40 years ago, Wolfgang Hildesheimer wrote a long-form essay, Mozart, that freed his namesake from the marble of statues and the marzipan coatings of candies. The open-ended structure of the work makes so much new writing look older than its years.

Every time a new book comes out, it eclipses 10 older ones. One may say that at least nine of them remain in the shadows, never to recover. The few that do last become reissues, then classics, and—worst case—“required reading.” Very few manage to retain that elementary newness with which they first crashed into our consciousness. To this last category belongs a book on music that hardly needs an anniversary to occasion praise. Still, it matters that Hildesheimer’s essay Mozart first appeared 40 years ago. Over 40 years, it became apparent that this unusual text gained interest through both its own aging and the vagaries of time.

Wolfgang Hildesheimer (Photo: Isolde Ohlbaum)

You can still open the book to any page and dive right in, although “His little cousin was probably Mozart’s first love” will probably appeal to a wider audience than “The Commendatore first becomes real as a ghost.” Mozart’s younger cousin, Maria Anna Thekla, was one of Hildesheimer’s most important witnesses when it came to releasing Mozart from the marble fetters of posterity. Today one revels in the knowledge that Mozart had sex with his cousin out of wedlock, and in his kinky letters in the style of musical improvisations. But Hildesheimer found himself pitted against the uptight guardians of tradition, who unwaveringly spoke only of “foolish antics” and “a quite harmless flirtation.”

It wasn’t about the voyeuristic appeal of viewing Mozart’s life through the keyhole. He wanted to estrange his readers from a man whose life occupied primarily musicologists and biographers. From prodigy to genius—a position tenured as if by fate, for only a short period—earlier reconstructions of Mozart’s life had everything fitting together in such a sterile way that the suggestive gaps in his biography were closed. Musicologists would even diagnose moments in the music: for example, the minor “darkening” in his String Quintet in C Major. “Why darkening?” asked Hildesheimer. “The day is unthinkable without the night, but which 12 hours are objectively the better?” He skewered what he saw as an “inadmissibly judgmental musical analysis.” Hildesheimer wasn’t a musicologist, but a writer; and he beat musicology round the head with sentences and questions for which it is today quietly thankful.

“Hereafter I return the subject to the professionals,” he remarked in his foreword, which really meant he had successfully wrestled it away from them. Over 20 years of work, he’d expanded an essay written in 1956 over 400 pages, not into a linear narrative organized chronologically or thematically, but into a series of gyrating and meandering movements and overlapping layers—letters, music, the assured and the presumptuous, as well as the position of the author and his readers, united as the most expansive “we” in literary history.

That’s because Mozart is not least a literary work. Hildesheimer, born in Hamburg in 1916 as the great-grandson of a renowned rabbi, moved to British Mandatory Palestine with his parents in 1933, and, after returning to Germany, became a member of the literary Group 47. He was, at least after the publication of Tynset in 1965, a master of German prose, meaning he was able to take Mozart away from the German musicologist’s club. Compared to his, their linguistic skills were as limited as their perception of a world outside of scores and footnotes. (One exception was Carl Dahlhaus, who judged the book “complete in its open-ended form.”) Though it’s worth noting that he had a greater influence on German musicologists’ perspectives than he did on their bone-dry prose.

Hildesheimer didn’t take it upon himself to build his own version of Mozart: Wherever you start to think that you’re getting close to the “artist,” the author turns back, says “we don’t know,” questions himself. When he thinks about the figure of Donna Anna, “absolutely unbearable, somewhere between cry-baby and angel of revenge,” he comes to a “general intoxication,” “into which the music sets its interpreters,” and makes fun of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s idea of a willingly seduced Donna Anna. But he also wrote that “today it’s no different, we labor compulsively with psychological categories, and search for evidence in the music.” Having been psychoanalyzed himself, he knew what he was talking about, and he applied the experience to Mozart. Experimentally and essayistically: “Let us quickly play this nice game.”  

Hildesheimer kept playing beautiful games until the old chocolate Mozart melted in the hands of his admirers and a vastly more interesting outsider emerged from behind the music. It was an exposure which worked in parallel with the discovery of musical language in the oh-so beautiful Viennese classical period, where meaning—and, importantly, contradiction—had been played down. Hildesheimer didn’t think much of historically-informed performance practice—in retrospect he was as right as he was wrong. Harnoncourt’s early recordings do not compare with the later results of the revolution he started. But the free, almost unmoored Mozart, speaking the language of Affekt—a given for modern orchestras—could already be heard between Hildesheimer’s lines.

By now, some of his facts are out of date. Mozart’s final years weren’t tragic, we know now; in fact, he saw himself as “standing before the gates of happiness.” In Hildesheimer’s final words (“the mortal remains of an incomprehensibly great soul,” “an undeserved gift to humanity”), he fell victim to the pathos he spent most of his book unraveling. But the freedom of perspective and open-ended form that Hildesheimer found for his essay haven’t yet been matched. Mozart is the year’s most modern book on music. ¶