Friday, January 27, 2012

A Novel about Mozart's Mother

Since today is Mozart's 256th Birthday, I was thinking about a novel I'd read back during the 250th Anniversary's Mozart Year. It's by Pittsburgh-based author Liane Ellison Norman, published by Smoke & Mirrors Press, and it's called Stitches in Air (a novel about Mozart’s Mother), released on September 1st, 2001. Whether it may not have received much notice due to other events associated with that cataclysmic month or it is merely the fate of many very fine books published by small independent presses which lack the mechanism for wider distribution and promotion, I hadn’t heard anything about it until six years ago while I was googling for information during all the hype surrounding attempts to authenticate Mozart’s skull. I highly recommend it to you and hope you'll be intrigued enough to want to read it yourself, then pass the word on to other friends who might be interested in “a very good read” whether they’re ‘into’ classical music or not.

Mozart at 6
If you’re familiar with Mozart’s story – composing by the age of 5, dragged across Europe as a performing prodigy and dandled on the knees of queens and empresses, then deemed a failure because he was unable to land a job as a court musician and died in poverty at the age of 35 – you’re only familiar with a small part of it, much of it based on all the myth-making that has occurred over the years. There is the context of his era – the second half of the 18th Century, known generically as “The Age of Enlightenment” – that is also often understood incompletely: it is difficult to “let go” of a lot of the legends we’ve all grown up with, but it is also easy to condemn the past because it holds views foreign to our own.

Central to Mozart’s up-bringing but curiously absent from most accounts of it is his mother, Anna Maria Pertl. Granted, you can read biographical accounts of great people without ever finding out much about their mothers but that could be the result of male bias from the historians as likely as it might be from those who decided what historical information was important to keep or discard. As Ms. Norman writes in her afterword, “Enlightenment thinkers, though they endorsed the Rights of Man, were aware that someone had to darn Man’s socks and cook his dinner, tasks they thought women were Endowed by their Creator with the unalienable obligation to perform.” People who grew up aware of the advances made in our own times regarding women’s role in society may not be aware how deep some of these prejudices run: it is this habit of millennia, perhaps, that we can still see struggling reluctantly (often violently) with change as we in the West attempt to “enlighten” the Muslim world regarding the Rights of Women.

Mozart's Mother: Anna Maria Pertl
In most biographies of Mozart, his mother’s story is quickly told. What we know of her life before she married Leopold Mozart barely fills a single page. We know when Anna Maria Pertl was born, we know a little something about her father and considerably less about her mother except that she was married twice and both times to musicians. We know she was four years old when her father died, that the Archbishop of Salzburg’s men confiscated their property for payment of his debts and that she, her older sister (who shortly afterwards died) and their mother lived in poverty. Then she met and married Leopold Mozart, a match that was not approved by his mother because he could do better marrying someone with money and status if he wanted to move up in the world. From there, the details of her life are also quickly told: once married, she bore seven children in eight years, five of them dying in infancy. Beyond this, factual information is scant until she accompanies her son on that fateful trip to Paris when her husband, the usual impresario, was unable to go: she became ill and died there at the age of 57.

To read the letters and other accounts about Mozart’s childhood, you would think Leopold Mozart, a violinist and composer employed by the Archbishop of Salzburg, had created his children parthenogenically, springing from his own musical talent fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. What role Anna Mozart may have had in their up-bringing beyond mending their clothes, cooking their meals and keeping the home spotless we do not know. Leopold required his letters to be preserved because they were a documentation of his travels with his prodigiously talented son and were ways of disseminating the rave reviews and honors being showered upon young Wolfgang to their friends and, most especially, to the court in Salzburg. Anna’s responses were never kept: they were entirely personal and probably only about household and domestic details that would be of no importance. But there are two tantalizing tidbits that surface in these letters, and they generated the seed that eventually helped Ms. Norman flesh out the human figure that is the central focus of her novel.

Anna Mozart must have been able to read music. There would have been no reason for this if she were not musically trained. Leopold sends home instructions for her to go through the manuscripts, looking specifically for two pieces, identifying them by certain musical details – “with the violin and double bass staccato (you will know the one I mean).” Earlier in a letter written home from Italy to both Anna and Nannerl, there was a brief query about the women having three concerts, with Wolfgang adding, “I hope that I shall soon hear those Pertl chamber symphonies.” While we know Nannerl also composed (though none of her music exists under her own name), the fact these were called “Pertl chamber symphonies” must mean they were written by Anna Pertl Mozart. The only other possibility, and very remote at that, might be they had been composed by Anna’s father though there was never any indication he was a composer. But if he had been, it would have been okay: for a woman to compose was to risk social censorship and possibly even be accused of witchcraft.

This is a dichotomy where the Age of Reason nearly comes undone for some of us almost three centuries later: for all the philosophizing about logic and “enlightenment” in general, there was still a woman tried for witchcraft in Germany three years before Anna’s death. In the novel, Ms. Norman mentions several such trials and executions, only one of which is fictional. While this thread is mentioned several times in the course of the story – that if a woman engages in musical composition, she will be neglecting her responsibilities as a wife and mother or that her womb will dry up: at one point, Anna even wonders if her dreams of being a composer herself were responsible for the death of her first three children – I’ll quote from one conversation between Anna and her son, not yet 22 years old, as they take off on the adventure that would lead them, eventually, to Paris:

--- --- ---
I wish Nannerl had come,” he said. “Mama, just the other day I heard the new Court Composer, Fischietti, say in that heavy way of his, that ‘the weaker sex have not, not in the least, the general intellect capable of grasping the intricacies of musical composition.’ I have heard Papa say something very like that. But Nannerl composes wonderfully.” Anna smiled at him. “Often,” she said, “it seems to me that when many people think something is the case, they cannot see what is under their very noses. Of course Nannerl can compose. It is foolishness to say otherwise, but what is foolish is often taken for wisdom.”
--- --- ---

Nowhere in what history survives about Anna Pertl and Leopold Mozart is there any explanation how they met or why he married her. It defies logic, really, to find an ambitious musician employed at court who wants to succeed to the post of Chief Court Composer who would risk his social standing by marrying a woman from a penniless and socially inferior family. Ms. Norman’s fictional filling in of this important aspect of the story is as plausible as any: sent to the convent to inquire after a composition that had been forwarded to the Archbishop’s chapel from there by the nun’s choir director, he is dismayed to discover the “AP” on the manuscript is a young woman living at the convent, Anna Pertl.

Though he recognizes the talent in the piece, he also recognizes that the Archbishop’s attitude towards women composers – and by extension anyone who wanted to advance in the court hierarchy there – would not permit her work to be performed there under her own name. But Leopold performs a trio of hers, passing it off as his own in order for it to be heard and appreciated on its own merits, which is regarded as the best thing he’d written so far! He feels that Anna indeed has “a genius” in her music, but after they marry and she begins the arduous process of giving birth to and raising children – and the pain of burying five of them – there is no longer any time for composing. The one work she does manage to compose – the “Pertl Chamber Symphony” mentioned above – is written when she is left alone at home while Leopold takes Wolfgang and Nannerl off on their first tour. She shows it to a colleague of Leopold’s she can trust who pronounces it very good, but instead of showing it to anyone else, she places it at the bottom of a trunk. When the family comes home, they are full of tales of their trip: no one thinks to ask Anna what she did the whole time they were gone. It is years later when she and Nannerl discuss this, much to her daughter’s surprise, and they agree to perform the work at a house-concert – anonymously, of course.

But the fact Nannerl has inherited this talent is also a central focus of the story: at one point, the young girl decides she too must sublimate her own talent to the betterment of her brother’s. The results of this and its affect on her personality are only observed by Anna who longs to help her break out of these restrictions – symbolized by Nannerl’s dressing herself in the latest fashions with ever-tighter corsets and more outlandish hair-dos – and even though she occasionally raises these concerns to the husband who once considered she had genius, it only becomes a major contention between them. Nannerl’s case is hopeless: Wolfgang is the family’s only hope.

We know that Leopold lied about his son’s age and probably wrote some of Wolfgang’s earliest compositions himself (or at least wrote them down ‘correctly’ from what the boy may have improvised: they exist only in the father’s handwriting). This ability to fudge the truth was all part of the public relations spin to amaze the world and find a court position for his son. Actually, what he was doing was trying to find a court position for himself – who would logically hire a 10-year-old boy? Yet these slightly twisted facts became the basis of the whole Mozart Legend.

Another recurring character trait is Leopold’s miserliness, clearly evident in the real-life letters. After her first three children died in a little over a year, Leopold later wrote to Nannerl how he had sent Anna to a famous spa. We know nothing of her state of mind before, during or after this visit: the only other thing Leopold mentions is the expense he incurred by sending her there.

Anna observes, in that sense that all mothers can sense, what her husband cannot see: the similarity of Leopold's treatment of his son and the way he himself was treated by his mother, parallels that would increase in the years after Anna’s death. She sees Leopold’s hatred for his mother as a result of these contentions and realizes this could result in the estrangement of his son and a great deal of family pain. But Leopold would not hear any of it and Anna was too afraid to take it further, given the power the husband traditionally had over the wife. This tension flares up in the final chapters when the otherwise docile and usually house-bound Anna volunteers to go with her son on a job-hunting tour when Leopold cannot go himself.

Without his father’s immediate control, she hopes Wolfgang will learn the necessary self-reliance to function on his own and to find a job independent of his father, to break away. And yet when he ends up in some hare-brained scheme Anna sees leading to disaster (as Leopold would’ve predicted), she writes to her husband about it, bringing down the wrath of Leopold in scathing (and historically accurate) letters. She is torn by her desire to protect her son and by her deceit at trying to go against her husband’s instructions, creating a sense of conflict that seems entirely realistic and, judging from what was still in the future, perfectly plausible.
Nannerl, Wolfgang, Anna (by way of portrait) & Leopold Mozart

An advantage over watching Peter Schaffer’s play Amadeus or Milos Forman’s film based on it where one has no idea what is fact and what is theatrical license (Schaffer does not claim to have written a documentary: unfortunately too many people have viewed it as one), Ms. Norman includes an afterword describing what events are real and which are entirely fictional – Anna’s going to the convent, for example – explaining why she invented them or what factual material she used as a basis for its creation. She has quoted from letters but nowhere does it sound like a musicologist quoting letters, tying them into her dialogue as comfortably as if she’d written both herself.

There are small details of character that make Anna a full-blooded person – for instance, the scene where several of her women friends, after helping an old woman in her final days, discover this poor embittered widow had hidden a fortune in coins in her kitchen: what would they do with if this had been their money? One would buy new clothes, another (whom Anna considers house-proud) new furniture, another would travel. Nannerl would give it to her father to help advance her brother’s career. Anna, trying to think what she would do, considered her middle-aged eye-sight and thought maybe she’d get a pair of spectacles. Of course, spectacles cost hardly anything, she is told, so eventually she gets a pair which, during a long conversation with her husband, Leopold fails to notice until she points them out. And then of course, he complains about the expense.

- Dick Strawser


  1. Anonymous11:46 AM

    I'm delighted to see this! I met Liane Ellison Norman during a writing workshop and am proud to call her a friend. I'm so happy to see this wonderful book receive some attention, both because Liane is a phenomenal writer and because Anna and Nannerl (and women in general) deserve to have their stories told. She told me a little of her travels to Europe to research the book and how much fun she had writing it. Thank you!

  2. I FINALLY bought this book. I have had it on my 'list' since reading your post!!! And, it is near the top of the book pile.

    thx for sharing.