There are times when one reads the last words of a book and knows he has to tell someone about it. That’s how I felt when I finished reading Mozart’s Sister by Nancy Moser (Bethany House, 2006). I realized as never before the sacrifices made, not only by a composer, but by a whole family in order for the music that stirs our souls to be available to us two hundred plus years later.
In the prelude of the book I found Baroness Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart Berchtold wandering through a cemetery on a cold rainy morning in Vienna, Austria. She was looking for the grave of her famous brother whom she had not seen for many years, though they had been so close as children. She had just heard of his death. Talking to the cemetery caretaker, she learned that, due to a law issued by the emperor, people were buried in common graves with no markings unless they were nobility. “We been ordered to dig ’em up after seven years to make room for more,” the unfeeling caretaker told her.
Nancy Moser was first drawn to this story while visiting the Mozart family home in Salzburg. The guide relayed to that tired tourist’s mind and heart how “Nannerl,” the family’s nickname for Mozart’s older sister, had as much talent as he did, had huge dreams just as he did, but he was the favored one and she was forced to fade into the background. The Mozarts, all except Wolfgang Amadeus (1756-1791) himself, loved to write letters and even he wrote dutifully from time to time. So Nancy had a treasure trove of, not just facts, but feelings, dashed hopes, heartache, illnesses and deaths. The author has skillfully added fictional accounts to fill in where the letters left blanks.
Wolfie, as his family called him, was a child prodigy as was his sister. Their father was Vice Kappelmeister in Salzburg, Austria, which meant he was director of an orchestra for Archbishop Schrattenbach. This was a place of great honor but also a highly political position. His position was threatened every time he took his children on tour, which was sometimes for months and even years as he was obsessed with introducing his son to important audiences. The children were ages six and eleven when they started their first tour. Nannerl, known affectionately by her brother as Horseface, tells of the thrill of playing for kings and queens, but also the disappointment as again and again her Papa brags on her little brother, hardly mentioning her brilliant accompaniment on the clavier. Mama is the one who kindly and gently reminds Nannerl from time to time that things are different for women, that she can’t expect to go very far with her music but must take up her supportive role.
After playing with Wolfie his Sonata in G minor for the king and queen of England in the Buckingham House when they were much older, Nannerl described the experience: Then suddenly my hands were still. The combined notes of violin and clavier hung a moment as if wistful at leaving the here and now, unwilling to travel to that place of waiting in the future where they might be set free once more…I opened my eyes, and for an instant was surprised to see we were not alone. I put a hand to my cheek and found tears there…We were a trio: Wolfie, me, and the music.
This loyal sister who loved her brother passionately also struggled with covetousness. However, over and again she helped Wolfie through times of illness and despair, even helped him at times composing music, tirelessly making copies and then playing with him. In her mid-twenties she began to realize she would never be the musician she’d dreamed of. While Wolfie traveled without her she began giving music lessons, keeping the Mozart home, and wondering what else God might have in store for her. If it was to marry, then where was a suitor for her, a spinster of no great beauty?
This is Nannerl’s story, not Wolfgang’s, though he and the Mozart family are so much a part of it. It is not a history book, as author Nancy declares herself. It is a story of feelings, disappointments, and victories. At the end of her life Nannerl’s thoughts, as stated by the author, give a clear picture of this woman’s victories:
I had not become famous like my brother. No, I had not pursued my music as much as I would have liked. And no, I had not married the love of my life. Yet by marrying as I did, I had changed five children’s lives for the better. If I accomplished nothing more than that, I could be proud. How comforting to realize God knows what He’s doing.
Mozart’s music has always “sung” to me. Music from “Marriage of Figaro” and “The Magic Flute” are favorites. Now, as I listen, I have a new appreciation for the sacrifices and struggles that went into the composing of these pieces. There were the sacrifices of a father who poured his whole energy into pushing his boy forward, of a mother who died far from home on one of Wolfie’s tours, and also the sacrifices of a sister who adored him in spite of his unkindness.