s, he sought out the best player and composed an intriguing concerto before his death. And so on and so forth.

Johnson’s biography is dutiful and has a lot of information, but at times is too chockablock with information to really get a fully fleshed out sense of the man behind the music. He does a great job, however, of trying to set some of the record straight with regards to previous tales of tragic hubris and indebtedness. It’s clear that Johnson has a great love of classical music and tries very hard to not use a lot of jargon. This book made we want to go out and immediately get tickets to a symphony (but sadly, I have more books to read). If you’re at all interesting about Mozart, this will be a very good place to start. A quick, concise, and engaging read.
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LibraryThing member datrappert
Johnson's short biography of Mozart is commendable for how much light it sheds on Mozart's music. Johnson also effectively defends Mozart's father and his wife against their detractors. I also like the fact that this biography doesn't dwell so much on the tragedy of Mozart's short life. The author shows that Mozart's life was generally a quite happy one. He also convincingly shows that Mozart's money problems we're not as bad as many biographers have made them out to be. Johnson's love of music and understanding of Mozart's work is evident from the first page to last. Much less satisfactory is an epilogue to the book, written by a different author, discussing Mozart's time in London when he was eight years old. This is a pointless exercise of "what if" speculating what Mozart's life might've been like had he decided to stay in England. The author soon goes off track, however, and spends most of the chapter in a general defense of Englishness that doesn't belong in this biography at all.… (more)
LibraryThing member JBD1
A brief, overly opinionated biography of Mozart. There must be better out there.
LibraryThing member kara.shamy
The first reviewer of this Mozart biography here on Goodreads pre-empted me in stating what is obvious to anyone who has perused this text -- it's somewhat slender. Ok, that's an understatement -- it's at least the contender, and the presumptive titleholder according to my best memory, for thinnest work of nonfiction I have selected for my own reading in the last 20 years. It's even thinner when compared to other biographies I've read. My paperback copy, which I had the good fortune to win here on Goodreads, is a lean 159 pages including an Appendix and Further Reading section. The print is better-spaced for easy reading than most books I read. As you can probably tell from the extent of my observations, I was very suspicious of this book's merit at the outset.

That probably wasn't reasonable of me; it was clear from the start I had misapprehended the scope of this work. I had presumed it contained the same level detail and thematic focus as other major biographies of major cultural figures in history.

This book was written to a different purpose than those distinguished tomes researched meticulously by biographers who are thereafter reputed as definitive (secondary) sources on their subjects. Johnson set out to write a concise biography surveying the major events and themes of the great composer's short life (he died before age 40). This is no oversimplified, quick & dirty, Cliff Notes-type version of a Mozart biography. It is a work of intellectual rigor if quite circumscribed scope.

Once I accepted the fact I wasn't going to receive the level of detail about this genius's life as I had hoped, I was able to enjoy and learn from what Johnson wrote. There was a balance to his perspective -- or rather his narration, his human voice as a relator of information in the text -- that I found original and impressive. After all, biography is a genre that lends itself various skewing of the researcher/writer's perspective -- making relating to the audience's view of the subject more difficult and undermining any balanced or comparatively objective view of the subject he or she had maintained before. A biographer, historian, etc. can certainly get too close to his terms, as it were. Perhaps because of the limited scope of his work, Johnson never overdramatizes his subject's exceptional aspects. That's a difficult standard to maintain with Mozart, to put it mildly.

Furthermore, when Johnson advanced arguments about previous treatments of Mozart's life he always seemed intellectually -- and not emotionally invested -- in the viewpoint he was advancing. All in all, this was an intelligent, informative, original biography -- but the reader must look elsewhere for great detail over the man's whole lifetime...
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LibraryThing member auntmarge64
A brief but satisfying introduction to the life and music of Mozart, perfect for someone (like me) who knows little about Mozart's life except that he died young (and what could be gleaned from the movie "Amadeus"). Johnson is obviously lovingly familiar with the music, and he has intertwined a basic biography with discussions of Mozart's use of existing and newly introduced instruments, his encyclopedic knowledge of their possibilities, and his staggering contributions to various musical forms, such as the concerto, symphony, and opera. His relationships with his father, wife, and fellow composer Salieri, so colorfully presented in the film, are also examined, with Johnson disagreeing with those negative characterizations. The book ends with an essay on Mozart's visit to London when he was a child (covered more briefly in the book proper), with the author given as Daniel Johnson, with no information on who this is. This essay has an oddly snarky tone to it, and there are several grammatical errors which change the meaning of their sentences. An odd way to end the book.… (more)


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