Message to a mad deus
MOZART AND THE WOLF GANG by Anthony Burgess Hutchinson, £12.99, pp.148 he venue is heaven. 'Shalom, gentle- men, you've just arrived?', says Mendelssohn, playing the role of a sort of ecumenical St Peter. The newcomers are a string quartet from Tel Aviv, rudely inter- rupted in the middle of playing the slow movement of Mozart's B flat quartet IC548 by one of Saddam Hussein's scud missiles and despatched, post haste, to the celestial heights. The incorporeal musicians then embark on a brief discussion of Mozart's bicentenary, the Gulf War, the fundament- al cultural division between Judaism and Islam, the kinship between the skills need- ed for making guns and crafting musical instruments, the immortality of music, the divinity of Mozart and associated topics.
This episode comes near the end of Anthony Burgess's maddening little book, as ingenious and funny as, in many places, it is unreadable and incomprehensible. Half fantasy, half lightly veiled polemic, Mozart and the Wolf Gang is written as a (surely unperformable) libretto, in several scenes and with some 40 characters drawn from Don Giovanni, Mozart's employer Collared° (the Archbishop of Salzburg, here puzzlingly spelled C,olleredo), Schoen- berg and Henry James among them. It deviates variously into film script, rhyming doggerel or straight prose. At one point, there is a fictional account of Mozart's 40th Symphony, all repeated phrases and Hopkins-esque assonance. This is from the last movement:
Well, the gumbrils are humming. The birds ingest rumbling, crumbling, blunder. Yet a thumbril is lonely, a warm start. Loud crowd the lies, lies loud for the crowd, the crowds lie loud. .
An impossible enterprise, as Burgess him- self admits (actually he calls it 'gibberish), and a devil of a job to read.
To attempt a synopsis would be futile, if not impossible. Joyce or Sterne might have appreciated Burgess's style. Anyone else might be less tolerant, depending on their familiarity with Mozart's life and work and their taste for arch whimsy. Each page bristles with musical or musicological refer- ence, elegantly tossed off and displaying Burgess's intimacy with the history of music and compositional techniques (he began his career as a self-taught composer: music is a component in many of his novels and writings). He is, too, up to date with all the latest theories as to whether Mozart was murdered by his rival Salieri (he wasn't), whether he died a pauper's death (he didn't), whether he suffered from what Burgess calls 'scatomaniacal infantilism' (no more than anyone else then or now).
The Mozart who emerges, rather — and this is the nub of Burgess's idiosyncratic bicentennial tribute — is a blunt, hard working genius who eschews the company of his toadying, less gifted colleagues, puts artistic liberty before prosperous servitude, yet is well capable of demanding his due, down to the final guilder. All of which makes him sound rather dull. In many ways, as portrayed here, he is — which is the author's point. In a conversation with his own split personality, Burgess says:
We may talk of the man, but what is the relevance of the man to the composer? The puppet Mozart I set up in the stupid little opera buffa libretto 1 contrived will do as well as any travesty. If you want the man, that is. But the music should be enough.
His friend and adversary Anthony, unconvinced, replies:
A man wrote the music. . . He had headaches and indigestion. He slept with his wife, and perhaps the rhythms of coition begot new themes.
They agree, finally, that knowledge of the man can help explain why he wrote the works he did, but not how. Elsewhere, in some other room in heaven, a gloriously pompous Henry James has a similar argu- ment with Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart's librettist, who claims that Cosi Fan Tutte cannot be understood without knowing something of the life which was poured into it. James is unconvinced.
The book concludes with a moving essay — by an integrated Anthony Burgess, at his
best, and alone worth reading the book for — on how the writer as a young man had difficulty in coming to terms with Mozart, that composer's elevation to demi-god since the 1930s when Beethoven was always considered the supreme genius, and the relationship between literature and mUsic. In a dodgy last paragraph (far better to have stopped at the one before), he seeks an analogue amongst great writers and settles on Dante. A bizarre choice. Decidedly time to get back to the music.