Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Dearest Beloved Little Wife: Two books on Mozart

When I tell friends I am reading a biography on Mozart, one of the first questions I am asked is, "Is the portrayal of Mozart in Peter Shaffer's
anything like the real Mozart?" That can be a difficult question to answer because most people cannot relate the "goofball" (remember the high-pitched irritating laugh?) in "Amadeus" to the genius who wrote "The Magic Flute". Truth is, the real Mozart was a little of both. There is no doubt of his genius - his music is proof of that, but there was also a mischeivous side to him that made him enjoy "toilet" language (there is an entire book dedicated to Mozart's rather coarse and vulgar letters) and that drove him very often to set everyday things to music. For instance, the musical, "Hair Ribbon Trio" was inspired by the time, Constanza, his wife, lost her hair ribbon. They both set out to look for the ribbon but couldn't find it. Later in the evening, when a friend came visiting, the friend found C's ribbon and Mozart set a whole opera to this little domestic incident!

This year, the city of Vienna is getting ready to celebrate
Mozart's 250th birthday and I thought this was the ideal time to revisit the composer---his life and his works, through two wonderful books, "Mozart's Women" and "Marrying Mozart".

"Mozart's Women: His Family, His Friends and His Music" is an illuminating biography by conductor and Mozart expert, Jane Glover which she tells through the perceptions of the women that surrounded Mozart---his sister Narnelle, his wife Constanza, his dear mother Mario Anna Mozart and a bevy of other women Mozart touched in his young life.

I really like that the author chose to tell Mozart's life story 'through the eyes of these women' because Mozart was one of the first composers to write arias and music especially for women and, as the London Times puts it: 'these three (women) had a profound influence on the composer as both man and artist, and clearly contributed to his unrivalled understanding of female psychology in his depiction of women in his mature operas.'

Ms. Glover begins her scholarly and richly detailed book with the composer's family life, which was dominated by his rather strict and autocratic father, Leopold Mozart and the story of his beloved, equally gifted sister Maria Anna, affectionately known as Nannerl. I was especially pleased to have learned so much about Nannerl (playing a duet in this picture with Mozart) because other biographies of Mozart have not been so forthcoming about her. Apparently she shared Mozart's extraordinary talent - so that when Wolfgang was seven and Nannerl twelve, their father took them on a tour of the royal courts of
Europe. As Glover says: "Having one prodigy was special; having two was astonishing." but being a woman, Nannerl wasn't given the same opportunities as Mozart and her career was shelved in favor of his. To make matters worse, she made a bad marriage to a widower with five children, moved to the remote country where the harsh winters spoiled her piano and she was unable to play a single note. I can only imagine how this harsh life might have embittered her as an adult.

Aside from his sister, the other woman to have played a huge part in Mozart's life, was his wife Constanza. The author includes many of Mozart's notes to Constanza from his travels and most of them are just overflowing with affection and love for his 'dearest little wife' as he loved calling her. The letters are so affectionate, I just have to include one here:

"Dearest Little Wife,
Every other moment I look at your portrait--and weep partly for joy, partly for sorrow. . . Look after your health which is so precious to me and fare well, my darling! . . . I kiss you millions of times most tenderly and am ever yours, true till death. stu--stu"

Again, many of us who watched the movie "Amadeus" probably have the notion that Constanza was an immature, silly and flirtatious young woman, but according to Jane Glover, Constanze, who despite spending much of the marriage either pregnant, looking after babies or ill, took the family's dire financial affairs in hand, organising a house move, loans and publication of her husband's works. When Mozart died, at the young age of 35, sickened by the strain of creating his epic "Requiem Mass", Constanze was 29, with a newborn son and another aged seven. She survived Mozart by atleast half a century and went on to protect and preserve Mozart's legacy.

So, while the first part of the book introduces the reader to Mozart's family, the middle part of the book describes the genesis of many of Mozart's popular pieces of music, including the "Figaro", "The Magic Flute" and the "Requiem". The story of the "Requiem" (death mass) is particularly poignant as Mozart died before he could complete it, and it is the popular belief that it was the strain of writing it that contributed to his death.

The third part of the book is devoted to 'life after Mozart'. Mozart was penniless and forgotten when he died, and was buried in an unmarked grave as it was tradition among the common people of Vienna at that time. Constanza worked very hard to settle his debts, made sure that the "Requiem" was completed and then moved on to find publishers for Mozart's entire repertoire of music. Many people helped her with this project including the man who would become her next husband, Georg Nissen.

Nissen was a Danish diplomat and he was a calm, stable influence on Constanza's life and well loved by her two sons, Karl Thomas ( he became an Austrian govt. official) and Franz Xavier (whom they later called Amadeus Mozart). Both sons called Nissen 'Father' for the rest of their lives and had nothing but the greatest of affection for him. Nissen was one of the first to write Mozart's biography, but died before he could complete it. The rest of Jane Glover's biography is packed solid with wonderful and loving anecdotes of Mozart's sons and their lives. Unfortunately, neither one of them had any children, so the Mozart lineage ended when the last son died in 1858. I never dreamed Mozart's life story would touch me in such a profound way, but it has and much credit must go to Ms. Glover for bringing such emotional depth to this finely researched biography.

"Marrying Mozart" by Stephanie Caldwell, is a work of historical fiction and is a gentle, sensitive story of the Weber (of which, Constanza his wife, was one) sisters (the musical equivalent of the Bronte sisters) and their interaction with Mozart. Because he was so close to them, each one of their lives has intertwined with his at some point and this is what makes the book such a fascinating read.

(Featured book jacket: German edition)