books Essays

Jan Swafford’s “Mozart: The Reign of Love”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who lived from 1756 to 1791, is the most famous composer in history and, by most accounts, the greatest composer who ever lived. Even people without much love for music and fine arts know his name and are familiar with his story. It goes something like this: Mozart was a miraculous gift to music, an immortal genius far ahead of his time; he was also a womanizer, notorious, and lived a troubled life. This story of Mozart seeped into our culture from two wells: the romantic deification of Mozart in the 19th century which hailed the composer as a prophetic flash of lightning for the romantic movement and from the 1984 film Amadeus. The problem is that this story of Mozart that we think we know is not true at all; thankfully, Jan Swafford is here to correct the problem.

Mozart: The Reign of Love is more than just a biography of the world’s greatest composer. It is an intimate dive into the Mozart family: Papa Leopold Mozart (1719-1787), Mama Anna Maria (1720-1778), sister Nannerl (1751-1829), and Mozart himself. It is also a kaleidoscope through the turbulence and optimism of late Enlightenment Europe, Europe moved by the Aufklärung, the Enlightenment, and progressive reformism headed by absolutist despots. While Swafford is fond of the myth of the Enlightenment, from his pages we might better understand the mid and late 18th century as the Age of Music instead of the Age of Reason.

Leopold Mozart, the paterfamilias, was a cutthroat opportunist. He knew his children, especially Mozart, were talented in music. As the music master of Salzburg, Leopold ambitiously marketed his children across Europe in their youth: “Part of Leopold’s intention in taking his children around Europe was to expose them, especially Wolfgang as composer, to influences around the map: the celebrated composers and performers, the characters of various national schools, the variations in musical life from music center to center, the different media and genres of music from solo clavier to opera.” So begins the bildungsroman of Mozart…

Read the full review here: Review: Jan Swafford’s Mozart: The Reign of Love (Merion West, 3 March 2021)

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