True Images of Mozart…

“Mozart at the Pianoforte,” an unfinished portrait from 1789, by Joseph Lange.

By Bradley Bambarger <2006>

One of Mozart’s pupils, Johann Hummel (who became a noted pianist and composer), described his teacher being of “small build, his face pale; his physiognomy contained much that was pleasant and friendly, with a touch of melancholy seriousness; his large blue eyes gleamed brightly.”

This gives us a mental image of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as do his letters — which reveal a full-dimensional human being, equal parts artistic pride, moral decency, wacky humor and generous affection. Yet this isn’t enough, of course, as a single picture is worth many words.

Beyond portraits of Mozart the childhood celebrity, we have just a handful of paintings and drawings made of the composer during his adult years. (The bizarrely romantic visions of most 19th-century painters don’t count.) This anniversary year — today, January 27, being the composer’s 250th birthday — will bring banners for concerts and recordings illustrated by the few authentic images of the mature Mozart. But, as ever through the years, there are also frauds and misattributions making the rounds.

Perhaps the most compelling painting of Mozart from his day is Mozart at the Pianoforte (seen above), an unfinished portrait started in Vienna two years before the composer’s death in 1791 by his brother-in-law, Joseph Lange. Against a bible-black background, Mozart looks down pensively at a keyboard never painted, wearing his chestnut hair naturally (sans powdered wig). His wife, Constanze, said that this was the best likeness of Mozart.

Another authentic image of Mozart often seen is a detail from a family portrait painted in Salzburg around his 25th year by Johann Nepomuk della Croce. That touching picture has Mozart and his sister, nicknamed Nannerl, both seated at the keyboard, playing four hands; their father, Leopold, leans over the piano, violin in hand, and the children’s late mother, Anna Maria, looks on from a portrait hanging on the wall above.

The Mozart family, painted circa 1781, by Johann Nepomuk della Croce.

Today’s most popular image of Mozart actually comes from nearly three decades after the composer’s death. Barbara Krafft based a posthumous portrait closely on Della Croce’s work, with a bewigged Mozart looking intent and confident in a red jacket with gold brocade. She took care, even more than Della Croce, to model Mozart’s nose and eyes on those of his mother.

Cellist Matt Haimovitz, who has released a new recording of rarely heard Mozart chamber music, says the Krafft painting is the image of Mozart that he holds in his head. “There’s a youthful sparkle in his eye in that portrait, like the ‘Amadeus’ character we all know,” the cellist says. “But there’s also this piercing intelligence, this dignity. He has a gravitas there that just seems to go with the mature operas and late chamber music, his greatest work.”

Mozart, painted by Barbara Krafft in 1819, nearly three decades after the composer’s death.

Few contemporary musicians have steeped themselves in Mozart’s world like Robert Levin, pianist and Harvard professor. Acclaimed for his ability to improvise after the 18th-century manner in Mozart’s piano concertos, he has also made completions of the Requiem and C Minor Mass that the composer left unfinished at this death. The image of Mozart that means the most to Levin is the Lange painting.

“To me, the unfinished portrait is the most personal — his sensitivity as an artist is there in his gaze,” Levin says. “It’s a private view, like an informal snapshot. The Della Croce is posed, like a publicity still. The same goes for the Krafft, after the fact, even though it’s probably the superior artwork.

“But what we like really says more about us than it does about Mozart,” Levin adds. “In the 1930s, the ‘Coronation’ Piano Concerto was the most often performed concerto — brilliant, graceful music fit to the era’s conception of the porcelain Mozart. But it’s hardly played today. The most popular now is K.467 or the minor-key concertos, complex pieces, with more shadows.”

In January 2005, the Berliner Gemäldegalerie exhibited an 18th-century painting by Johann Georg Edlinger purported to be the “last” portrait of Mozart, rediscovered in the museum’s storerooms. Media outlets around the world reproduced the painting as such. Suspiciously, the subject looks too old for a mid-30s Mozart (even if ill); more important, the painting’s veracity as a portrait of the composer has been challenged by Mozart scholars and art historians.

Wolfgang Seiller, the key advocate of the Edlinger portrait as Mozart (and a distant relative of Edlinger), commissioned and distributed a “biometrical” study to show that the middle-aged subject’s features in the Edlinger painting significantly matched those of an authentic Mozart painted at age 21 (the “Golden Spur” portrait, below). But Munich municipal archivist Richard Bauer disputed Seiller’s claims by citing period documents identifying the Edlinger subject as Munich merchant Joseph Anton Steiner.

Cornell University professor and Mozart expert Neal Zaslaw chalked up the hullabaloo over the painting to a mania of wishful thinking that the Germans have a word for, “Entdeckungsfreude” (discovery joy).

Vienna University musicologist Michael Lorenz, who has been successful in correcting several age-old mistakes in the Mozart public record, is impressed by Bauer’s evidence. He also has far stronger words than Zaslaw for the “discoveries” that crop up around Mozart anniversaries; such assertions fool officials who should know better because, Lorenz says, “people are, №1, stupid and, №2, they like fantastic stories.”

The “Golden Spur” portrait of Mozart, aged 21, wearing his insignia of honorary papal knighthood.

Most recently, Mozart’s skull was supposedly identified in Vienna, even though his grave was likely tilled, per city custom, a decade after he died (to make room for newcomers). Moreover, Lorenz says the fact that the skull has nothing to do with Mozart was proven in the 1930s, when an Austrian scholar showed “that the gravedigger who marked the skull ‘saved in 1801’ wasn’t hired until 1802. He could not have known where Mozart was buried.”

Lorenz adds, “Dubious discoveries like this are always about money… The anniversary makes everything worse. I’m sure that, as far as imagined ‘Mozart sensations’ in 2006 are concerned, we’ve seen nothing yet.”

Questions of authenticity are vital to Mozart’s legacy, Levin insists, with misdated manuscripts and even fake skulls needing to be policed “like counterfeit currency.” Still, he adds, how people picture Mozart will change as the world changes.

“I’d like to think that we have a more nuanced, enlightened view of Mozart now than we did in the 19th or early 20th centuries,” Levin says. “More people realize that his music isn’t just of great technical sophistication and surface beauty — it also has an emotional range and dramatic genius on par with that of Shakespeare.

“But, of course, we shouldn’t be surprised that people will see Mozart differently in the future. The important thing is that the closer you look, the more you study and play and listen to the music, the closer you get to the real Mozart.”

(Originally published in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey on January 27, 2006.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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