To celebrate the 80th anniversary of Penguin Books, Penguin has released 80 Little Black Classics, each priced at 80p. They are mostly less well-known pieces by famous figures. Besides the serious danger of Penguin bankrupting me (I am trying, oh so hard, not to buy too many!), it is a brilliant idea. They are short, sophisticated, and informative little pieces that are perfect for reading before bed (or, indeed, in the bath!). Here is the full list of titles: http://www.littleblackclassics.com/
Yesterday, I read the selection of correspondence between the twenty-one year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father. It is quite hard to follow at points, because it is a selection of their letters, and so you sometimes have to infer what a previous letter has said, but it gives a vivid picture of the characters of W.A. Mozart and Leopold Mozart.
W.A. Mozart and L. Mozart emerge as controversial personalities. W.A. is exuberantly full of life, leaping without looking, ever hopeful that great things lie around the corner, and often rather too careless about practical and financial matters and the well-being of his family. L. is a pious Roman Catholic and a worrier, who sends his son reproachful letters full of advice. L. is such a caring father that he won my sympathies; but, I can imagine that some others might see him as a bit of a bore and empathise instead with W.A.’s more carefree attitude to life.
Their correspondence also brings the period to life:
-The discussion at the opening about the quality of pianos is fascinating.I did not realise that the best pianos in Mozart’s day was perceived to be those where the notes died away as soon as you had struck the key – like a harpsichord. (I was taught to play Bach, Mozart, etc. semi-staccato, but hadn’t quite realised why!)
-And did you know that some girls learnt musical composition, and that women could become composers? I didn’t! Did you know Mozart taught composition to at least one girl?
-The pen-sketches of some of Mozart’s contemporaries are shocking! Haydn, in front of the archbishop of Salzburg and the whole court, too drunk to conduct. The Stamitzes as impoverished scribblers gamblers, drunkards, and whoremongers (Mozart’s words!). And ‘that godless arch-rogue Voltaire’ dying ‘like a dog, like a beast’.
-Mozart’s reasoning behind some of his compositions, and the receptions they received, is really interesting. E.g. ‘I’ve had to write a symphony to open the Concert Spirituel… I’d heard that all the final allegros and opening ones too begin here with all the instruments playing together and generally in unison, and so I began mine with 2 violins only, playing piano for 8 whole bars, followed at once by a forte – the audience, as I expected, went “shush” at the piano – then came the forte – and as soon as they heard it, they started to clap’.
This is the sort of book that I would re-read, again and again, despite its length. Partly, I admit, this is because it is, at points, quite hard to follow on a first read; but, also, it is because of the incredible level of fascinating detail about the Mozart, his family, and the period contained in this very short selection from his correspondence. I would definitely also like to read more of his correspondence at some point. I’d like to know more about his world, his family, and to see whether he became steadier and wiser as he grew older.
At just 80p, I can’t recommend this little book highly enough. All Classical music lovers should definitely buy it!