This year, as I have done the past two years as well, I spent New Year’s Eve with my friend, Kaye. She has always taken an interest in my writing and spontaneously suggested that I hand out my card to everyone at the Jungian-based classes she teaches at OASIS in Syracuse, a wonderful institution that provides deliciously interesting classes in all sorts of subjects. As my screenplay about Matilda Joslyn Gage is finished and soon to be promoted, I want to emphasize that the working title is “The Matilda Effect.” The story I am sharing below relates to this concept of women not getting the credit due their creations.
On this lovely, slightly snowy evening we feasted on salmon and sipped the “Sisterhood” wine I had contributed. Kaye is not much of a television watcher but she does have a large collection of DVDs. Together, we picked one, a French movie called “Mozart’s Sister.” “Mozart’s Sister,” which debuted in 2011, was written and directed by René Féret and starred his daughter in the title role.
Johann Georg Leopold Mozart was a German composer, conductor, teacher, and violinist. He is best known today as the father and teacher of Wolfgang Amadeus. But did you know that Wolfgang had an older sister who was also an outstanding musician? In 1763 Father Mozart began promoting his two talented children. Many triumphant and highly publicized exhibitions ensued. (His other five children did not survive infancy.)
Maria Anna was an accomplished clavierist, violinist and composer. She was called Marianne and also carried the nickname of Nannerl. Like her younger brother Wolfgang, who was five years her junior, she was also a child prodigy. According to one biographer, “at three, Mozart was inspired to study music by observing his father’s instruction of Marianne; he wanted to be like her.” The two children were very close, and they invented a secret language and an imaginary “Kingdom of Back” of which they were king and queen.
Although often criticized for exploiting his son and commercializing his talents, Leopold Mozart sincerely felt it was his God-given obligation to develop such abilities and to exhibit them to the world. But he did not seem to feel that he had an equal obligation to champion his daughter as well. When both the siblings were young children, they toured most of Europe, including an 18-month stint in London. The term “wunderkinder” was applied to them during the years they performed together. Nannerl was often billed first and she received many reviews that praised her extensively. Far from being in her brother’s shadow, Nannerl actually outshone him as the more talented youngster. Leopold Mozart wrote in a letter: “My little girl plays the most difficult works which we have… with incredible precision and so excellently. What it all amounts to is this, that my little girl, although she is only 12 years old, is one of the most skillful players in Europe.” He further praised her by claiming that she had “perfect insight into harmony and modulations” and that she improvises “so successfully that you would be astounded”.
In 1762, Nannerl and Wolfgang played for a collection of aristocrats in Munich. One of those present, Count Karl von Zinzendorf recorded his thoughts in his diary: “The little child from Salzburg and his sister played the harpsichord. The poor little fellow plays marvelously. He is a child of spirit, lively, charming. His sister’s playing is masterly, and he applauded her.”
But that all ended when she turned 18. As she had become “a woman,” it was considered unseemly to perform and tour, though it was acceptable when she was a young girl. “The society she lived in dictated that the only female composers who could show their work were nobility. Other women composers could not. In addition, women had to perform without getting any remuneration. If they made money off their music, they were thought of as prostitutes.
Thus, she was left behind in Salzburg so as not to have her reputation ruined. Meanwhile, her father only took Wolfgang on future road trips to the courts of Europe.
Nannerl never toured again. But that doesn’t mean she totally squashed her talent. She continued to write music. She sent at least one of her compositions to her father and brother. Wolfgang gave it high praise and called it “beautiful.” He even encouraged her to write more compositions. We also know when he was in London working on his first symphony, she wrote it all down and orchestrated it for him. It’s unclear how big their collaboration was, but she was an extremely talented musician.” In the movie, there are scenes where a fellow musician encourages her to dress as a boy and continue to perform at music venues. I don’t know if this actually happened, but it wouldn’t be the first time that a talented woman dressed as a man in order to “ply her trade.”
As far as is known, her father not only didn’t encourage her but also didn’t even acknowledge her composition. (He did, however, try to do the same for one of Marianne’s future sons.) Composing and performing music was generally not encouraged for women of this era. None of her music survived, though some speculate that some of her compositions may have been attributed to Wolfgang. The “Mozart’s Sister” movie version showed her destroying her compositions by burning them in the fireplace. (Both Kaye and I gasped and cried out “Oh, no!” when we viewed her approaching the roaring fire.)
Nannerl kept on composing until her marriage in 1784—to a man fifteen years older who had been married twice before and who already had five children. As was typical in this time period, she took care of her father and then transferred her domesticity to her husband. She was not given the opportunity to thrive and profit from her own creativity. What she did create was not valued or preserved. This is true of most female composers from the past. Their music is forgotten or lost in libraries. Unlike Wolfgang, who often argued with his father, Nannerl was totally submissive, even giving up the love of her life because her father disapproved.
Now, 250 years later, Nannerl is being rediscovered. Besides the movie, there has also been a one-woman play, “The Other Mozart,” written by Sylvia Milo, and directed by Isaac Byrne. In it, Nannerl tells the story that SHE needed to tell. As in this case and many others, when history is studied from the woman’s point of view, we find that we get a much fuller picture.
Nannerl’s husband died in 1801. She returned to Salzburg, accompanied by her two living children and four stepchildren, and worked as a music teacher. She lived to the age of 78. In her late years, her health declined and she became blind. A friend who visited her in 1829 recorded her impressions of her. Mrs. Berchtold (Nannerl) was “blind, languid, exhausted, feeble and nearly speechless,” as well as lonely. She mistakenly took Marianne to be impoverished, though in fact she was frugal and had left a large fortune. She was buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery, in Salzburg, Austria.
I was in Salzburg for a day this past August. Had I known about Mozart’s sister at that time, I would have searched out her grave.