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The Myth of the Eternal Child
The child Mozart was examined by several eminent observers, who authenticated his gifts and issued glowing scientific reports describing his prodigious talents. The English magistrate and scholar Daines Barrington visited nine-year-old Mozart in London and put him to several tests, offering his conclusions to the Royal Society in London, which published them in its Philosophical Transactions of 1770. After much initial skepticism, he confirmed that the child possessed what the music historian Charles Burney called "premature and almost supernatural talents.""Suppose then," suggested Barrington in attempting to describe Mozart's sight-reading abilities, "a capital speech in Shakespeare never seen before, and yet read by a child of eight years old, with all the pathetic energy of a Garrick. Let it be conceived likewise, that the same child is reading, with a glance of his eye, three different comments on this speech tending to its illustration; and that one comment is written in Greek, the second in Hebrew, and the third in Etruscan characters. . . . When all this is conceived, it will convey some idea of what this boy was capable of."In Paris, Friedrich Melchior von Grimm, a close associate of the Encyclopedists, exclaimed in amazement that the child was "such an extraordinary phenomenon that one is hard put to it to believe what one sees with one's eyes and hears with one's ears. . . . I am no longer surprised that Saint Paul should have lost his head after his strange vision."
A Swiss philosophe and educator, Auguste Tissot, who observed Mozart in Lausanne in 1766, set down his astonishment at the superiorityof Mozart's performances, at the "character of force which is the stamp of genius, that variety which proclaims the fire of imagination, and that charm which proves an assured taste." But the phenomenon of young Mozart, he avowed, transcended issues of genius or precocious virtuosity, rising instead from a harmonious union
. . . between moral man and physical man. A well-ordered mind appears to be made for a virtuous soul and sweet ways; experience has verified this in several great artists, and little Mozart supplies a new proof of it; his heart is as sensitive as his ear; he has modesty such as is rare at his age, and rare combined with such superiority; it is truly edifying to hear him attribute his talents to the giver of all things and to conclude from this, with a charming candor and an air of the most intimate conviction, that it would be unpardonable to pride himself on them.
Thus, beyond the miraculous surface, Mozart was held to be, in the words of Tissot's German translator, "not only a natural but a moral human being; a splendid object, in truth, worthy of study," and his parents were to be congratulated for knowing "so well how to unite and nurture in [him] the moral and the natural man." Leopold Mozart was regarded as God's surrogate in this matter, guiding the development of his son--and his daughter, Marianne, who had an important role in the early concerts--with a benevolent, scientific, and loving disposition. "One cannot see without emotion," wrote Tissot, "all the evidence of his tenderness for a father who seems most worthy of it, who has taken even greater care over the formation of his character than the cultivation of his talents, and who speaks of education with as much sagacity as of music; who thinks himself well rewarded by success, and regards it as sweet for him to see his two lovable children better rewarded by a glance of approval from him, which they seek with tender anxiety in his eyes, than by the plaudits of a whole audience."
Mozart was seen, then, as a superlative example of the child's unlimited potentiality for creative and moral development, which could be unlocked by enlightened upbringing. The most famous musical prodigy in history, he was marked from the outset as the quintessential, perfect child. In an extraordinary series of triumphs, he was received, feted, and honored by the royal families of Europe--the king and queen of France, the empress of Austria and her son Emperor Joseph, the king and queen of England--and Pope Clement XIV himself. Mozart and his family were showered with money and expensive presents. He was kissed by empresses and petted by Marie Antoinette. And all because he was a gifted child, one who not only could perform wonders and miracles but was the very incarnation of a miracle, one whose small body exemplified the infinite perfectibility of the child and, by inference, of mankind.
The early literature about the child Mozart inevitably drew on a variety of rich traditions about other child heroes. There are tales in the Herculean mode of his endless labors and feats: he was undaunted by blindfolds and by keyboards covered with cloths; he emerged victorious from strenuous musical contests; it was claimed as a miracle that he was able to write down Allegri's Miserere--the Church was said to have forbidden copying it--after a single hearing at the Vatican. Legends of the Christ child readily attached themselves to him. "We have seen him for an hour and a half on end withstand the assaults of musicians," wrote Grimm, echoing Luke's narrative of the twelve-year-old who was questioned by the elders in the temple, "and while they sweated blood and had the hardest struggle in the world to keep even with him, the child came out of the combat unfatigued."There is perhaps something of the youthful trickster in all this: While Mozart certainly had the capacity to write out the Miserere from memory, he may also have had prior access to a manuscript copy of Allegri's score;and he professed to read at sight compositions of unlimited difficulty but sometimes, without missing a beat, substituted different passage-work already in his repertory.Many people--perhaps most--doubted his age, suspecting deception and even sending to Salzburg for his baptismal records.In Naples, so they said, Mozart was accused of wearing a magical ring to aid his dexterous left hand. It was reported--perhaps apocryphally, for the story has the sound of legend--that the archbishop of Salzburg, not crediting his young subject's abilities as a composer, "shut him up for a week, during which he was not permitted to see any one, and was left only with music paper, and the words of an oratorio," for which he triumphantly produced the music at the close of his incarceration.
In a rare moment of self-revelation, Leopold Mozart let us glimpse the extent to which he himself identified the boy with the Christ child; he wrote to his friend Lorenz Hagenauer in 1768 that his son was "a miracle, which God has allowed to see the light in Salzburg. . . . And if it is ever to be my duty to convince the world of this miracle, it is so now, when people are ridiculing whatever is called a miracle and denying all miracles. . . . But because this miracle is too evident and consequently not to be denied, they want to suppress it. They refuse to let God have the honor." In the descriptions of Mozart there are hints, too, of Apollo and Hermes, of Dionysus and Ganymede. Primarily, however, he is seen as Eros, the divine child, the playful embodiment of love and beauty. And the preoccupations of Eros were his as well. "Who is this, that will not kiss me?" he is said to have asked imperiously when Madame de Pompadour rebuffed his embrace. "The empress kissed me." He had indeed animated the Austrian empress to kiss him by jumping on her lap, hugging her, and "saying that he loved her with all his heart."The Salzburg court trumpeter Johann Andreas Schachtner recalled, "He would often ask me ten times in one day if I loved him, and when I sometimes said no, just for fun, bright tears welled up in his eyes."
To be sure, from the first there were also hints that the perfect child--so small, delicate, prone to illness--was somehow doomed, and might not survive to adulthood. Writing to him in 1778, his father recalled, "Why, even your expression was so solemn that, observing the early efflorescence of your talent and your ever grave and thoughtful little face, many discerning people of different countries sadly doubted whether your life would be a long one."Grimm worried whether "so premature a fruit might fall before it has come to maturity."Daines Barrington hoped that Mozart might attain "to the same advanced years as Handel, contrary to the common observation that such ingenia praecocia are generally short lived."
Homer tells us that the child gods are timeless and unchanging: "They age not, they die not, they are eternal."In the course of time, however, Mozart's physical appearance began to diverge from the world's image of him. It was as though the grown Mozart was a quite different person, one descended from but not identical with a legendary child Mozart. The boy faded from view, replaced by a somewhat strange and awkward adolescent and adult. Fanciful imaginings about the young Mozart materialized and remained frozen in time while another Mozart grew older, suffered, and died. The maturing historical Mozart became the porcelain-child Mozart's double, and the divine child survived his own death. A sickly infant with a large head and a tiny body, a winning youngster with an arch smile and unshakable confidence, a little magician gifted with marvelous powers, performed wonders before the crowned heads and elite of Europe, while everywhere were heard predictions of his early doom. Mozart. Copyright © by Maynard Solomon. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.