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In 1790 Mozart wrote a letter to his friend Michael Puchberg, the most significant part of which reads: ‘I now have more cause to be hopeful than ever before. I now stand at the gateway to my fortune.’ Christoph Wolff shows in this excellent book that Mozart did indeed have reason for optimism. More importantly, he sees the composer’s last four years – his so-called ‘imperial years’ – as a vigorous new beginning in terms of both his financial prospects and his creativity.

These years were ‘imperial’ because Mozart had been appointed ‘composer to the imperial-royal chamber music’ at the court of Joseph II. This appointment has often been belittled by scholars, but what it meant to Mozart may be gathered from the speed with which he prepared his very next composition for publication, with the prominent addition ‘in the service of his majesty…’ beneath his name. This composition was the piano sonata K533, a fascinating work which Wolff examines in detail. He also argues that the sonata encapsulates the meaning of imperial style – ‘innovative, ambitious, expansive, complex, technically sophisticated, conceptually erudite though on the surface simple and elegant, and aesthetically compelling throughout.’

Buoyed by his new position, Mozart produced a remarkable number of major works during these four years. The main argument of Wolff’s book is that we should regard the period 1788-1791, during which Mozart deliberately sought to redefine so many musical genres, as a new phase unexpectedly cut short.

The final chapter is one of the most interesting and valuable, as Wolff discusses some of the 140 fragments – compositions which Mozart left unfinished. Among the important discoveries here is the evidence that a fragment (100-plus bars) of a string trio in G major, which post-dates the great Divertimento K563 for the same combination, continues its concertante style.

Including many illustrations, tables and music examples, and a useful appendix listing currency and monetary values in 18th-century Austria, this book – certainly ‘a fresh look’, as the publishers claim – is essential reading.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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