At university, a composition lecturer once described his artistic endeavor as freeing “music from the baggage of serious high art music, without actually throwing away the bags.” A similar description applies to the classical music publishing industry today: discarding the baggage accumulated by “history of music” books of old, while retaining the means with which to write something similar. Those new-old bags come in many forms: group biographies of unsung figures, revisionist histories, snapshots of moments in time. Everywhere, histories are being challenged and fragmented, making the discipline of music history gradually more complicated in the process.
Of those formats, the “history in pieces” book has emerged as a trend stretching across the publishing industry, as stories of Ancient Greece and art are told in 50 lives or 21 cats (by David Stuttard and Nia Gould respectively). Authors of British history are particularly well-represented here; perhaps inspired by former British Museum director Neil MacGregor’s collaboration with Radio 4, “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” there are many routes available for readers searching for meaning in these troubled isles: hop aboard one of Tom Nancollas’ 11 Vessels, scour some of Jeremy Black’s 100 maps, or go deep in conversation with the 21 women of Jenni Murray, as each finds something to say about Britain through something else.
The trend has made its way into music publishing too. Susan Tomes’s The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces from 2021 offers a broad viewpoint; more often, the format is deployed as a way of looking afresh at figures we know quite well already. You can choose whether you want Beethoven in nine pieces, with Laura Tunbridge, or 100, with Norman Lebrecht. And Mozart in Motion: His Work and His World in Pieces, by poet and author Patrick Mackie, fits snugly into this publishing moment.
The “in pieces” structure suits Mackie’s central argument, that Mozart was endlessly between worlds. “Modern experience is transient to its bones,” Mackie writes, “and the multifariousness of art has been a vital way of knowing and coping with this condition, if also often enough a way of exacerbating it.” His thesis relies on placing Mozart squarely in this psychosocial category, and aligning those ideas with his working practices: “Mozart was constantly dashing between projects that led down different routes, and soliciting or entertaining prospects from different directions,” he says, pouring cold water on the “tortured genius” trope in attempt to place him back within his social situation. Unfortunately, Mackie’s argument then unravels a bit. “At any given point he can seem both settled and restless, or both well rewarded and broke, or both popular and neglected.” While no doubt a genuine attempt to bring Mozart into the present day (can you imagine a dead-behind-the-eyes Mozart, five coffees deep at his local WeWork?), such extreme even-handedness means more careful critical engagement (that assesses which worlds of his many worlds he might have felt more or less drawn to) is quietly avoided. Many “ands” make light work.
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In lots of cases, Mackie simply writes too many words, with supplementary clauses that give the illusion of balance, but that actually exist as a way of avoiding judgements. It begins early on: Mozart’s prodigious early talent “threw him into the centre of this musical scene and tore him out of and beyond it”; the Violin Concerto in A is “a point-by-point negotiation between a talent flexing its possibilities and the recognition that it must stay comprehensible, engrossing and fun.” They’re passable takes, but the book takes a turn when Mackie begins feeding his light psychoanalysis into close readings of the music: The role of the solo violin in Mozart’s early concertos is “both inside and outside the orchestra in ways that reflect Mozart’s own wavering condition.” Mozart’s interest in the viola “may have been coloured by the way the instrument hangs between two worlds.” Later on, the Mass in C Minor “combines exuberant stylistic discovery and giddy reaches of expressive power with a certain lurching uncertainty in ways that amount to a portrait in motion of the composer’s mind early in his marriage.”
To be fair to Mackie, he commits to his point. How did Mozart strike people in Vienna in the 1780s, he asks in chapter seven. Well… he pivoted between “obsequiousness and masterfulness,” could “dress to impress” but was also urbane, could be “bumpkin,” could be “cosmopolitan,” needed to swivel “between boisterous bonhomie and flows of concentration,” and possessed “a speaking voice that was “normally gentle, but could become insistent.” It’s a theme that never really develops through the book; Mozart spent the summer of 1788 “in a state that was neither peak nor trough but somehow both together.”
It’s an admirable idea to try and tease out more of the complexities of a man whom we already think we know so well, but Mackie studiously avoids the most simple point of all: that we hardly know any of that psychological detail. Alongside Mackie’s book, I’m currently reading Fiona Maddocks’ Wild Tracks—A Conversation Diary with Harrison Birtwistle. In conversations undertaken in the late Birtwistle’s Wiltshire kitchen, the composer dutifully unpacked some of his anxieties; we gain insights into his psyche, methods, and the day-to-day thoughts as he writes his Piano Concerto. What Mackie would have given to have sat at Mozart’s table and had similar conversations, yet sometimes Mozart in Motion feels like it’s written as if something like that had actually happened, rather than what transpires—Mackie generously joining the dots. The material between Mozart’s letters and other scholarship is laced with modalities: “probably,” “must have,” “may have been.” It’s a problem that all historians come up against — the brick wall when the trail runs dry. But in the hands of judicious scholars, such modalities are fought for painstakingly. Here, that language seems more speculative.
Usually, the musical descriptions of Mackie’s history “in pieces” make up the most persuasive passages of the book, but they can vary dramatically. Here he is on the Adagio, from the Piano Sonata in F Major No. 12 (K.332): “His music’s realism about people or bodies or social life does much to make it so praiseworthy, but its realism draws on a shattering openness to desuetude and loss and roughness. The adagio in the third of these sonatas shows how determined his music was, amid its own radiant power, to stand up for fragility and delicacy and sadness.” Or or or; and and and. Teasing out the complexities of characters from history is a taxing job, but treating those complexities on the same level renders them simple and single-dimensional. More importantly, they leave the reader floating transiently, as Mozart may, or may not, have done in his day. ¶
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