Friday, February 06, 2009

Jane Glover - Mozart's Women - His family, his friends, his music

A wonderful, intimate, biography of Mozart and the women who surrounded him.

Although it might be argued that Wolfgang Mozart’s most important formative and even adult relationship was with his tyrannical father (even while trying to escape his control), Jane Glover has found a very interesting, almost cozy, angle in order to explore the great musician’s life.

The book is divided in four parts: in “Prelude” the author explores Mozart’s childhood and adolescence taking special care with the portrayal of his mother, Anna Maria, and his sister, Maria Anna, known as Nannerl. To me, Nannerl, ended up being close to a second protagonist in the book. For even if Constanze, Mozart’s wife, turns out to be a very likeable character, Nannerl’s life was, to my mind, so tragic, it almost upstages that of her brother.

An equal to Mozart’s musical interpretation and no stranger to composition, Nannerl was in every way her younger brother’s partner as their father paraded them as prodigies across European royal courts. In fact, she was more impressive than the little boy for some onlookers. There is no doubt she had a great curiosity for the world at large as well as great talent and, having spent her childhood and early teenage years as an accomplished performer, travelling from England to Italy, experiencing the culture, fashion (a great love of hers) and conversation of the best company in the Continent, her confinement in provincial Salzburg must have been particularly painful.

After a brilliant beginning which could have easily steered her into an adult career, Leopold Mozart (a miser, if there ever was one) decided that it would be more economical to travel Europe accompanied solely by the boy. It probably allowed him to experience a more vicarious pleasure, as they travelled alone, little Mozart a mirror (so would Leopold flatter himself, undoubtedly) of his father’s genius.

In fact, Mozart senior succeeded only in making the both of them a nuisance in many royal courts. His lack of subtlety and his arrogance, assuming every king and queen should fall over themselves in order to hire Wolfgang, probably did more harm than good. Whereas the practical, even-tempered Anna Maria would establish long lasting friendships wherever she passed, Leopold’s exit was probably met with sighs of relief. Mother and daughter could have done much to find Mozart a suitable position sooner. Instead, they were both confined, anxiously awaiting letters from the Mozart men.

Over the course of many European ramblings Wolfgang probably picked more than a bit of his father’s haughtiness, at least where it concerned his employers (for talented musicians he never showed less than full allegiance), so it is not very surprising he soon caused his own dismissal from Archbishop Colloredo’s employ. A free lance composer was something of a rarity and Mozart was, after all, of marrying age.

In Vienna, Mozart will all but loose contact with his sister, who will scarcely ever again leave the province of Salzburg. Only at 32, after having refused a suitor (maybe on Leopold’s order), will she marry a twice widowed man with five children from his previous marriage. This would be no “Sound of Music” matrimony either. Poor Nannerl endured an increasingly cold and hostile husband and hateful stepchildren. Of her own three children, one would die at one year of age and another at sixteen. In her final years she would endure a progressive blindness and frailty that kept her from her beloved piano.

Mozart, meanwhile, would become deeply involved with the Weber family, a relation Jane Glover explores in the chapter “Mozart’s other family”. It was first Aloysia, who would become a celebrated opera singer (a career that slipped through Nannerl’s fingers), that captured young Mozart’s furious passion. Some time apart, however (the four Weber girls also toured Europe) , rather cooled the girl’s affections. Depressed, Mozart could not wrest himself from the warm, artistic family, and would end up taking lodgings with them in Vienna. Slowly, it was Constanze, a more discreet beauty with a balanced temperament, that would win his heart until the day of his death.

For all the penury, frustration and humiliation Mozart would live professionally until his untimely death at 35, it’s safe to say that with Constanze he enjoyed a truly happy marriage. She would eventually take up a role evocative of his mother and sister’s: part personal assistant, part accountant and part public relations.

“Mozart’s women” explores in depth Mozart’s operas describing the plot and especially the biography of each original female singer – how their singular strengths, figures and personalities would inspire Wolfgang into composing arias that were essentially “made to measure”.

Finally, “After Mozart” ties back the loose ends of the surviving women. It ends as it begins, in Salzburg, the place Nannerl never left and where Constanze, her younger sister Sophie (who was with Mozart in his last moments) and the older, Aloysia, came to live their final years. As neither of Mozart’s boys by Constanze left progeny or additional works it wouldn’t be off base to see these two women (sister and widow) as his true heirs. It was, after all, their conjoined effort that would assure the wealth of biographical material available today. “Mozart’s Women” takes a potential “been there, done that” historical biography into something very different: an enlightening and moving book.


jenclair said...

I'm adding this one to my list! Thanks for a great review!

Beth said...

I've been reading much about Mozart and I will definitely have to purchase this book... I am continually frustrated by (mostly) male biographers who brush off Nannerl ... All one has to do is read some of the letters between her and Mozart to realize her mind was as brilliant as his. thx for an excellent review!