Book Review: Mozart’s Sister

Mozart's Sister Mozart’s Sister by Nancy Moser tells the story of Maria Anna Mozart, known as Nannerl, Mozart’s older sister by four and a half years. The two of them were the only surviving children of seven, the other five having died in infancy. When their father started giving Nannerl lessons on the harpsichord, Wolfgang, then three, wanted to learn, too, to be like his sister. He picked it up quickly, as well as other instruments, and was composing by age five, completing his first symphony by age eight. Their father took them on tours from their native Salzburg to various royal courts and other venues in European cities like Munich, Vienna, Paris, London, Zurich, and others as the Wunderkind – Miracle Children. Their father, Leopold, even lied about their ages, making them out to be even younger than they were so as to play up the “Wunder” even more. Nannerl received top billing at first and was well-known for her playing, but “Wolfie” seemed even more a prodigy, being so much younger, and eventually most of the attention went to him.

Leopold was a composer, violinist, teacher, and finally the assistant director of music (Kapellmeister) for the archbishop of Salzburg. He eventually laid aside his own composing and performing and poured himself into promoting the children’s talent, then just Wolfie’s, then seeking out a position for Wolfgang. They made money on the tours, but Leopold was only paid for his position when he was actually there is Salzberg, understandably, and he almost lost his position due to so much time away. Thus there was always a tension between what they wanted to do and the need for finances.

The story is told from Nannerl’s point of view and begins with the various experiences with travels and concerts, delighting to play, interactions with royalty, expectations to play dressed up as little adults with adult-looking clothing and massive powdered wigs. Both she and Wolfie became seriously ill with smallpox, and once he had rheumatic fever.

Their parents encouraged Wolfie’s composing but discouraged Nannerl’s on the grounds that it was hard enough for men to get music accepted and published; for women it was considered impossible. Wolfie was groomed for a musical career but Nannerl was expected to lay all of that aside to marry and bear children. When she was of marriageable age,  Leopold and Wolfgang went on tours together, leaving the women behind.

When Nannerl fell in love, she was not allowed to marry the man of her choosing, but there’s no evidence to explain why. Some sources, according to Wikipedia, think Leopold did not allow it. Nancy portrays it as the archbishop, who employed Nannerl’s intended and from whom they had to receive permission, denying it as part of his adversarial relationship with Leopold. Whatever the reason, the two remained close friends.

Wolfgang, though a genius musically, seemed egocentric, lacking in common sense, and unwise in money matters. The author played up the tension she thought Nannerl felt as the dutiful, obedient daughter whose life did not turn out as she wanted it to, even though she did everything “right,” as opposed to Wolfie, who was irresponsible and self-willed, yet seemed to get everything he wanted, including marrying the girl his father did not at first approve of. Yet, whereas a number of modern people seem to leave it as “poor, Nannerl, born in the wrong time period and kept down by the oppressive customs of the times,” from the brief bit of reading I have done online since finishing the book, Nancy portrays her as having to wrestle through all those disappointments while maintaining her love for family and coming to a place of acceptance and even finding her own place of worth, even though it was not what she originally planned.

A few quotes:

To Papa, getting Wolfie back in Salzburg, safely ensconced in a salaried position, would save our family’s finances. I couldn’t see that he was wrong in this, but I knew keeping Wolfie in such a position would be like trying to cage a hummingbird.

Having no musical challenge—as was the case in Salzburg—sapped his life breath and made him suffocate for lack of creative air.

If only Wolfie didn’t have to think about money but could concentrate on creating and performing for the sheer joy of it. If only we all could do what we wanted to do.

Wolfie had to adapt the music to the limitations and egos of the singers, which was both frustrating and time-consuming.

“Will that boy ever understand the world does not revolve around him?” I did not mention Papa’s part in creating that belief.

A few small criticisms:

At the end the author has an extended list of what was fact, based on historical records and family letters, and what was fiction based on the best information she had. A lot of Nannerl’s inward wrestlings were based on what the author would have felt in her position or what she “felt sure” Nannerl felt, but I think she may have overdone it a bit. Nannerl seemed a bit whiny at times in the first half of the book.

The use of modern phrases – like “hard for me to wrap my mind around” something, “It seemed that Wolfie was settling,” “purple prose” – seemed jarringly out of place in a historical context.

“All musicians feel this bond with the Divine.” I wasn’t sure how that was meant. Feeling God working in and through them – that’s fine and I can understand that. But if it’s meant to convey a “spark of Divinity” in the individual, I would disagree. I think from what I have read of the author that she would mean the former, but the statement was vague enough to make one wonder.

Otherwise, I very much enjoyed learning about the Mozarts and appreciated the author’s encouragement to “Take Nannerl’s story as an impetus to look at your own life and make it the most it can be. You too have a unique, God-given purpose. The trick is to find out what it is.”

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carol’s Books You Loved)

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Mozart’s Sister

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  2. How appropriate, since Mozart’s birthday was just a couple of days ago! This sounds interesting. It always kind of surprises/annoys me when authors try to put current sensibilities into historical characters’ books — for instance, Nannerl being upset with her lot in life. Perhaps she had a bit of this, but I tend to think that that type of angst is far more of a “thing” with 21st century people. Don’t authors realize this, or perhaps publishers want a bit of a “girl power” theme in all their books? Interesting to contemplate …

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