An impassioned mash note to an immeasurable artist.
In the latest of his short biographies of great men (Darwin: Portrait of a Genius, 2012, etc.), historian Johnson doesn’t stint on his love for the singular life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791). The facts, of course, remain staggering: Mozart was playing piano at 3, composing at 5, touring and writing piano minuets and violin sonatas by 7, an opera, and a mass and two symphonies by 12; he was knighted as a maestro by 15. He was gifted with a phenomenal memory for everything he heard, a mastery of instruments, a perfect ear for tone and pitch, and a work ethic spurred by ceaseless inspiration. He wrote all the time—during his morning wig fittings, in a coach, in between playing billiards or all through the night. The faucet never shut off, particularly in his last decade, when he was churning out immortal symphonies, operas and concertos at warp speed, bouncing from one form to the other without breaking a sweat. This is a very personal appreciation, and Johnson captures the depth of Mozart’s achievement with a scholarly fan’s feverish and at times overweening enthusiasm. He barely notices the composer’s wife, children or negative attributes, presuming he had any. This Mozart is not only great, but exceptionally good, a kind, warm, deeply religious, financially astute—despite Johnson's own evidence to the contrary—artist who was adored by women, beloved by all, resentful of no one and died at 35: “He seemed to know he was dying, but his mood was composed, tranquil, resigned to accept his fate, and grateful for all the mercies life had brought him.”
A hard-sell hagiography but also a compact and knowledgeable portrait of genius.