There are modern twists in Swafford’s narrative. He is unsparing of Mozart’s father Leopold, whom he depicts as a grifting Fagin-type, dispatching his children to fleece the rich and pocketing most of their plunder. And he is scrupulously determined to separate the verifiable wheat from the mythological chaff, though more chaff makes it through than one would suppose. He loves background colour, picking out from Casanova’s Mémoires a description of an orgy — ‘There were seven or eight girls, all of them pretty, three or four castratos... and five or six abbés’ — and in a flash we know not simply Anthony Burgess’s likely inspiration for the opening of Earthly Powers (‘It was the afternoon of my 81st birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite...’), but also the delicious overlap between church, the opera and prostitution in the late 18th century.
Mozart was not a revolutionary artist and did not break especially new ground; he did, however, dig deeper and find unsuspected riches through his understanding of how to translate the human condition into the art of sound. Likewise, Swafford does not upend our vision of the composer, although he quashes myths with clear-sighted good sense. Instead, he too goes deeper, in his invocation of Mozart’s presence and what makes his music so special. For many his works are dear old friends. You can come away from this book feeling that he is too.