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Monday, May 12, 2014

Mozart in Fiction: Mozart's Mother

It seems so appropriate that I should write about Wolfgang Mozart's mother on Mothers' Day, but it is really coincidental. I finished reading the historical novel, Stitiches in Air, a few days ago.  The author is Liane Ellison Norman, who has written several other historical novels. Stitiches in Air is out of print, but can be found used and in some libraries.

Anna Pertl Mozart is a shadowy figure. Not much is known about her. Her father was a part-time musician, as was her maternal grandfather. Her father died when she and her sister were very young, casting the family into poverty. Her sister died as a child. Anna married Leopold Mozart, had seven children of whom only two survived. From a letter that Leopold wrote to her asking her to find and send a piece of music, it's clear that she could read music. Anna died in Paris at age 57 of an unknown illness. Leopold blamed Wolfgang for Anna's death and accused him of neglecting her while he went out each day having fun.

Because of how little is known about Anna, any story written about her life will have be mostly invented, which is what Ms. Norman has done. I found the beginning of the book very interesting - a picture of Anna's childhood before her father's death in the village of St. Gilgen, followed by several years in a nunnery. The nunnery education of Anna and her sister is fictional, but it fits the story well. The "stitches in air" of the title refer to the bit of lace Anna holds in the one portrait of her, which may have been a way of showing that she was a lace maker, though we don't know this for sure.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the novel, though interesting, becomes more and more a statement about how the author views the plight of women in the 18th century, using the Mozart family as a canvas. I have written before about truth versus fiction in historical fiction, and I felt the same annoyance with this book as with several other historical novels about the Mozarts and other historical figures. Ms. Norman depicts Anna as a repressed musical genius, and Leopold as both a tyrannical husband and father and a lesser musician who passes her compositions off as his own. She hints that Wolfgang's early works were either written by Nannerl or Leopold. Later, Nannerl also becomes stifled as a musician, but who accepts her lot in life, giving up composing and performing, and even her desire to marry Franz Armand d'Ippold. In actuality, Nannerl probably did compose and give it up, but she continued to be a performer and teacher.

As the story continues, Leopold becomes increasingly tyrannical, turning against Anna, telling her that women composing is unnatural. There is quite a lot of discussion of witchcraft trials, related to women trying to do "unwomanly" activities. From the author's notes, her research shows that Salzburg had many accusations of witchcraft against women and a number of trials. Interestingly, Ruth Halliwell, in her very thorough investigation of the Mozart family, their correspondence, and the social, economic and political milieus of the time, does not mention witchcraft at all. To me this indicates that it was most likely not a concern to the Mozart family.

The picture of the Mozart family's life I carried away from this novel was very different than the snapshot I got from Halliwell's The Mozart Family: Four Lives in a Social Context. Ms. Norman paints a somewhat deary, isolated existence, with a few friends and social activities few and far between. Halliwell's study of the family documents shows that they entertained several times a week, frequently having friends over to make music, play cards, and shoot air guns at targets. Their circle of friends and acquaintances was huge. The family also regularly attended the theater. In their letters to each other, the Mozarts regularly shared jokes, including quite a bit of off-color humor. These fun-loving parts of life are missing from Stitches in Air.

The author includes an afterword in which she explains what parts of the story are factual and which events she created. In her afterword she refers to Ruth Halliwell's book, incorrectly referring to it as Mozart's Family and calling it "an elaborate defense of Leopold's good name." She does not list this book in her extensive extensive bibliography of references consulted. This leads me to believe that Ms. Norman did not read Hallliwell's book, as it is not a defense of Leopold, but an attempt to accurately depict each member of the family without the layers of myth that have accumulated.

Anna Pertl Mozart has appeared in novels as everything from an uneducated, coarse woman who swears frequently, to the musical genius of Stitches in Air. She was probably courageous, to have undertaken so much traveling in the 18th century. She was surely musical. As part of a fun-loving, sociable family, she must have enjoyed much of her life. But she will remain a mystery.

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