Mozart’s Sister — Rita Charbonnier

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Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart — Nannerl — was a child prodigy who played the harpsichord and eventually the pianoforte, improvised and composed music and sang with astonishing virtuosity. Her brief career as the miraculous young Mozart child ended the moment her brother arrived. Leopold Mozart coldly replaced the daughter with the son, forbidding his eldest child to compose, to play in public, to do much more with her life than support the brother she adored and grew to resent.

Mozart’s Sister is Rita Charbonnier’s fictional recreation of Nannerl’s life, based on the scant details that can be recaptured. Little is known about her aside from the early performances that amazed concert crowds, the great childhood affection that bound the Mozart siblings, the relentless rejection of her talent by a father obsessed with promoting his son, and the fact that she devoted a great deal of her life after Wolfgang Mozart’s death to collecting and publishing his compositions.

In lively epistolary passages, Nannerl recounts her early years to her fiancé, an absent military officer. Her letters disclose a charming young Wolfgang, as personable as he is talented, and two children who create a magical world only they can inhabit. But Leopold Mozart is an ogre, denying his daughter access to the music that pours out of her and relegating her to the role of piano teacher to support her brother’s concert tours by giving lessons. Once she renounces her own life as a musician, any mention of her playing and composing enrages her. Nannerl’s bitterness is tangible and the destruction of her soul and talent is a horror.

Mozart manages to carelessly wreck the shreds of happiness his sister gathers around her; the engagement ends as calamitously as her career due to Wolfgang’s seduction of her favorite pupil, her fiancé’s daughter. Then their mother succumbs to illness in Paris while touring with her son and Nannerl is so badly shattered that she is sent away to recover in the mountains at the country home of the household servant. As she slowly regains her strength and sanity, she is wooed and won by a baron who worships her. Her congenial marriage and household of children and cheerful confusion is abruptly altered by the news of Wolfgang’s untimely and impoverished death. How she reconciles the loss of her brother and the decision to dedicate herself to his legacy is the denouement to a tumultuous existence, touched and wounded by genius at every turn.   

The novel is very readable and presents a world that is easy to understand and enter. Charbonnier is skilled at pacing and creating characters and her Nannerl is sharp-tongued and witty, an acerbic foil to Wolfgang’s sunny appeal. The fact that she finds happiness and purpose in the end is comforting although not entirely believable. The waste of her talent and the dismissal of her music and her self in favor of her brother is infuriating. The story of Nannerl is the story of all women who are wildly gifted and buried alive. I thought, through most of the book, ‘this is why there are men and men and men in the canon.’ What is lost to the world by the suppression of women and the discounting of their work seems an irreparable tragedy, starkly delineated in the dynamic of the Mozart family.

Nannerl may have been as great as her little brother, or surpassed him handily, or fallen behind as his genius emerged. We will never know. If she did ultimately find a measure of peace and a sense of purpose, she deserved it. If her loss haunted her and twisted her life, we have no clear record of that either. Mozart’s Sister has just enough history to be credible and just enough tension at the repression of Nannerl to make you want to scream. Or pound on the keyboard, or burn a few manuscripts. We are fortunate beyond measure for every composition she helped to conserve and catalog. Her kid brother’s music is still divine. Her music no longer exists—and that is a dark coda to the colorful tale of her life.  

Mozart’s Sister: A Novel     Rita Charbonnier    Crown Publishers   2007

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