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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Mozart's Sister by Rita Charbonnier

Mozart's Sister by Rita Charbonnier, translated by Ann Goldstein. New York: Crown Publishers (Random House), 2007. ISBN: 978-0-307-34678-0

Now here's an interesting novel! Based on the life of Maria Anna Walpurga Ignatia Mozart, Wolfgang's elder sister, who generally went by the nickname Nannerl, at least within the family circle. Nannerl was a musical prodigy too, though perhaps not quite so precocious as Mozart, although it is hard to know how we'd know for sure. But the earliest travels and concerts featured the two of them, brother and sister.

This novel purports to tell Nannerl's story from her own point of view, starting with a series of letters back and forth between her and a man she loves, but never marries. I found these letters to be a bit too modern and frank in tone, but then, I haven't read the letters between Wolfgang and his father, sister, wife, so I'm hardly in a position to judge. Wolfgang's own letters are notoriously known to be earthy, vulgar, etc. Nannerl's letters as depicted here are hardly that, just frank and forward.

What is more significant is the author's assumption and depiction of Nannerl's reaction to the stifling influence of her father, who will not even admit the possibility of a woman's composing music. No, Nannerl must either find a husband, or teach piano lessons to help support the family's income. She reacts very badly, at times almost retreating from life altogether, and later, turning her back on music completely for many years.

Again, it is hard to know how she really reacted. Was she really torn apart like this? Or was she more a creature of her time, acquiescing to her father's and her society's assumptions about the role of a woman? We have no way to know, but this author's version seems like it is imposing our current values and feelings about the equal rights of women back into an earlier time, where they don't exactly ring true.

Not that I don't completely sympathize with those feelings as they are depicted. I consider myself to be a male feminist, and I find any subordination of women to be appalling and indefensible. So why am I complaining? I don't know. I just know that this book seems to take modern sensibilities and reactions, and force them onto an earlier time, where the reality may have been different. Not that Nannerl wouldn't have resented being forced into her father's version of reality, but I don't think she would have reacted in such a modern way.

All of that quibbling aside, I definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in the subject. I only wish that there were more documentation provided to support or authenticate this version of the story. Did Nannerl (as the author insists) act as a supporter and promoter of her brother's music after his death? I don't know. There doesn't appear to be any book length biographies of Nannerl available. So this hypothetical version is seemingly all we have.

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