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Mozart and the Mediation of Childhood

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Mozart and the Mediation of Childhood

By: Adeline Mueller

Podcast Interview:

Adeline Mueller discusses her book, Mozart and the Mediation of Childhood (University of Chicago Press, 2021) with Roe-Min Kok. Listen here. Adeline Mueller is Associate Professor of Music at Mount Holyoke College. Roe-Min Kok is Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at McGill University.

This conversation first appeared as a podcast of the American Musicological Association Study Group on Music, Childhood, and Youth in 2021.

This review was originally published in the newsletter of the Mozart Society of America vol. 26, no. 1 (Spring 2022):

Adeline Mueller.

Mozart and the Mediation of Childhood.

Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2021.

In her Mozart and the Mediation of Childhood, Adeline Mueller links Mozart to a myriad of dimensions associated with childhood in the Austrian Enlightenment. Mueller emphasizes this point early in her study, calling Mozart a “pivotal figure in the history of childhood” (3). The linkage worked both ways, however: Mozart influenced various dimensions of the society around him, but those forces affected him as well. More colloquially, Mueller observes: “He may have surfed the waves, but he was also carried along by the tide” (3).

While Mueller divides her study— the result of many years of labor—into six chapters, she grouped those chapters into two broad areas of focus. The first three chapters look outward into the public realm surrounding Mozart, examining state policies and institutions as well as commercial enterprises. The latter three chapters then turn inward, looking at vocal and instrumental music as well as the perceptions (and marketing) of Mozart and his music over time. Each chapter addresses a central theme, although Mueller notes that the boundaries between the themes are fluid. Mueller finds that certain threads re-emerge at various points across chapters. In essence, throughout the text, she weaves an interconnected web between the youthful Mozart and the increasingly youth-focused world around him.

Chapter 1, “Precocious in Print,” centers on the theme of “reason,” and Mueller demonstrates that Mozart’s precocious achievements (especially as demonstrated via his printed music) were a direct force in contemporary re-evaluations of children’s minimum age of reason, long held to be around seven years of age. Although audiences had previously marveled at Mozart’s performance abilities, the publication of his accompanied sonatas for keyboard and violin (Opp. 1–4) offered a lasting, tangible illustration of his talent (or “natural genius”), and thus led to a re- assessment of the age at which children could exercise independent judgment. Mueller reveals a direct ramification of that fame in a 1765 legal case that wound its way through the Habsburg court, determining the “earliest age at which Jewish children should be allowed to be baptized.” The court cited “certain children, born at Salzburg, [who] were conducted round the world at the age of 7, so experienced in music as even to compose, which calls for more than a iudicium discretivum.” This clear reference to Mozart and his sister prompted the monarch Maria Theresa to rule that although the legal minimum would remain at age seven, it would be permissible to baptize even younger Jewish children if an investigation determined that they possessed the “necessary light of reason” (33). When Emperor Joseph sought to reverse his mother’s ruling in 1781 (raising the minimum age to eighteen), the Chancery Court again cited the Mozart family, now arguing that compositional skill was not equivalent to discretionary judgment.

“Music, Philanthropy, and the Industrious Child” (chapter 2) opens with an account from Mozart’s father Leopold regarding the contemporary de- bate over the efficacy of smallpox inoculation, driven by the empress’s efforts to protect not only her own offspring but other Austrian children. Her inoculation campaign was just one dimension of a greater surge of child welfare initiatives. Three of these had direct connections to Mozart: for instance, he was featured as composer and conductor of music for a church consecration ceremony at Vienna’s Waisenhaus, or orphanage—an event chronicled well into the nineteenth century. When the Taubstummeninstitut—a facility for children with hearing or speech impairment—published a periodical for juveniles (“Pleasant and Instructive Pursuits for Children in their Free Time”), Mozart contributed two Lieder. Similarly, he gave the Prague Normalschule (a teacher-training institute) two hymns for a songbook to be used in the school, while another school set new words to his aria “Se vuol ballare” from Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492. In all these institutions, a conscious campaign was underway to indoctrinate students in civic virtues, especially the value of “industriousness.” Educators had noted that the pupils performed their tasks more willingly while singing, and the texts of the songs espoused more or less subtle propaganda about disciplined free time, the need to work, and for moral education.

The third chapter, “Acting Like Children,” turns to the theme of “virtue,” studying theater’s role in the susceptibility of children to moral suggestion. Here, Mueller focuses on Schuldramen (school dramas) and Kindertruppen (traveling troupes of child actors). A 1767 end-of-term school production featured Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus K. 38 (his first staged opera), while the renowned Berner troupe’s presentations of Bastien and Das Serail may have inspired Mozart’s own Singspielen Bastien und Bastienne, K. 50, and the incomplete Zaide, K. 344. These productions placed Mozart directly in the center of the ongoing debate about what was suitable for child performers: for instance, should they play immoral characters, or enact sordid situations? Some argued for, others against such realism, and there were also concerns about behind-the-scenes mistreatment and abuse of the young actors by their impresarios. A third dimension was a disdain for travelling performers who went “about the world like beggars” (103)—a snobbery that is revealed to have been costly to the Mozarts as well.

In chapter 4, “Kinderlieder and the Work of Play,” Mueller examines the rise of new publications targeted specifically at children, not in institutional settings but rather for domestic use, noting that most eighteenth-century Austrians educated their children at home. The surge of pedagogical periodicals included Kinderlieder (children’s songs), which offered didactic guidance as well as entertainment; these songs “often figured play as a kind of work, in the sense of rehearsing adult gender roles around labor” (9). Young people and their elders often alternated verses, bridging the concerns of children with those of adults, and Mozart composed for such publications both early and late in his career.

The interconnections between familial generations that characterized many Kinderlieder continued to figure in various genres of instrumental music, the focus of exploration in chapter 5: “Cadences of the Childlike.” Mueller posits that when siblings, or parents and children, played together, the music could “serve as both metaphor and training ground for familial affection” (143). She thus examines three works by Mozart that were intended for specific family groupings: the Concerto for Three Keyboards, K. 242, written for a countess and her two daughters; the Concerto for Flute and Harp, K. 299, for a duke to play with his daughter; and the Sonata for Four Hands, K. 521, initially shared with one of Mozart’s own pupils, but published with a dedication to two sisters. Mueller explores the social, often dance-like interplay that unfolds during these joint performances, which also inculcate “values of harmony and collaboration” (158).

The closing chapter, “Toying with Mozart,” addresses the curious shift in perception that took place during the nineteenth century. The contemporary critics who had found Mozart’s music to be artificial or inscrutable were drowned out in time by those who emphasized the delights of the “Mozartian” style, identified as “naìˆve, whimsical, and pleasing” (179)—in short, as Mueller puts it, the chapter examines “how Mozart became child-friendly” (9). This transformation to a perception of Mozart as “childlike”— the chapter’s theme—took place on multiple fronts, such as in the framing of Mozart’s biography by his survivors, which soon found its way into collections targeted at young readers—often as the sole representation of a musician. Mozart’s compositions were featured in pedagogical collections, and various youth-oriented musical novelties not by Mozart were frequently attributed to him. Moreover, his earliest compositions were published, which, Mueller argues, “helped smooth out Mozart’s perceived eccentricities and make him more accessible”—a shift that she believes “epitomizes Mozart’s legacy to the modern child” (10).

The resulting tapestry of Mueller’s narrative is rich and multifaceted. There are only a small handful of possible criticisms of her broad-ranging exploration, such as the occasional reiteration of identical information. For instance, a discussion of the Berner Kindertruppe’s likely influence on Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne appears on both pages 80 and 92; similarly, the performance of “Or che il dover,” K. 36, for the anniversary of the archbishop’s consecration is noted on the same two pages. A small muddle starts on page 74, when we are told that Mozart contributed two hymns to the second edition of a German-language songbook, and that the hymns were still present in the fifth edition (the third and fourth editions now being lost). In the next paragraph, however, Mueller comments that “it is uncertain whether Mozart’s songs first appeared in the fifth edition or earlier” (74–75). Mueller also launches into a brief philosophical speculation that playing Mozart’s youthful compositions allows the performer to take on “the improvising boy’s persona” (22). To support this not-entirely-persuasive argument, she cites Leopold Mozart’s and C. P. E. Bach’s admonitions that a performer must seek to express the composer’s emotional intentions, which do not seem to be quite the same thing as embodying that composer. Still, Mueller does not belabor the point, and perhaps this aesthetic question merits further exploration.

Mueller has produced a scrupulously documented and beautifully argued study, full of surprises even to readers who believed they knew Mozart fairly well. It also upends much of what we thought we knew about the Enlightenment and perceptions of children. She connects us with the past in a myriad of ways. Mueller’s aim is “to advance a new understanding of the history of childhood as a dynamic, lived, performed experience,” and her commendable success with that objective is to be congratulated—dare we say, “Well played!”?

Alyson McLamore


Adeline Mueller

About Adeline Mueller

Adeline Mueller is Associate Professor of Music at Mount Holyoke College. Her first monograph, Mozart and the Mediation of Childhood (University of Chicago Press, 2021, available for purchase here, examines Mozart’s role in the social and cultural reevaluation of childhood during the Austrian Enlightenment. She has published articles on Mozart, opera, art song, and childhood in Eighteenth-Century Music, Opera Quarterly, and Frontiers in Communication, and she guest-edited a 2012 issue of Opera Quarterly on the reception of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. She has also contributed chapters to such edited volumes as Mozart in Context (Cambridge University Press, 2019), Wagner and Cinema (Indiana University Press, 2010), and The Cambridge Companion to The Magic Flute (forthcoming, 2023). Her current book project, Touching Melodies, explores the centrality of printed music in Blind education and advocacy across German-speaking Europe in the decades before Braille. Other research interests include marginalized composers in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, early musical ethnography, and silent film music.

This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.