About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Monday, January 28, 2013

Mozart in fiction, part 4

Last time I said I was going to go back to nonfiction and I am now reading Mozart: A Life by Maynard Solomon. It a big book, over 600 pages, and calls for focused reading. It's very interesting, with many ideas to think about. But since it is a slow book, I slipped in In Mozart's Shadow: His Sister's Story by Carolyn Meyer.

This is a young adult novel; the jacket states it is for ages 12 and up. As a 4th grade teacher I regularly read books for kids, and there are many that I don't whole-heartedly like. This includes novels that are highly acclaimed and books my students love. For example, the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan is very popular with upper elementary readers. If you aren't familiar with it, it's set in the United States today and is about a boy who discovers his father is Neptune. Adventures follow. It's a great premise, but I could hardly make myself continue reading the first book. Even as the main characters were setting out on an important quest, I was bored and wanted to quit reading. (I didn't tell my students.) There are also many books for young people that I do like a lot, including Harry Potter (though I don't think the later books are children's literature) and the Mysterious Benedict Society.

That said, In Mozart's Shadow is disappointing. Nannerl Mozart is the narrator, from the time she is 13 years old until Wolfgang's death. The Mozart family had an exciting life, and Nannerl narrates all of it, but I never felt engaged in the story or that I knew Nannerl. We skim the surface of the events, which seem to pass quickly, followed by more trips and concerts. What we learn about Nannerl is that she loves music and performing, that she was bitterly disappointed to be left behind beginning with the trips to Italy that Leopold took only Wolfgang on, and she continued to be unhappy about not being able to participate in a musical life and not marrying happily. It becomes a one-note theme in the book. On the cover is a young lady in 18th century garb, looking sad, with downcast eyes. Wolfgang is depicted as a mischievous brat, Leopold Mozart as an autocratic father who only cared about his son, not his daughter, and Anna Maria, the mother, as a put-upon caretaker. There are also some adult themes, such as mistresses and dalliances, that may not be appropriate for all 12 year olds.

As I finished reading this novel, I started wondering how a writer could structure an interesting novel about Nannerl Mozart, for any age reader, since neither this one or Mozart's Sister, by A.M. Baud, were satisfying for me. In the real Nannerl's accounts of her family, she wrote in a a cryptic style that revealed little of herself. She referred to "the son" and "the father" when talking about her brother and father. "On 12 December 1769, father and son went alone to Italy," she wrote, remembering the event years later. And, "The Pope wanted to see the son, and gave him the cross and the brief of a militiae auratae equus." So it is difficult to deduce her personality and response to events. In addition, including every major event in her life can lead to a lack of depth, or a very long book.

I think if I were trying this I would try to pick up some of her personality from the letters of other family members. Like Carolyn Meyer, I would assume that Nannerl must have been devastated by not being able to pursue a life in music and ending up married to a man with 5 unruly children, living in a small town, isolated from her friends and any cultural life. I would not attempt to include everything in her family history, but perhaps focus on part of her life. This was a successful strategy in Marrying Mozart, which focused on a few years in the adult life of Wolfgang Mozart. As I tell my 4th graders, historical fiction means there are some true things, but there are also fictional events and people. Sometimes even the real people end up partly fictional.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Happy Birthday, Mozart!

Detail from Mozart family portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce
Today is the 257th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. After I participated several times in the Schubertiade sponsored by Pianoforte Chicago, though sadly not this year, I thought what fun it would be to have a similar celebration of Mozart's work. Mozart wrote many chamber works, and he wrote much more for wind instruments than Schubert did. The Schubertiade is always heavy on pianists and singers. The word Schubertiade was coined by Franz Schubert's friends, who would get together with him to play his music in a relaxed setting in someone's home. The Mozart family also had such musical evenings, having friends over to play pieces by Mozart and other contemporary composers. I'm guessing this was probably a common entertainment among people who played instruments before television was invented.

Mozart evening, anyone?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Mozart in fiction, part 3

After learning about five different novels written about Nannerl Mozart, I was able to track them all down, mostly through the secondhand book source, alibris.com. I chose one at random recently to read: Mozart's Sister, by A.M. Bauld.

This is a very strange book. My husband described it as "like a nightmare." It has a bizarre dreamlike quality. I would say it has only the slightest connection with Nannerl Mozart's real life. The narrator is Franz Xaver Mozart, the younger son of Wolfgang, who is visiting his aged, infirm aunt Nannerl, as he actually did. This seemed at first to be a similar format as Mozart's Last Aria, however, this Franz Xaver expresses disgust with his decrepit aunt, and, in a science fiction twist, he can transform himself into a spider (shades of Kafka!) and travel back in time to observe his family before his birth. Other historical events that appear in this novel include a visit by Vincent and Mary Novello, who did in fact travel from England to visit the elderly Nannerl and interview her about her life and her famous brother. And, like both Mozart's Last Aria and Marrying Mozart, letters are very important in advancing the plot. The Mozart family is, of course, known for being prolific letter writers.

The author invents several important characters who have significant interactions with Nannerl and Leopold Mozart, including a love interest for Nannerl. Bauld does include an Author's Note clarifying which characters were invented, but these characters add to the strangeness of the mood and the depiction of the real people. Most of the characters seem to be unhappy. Example (and spoiler -- alert!): Nannerl love interest is an itinerant draper and amateur musician who is Jewish. They fall in love, but neither tells the other, and after a series of unhappy misunderstandings, he eventually leaves, possibly to perish in a shipwreck on the way to Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania). But maybe not. maybe he made it up.

I was very confused by the end of this book. I think I will go back to nonfiction for awhile.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mozart for real

After reading two novels about Mozart (see here and here) I decided to switch to biography to see if I could find answers to my questions about what was true and what was fiction created by the authors. The book I chose was Mozart's Women by Jane Glover. I found this while searching on Amazon for books on Mozart; Jane Glover is the music director of Music of the Baroque here in Chicago, so I ordered it. I highly recommend this book. Glover's theme is Mozart's relationships with the women in his life, including opera characters, and his enlightened attitude toward women. She includes a lot of fascinating and in-depth biographical information and thoughtful discussion of Mozart's works and his process of writing music, in particular opera, as it developed over his life.

An interesting aspect of biographies is that they're not "the truth," but are actually a reflection of the time they are written in and the viewpoint of the author. When I first studied Mozart as a college music student, what I picked up about Mozart was that he was an incredible genius who was so removed from the world that he would never be touched by anything -- not by the scenery while traveling, not by the death of his children. The evidence for this was in the music he wrote. His father Leopold was a great man, though a lesser musician than his son, who gave up much to nurture this extraordinary talent. Constanze was a careless ditz, and it was a tragedy that Wolfgang had married her. Then came Amadeus, the play and the movie, and the popular view of Mozart became one of naive  potty-mouthed, immature, musical genius.

Glover agrees with other current biographers and paints Leopold as overbearing and unwilling to let go as Wolfgang grew up. Constanze was playful and a good partner to Wolfgang, and she turned out to be a smart manager, though she took over the finances too late to make a difference to her husband. Glover is clearly outraged by the unfair treatment Wolfgang's sister Nannerl received. A very talented musician, she toured with her brother until she was 19. At that time her father kept her home while Wolfgang continued his extraordinary career. This was in spite of the fact that a number of talented women at the time had successful musical careers as singers, pianists, and teachers.

Wolfgang Mozart himself is depicted as a serious musician, as well as an extraordinary one. He was extremely social and had a wide circle of friends all over Europe. An aspect of his musicianship and personality that surprised me was that he was known for his kindness and patience in working with the singers in his opera productions, including older singers who struggled with the parts he had written.

I was fascinated by the discussions about the writing of the operas and subsequent productions. Mozart was very involved in the libretto, working in partnership with his librettists, and expressed strong opinions about the themes and drama of the stories. The operas that he wrote with Lorenzo Da Ponte -- The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte -- were real partnerships that changed opera forever. Both the themes and the music were unlike other operas of the time, which seemed to have fallen into patterns that everyone expected. For example, composers wrote in a way that encouraged applause at the end of the overture and arias. In Abduction from the Seraglio, Mozart blends the end of the overture into the beginning of act one, removing the opportunity for applause. Likewise, the arias are woven into the dramatic action, focusing the audience's attention on the drama and reducing the chances of applause.

In music school, students study works of the past as fixed entities. While there are new, radical productions of operas and sometimes older works are adapted into new pieces, I always thought of the composer's original work as existing in an original fixed form. As musicians, we often think about honoring the composer's intentions by following what's in the score and learning about convention of the time. It was eye-opening for me, then, to read that Mozart regularly rewrote parts based on his singers' abilities. In some cases he had to make parts easier, for older or less talented singers. In other cases he added new arias to please a singer who wanted a bigger role. So this means that there are multiple versions of how some of his operas can be performed? I'm not that knowledgeable about opera, so I wonder what directors do with these choices today? Is there now a standardized version of each opera?

It appears that Mozart's Women contains so much interesting information and is such fun to read that I forgot my original intention of sorting truth from fiction. I did pick up some ideas that the Weber family was somewhat different that they were portrayed in Marrying Mozart. Mozart's Women paints a happier picture overall of the family than the novel does.

There is more to read -- fiction and nonfiction. That Mozart fascinates us is clear from the amount of other works generated by him and his life.