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More rethinking of Mozart

by Liane Curtis - August 18th, 2009.
Filed under: academia, news. Tagged as: , .

[NB: I wanted to post this a comment to Sarah’s Mozart post, but it got a little long, plus the comment feature doesn’t seem to allow links. So I’m post-dating it so it will be under Sarah’s post. — Liane Curtis]

In history, little is absolutely certain. The barest outline of facts, perhaps, dates of events. But sometimes new discoveries can call for a reexamination of facts, and sometimes we also need to reexamine who is chosen to be the focus of historic scrutiny, and who is excluded from that scrutiny. These choices can reflect our own cultural expectations which are constructed on biases so ingrained that they are accepted as self-evident.

The new attribution of two fragmentary works to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is an opportunity, and we hope it is an opportunity for more than the International Mozarteum Foundation to call attention to its own collection. The press was eager for a “new Mozart Discovery” (after all, August is usually a slow news time) and the story was exaggerated in some reports: The Daily Guardian exclaimed that

“Despite the fact that the notepad has been in the Foundation’s possession since 1864, no one had ever noticed the two snatches of music which were yesterday the toast of Mozart’s birthplace.”

Perhaps they were built up more dramatically in earlier communications, but the IMF report available now states that the pieces “already had been published in the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe (New Mozart Edition) in 1982 within the volume of “Notenbücher” (Music Books)” – what this “discovery” was is the attaching of Wolfgang’s name to them (although they are in his father’s handwriting, in his sister’s book). The attribution was based on a consideration of Wolfgang’s stylistic development. The discovery of a piece of music copied by Mozart’s father Leopold into a book owned by Mozart’s sister Nannerl, then, ought to be an opportunity to consider the context of Mozart’s training and early work – the role of his father, and yes, who is that elusive sister Nannerl?

Nannerl was also a “Wunderkind,” was trained by her father, and toured Europe showing off her abilities. Since the book of exercises was written for her, it seems this question SHOULD arise: COULD this piece have been written by Nannerl? Public historians of music – journalists as well as scholars – have the responsibility to be asking questions that broaden our horizons and understanding of context, rather than only going with the spin given to them by the IMF, with their goal of maintaining a myopic focus on Wolfgang.

Nannerl (Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart, 1751-1829) was a noted pianist – when she was nearly 13, her father called her “one of the most skillful pianists in Europe.” But a year later, when she was considered to be of marriageable age, she was no longer allowed to perform in public. Leopold focused his training intensely on Wolfgang, because of the boy’s remarkable talent, but also because Wolfgang’s ability would allow him to obtain a Kapellmeister position within a church or court. Nannerl’s ability – whatever it might have been – was of little ultimate consequence. She might be a novelty as a “Wunderkind”, but as a woman, the Kapellmeister jobs were not open to her.

Leopold focused on his training on Wolfgang, with professional goals in mind. Some compositional exercises by Nannerl do survive, but there is no record of any further training. For Wolfgang these skills enhanced his professional standing – Nannerl had no possibility of a professional life, apart from the limited one of teaching within the home. The limitations of being female meant that there was no expectation that she would compose or lead a creative musical life. She received no encouragement, training or opportunities to compose. While Wolfgang obviously had remarkable talent, had he not been given intensive training, encouragement, and a wide range of opportunities, what might have happened to him? Might his name be little more than the cipher that is his sister’s?

At any rate the “discovery” of new pieces by Wolfgang Mozart remains provisional – the experts may all agree, but the works are unsigned. The possibility that the pieces were composed by Nannerl is a small one, given the lack of specific encouragement and advanced training. But not impossible, in light of her having performed complex works, and having had some basic training.

A professor friend of mine is fond of the quote “Always teach provisionally; only God knows for sure” — which is surely apropos here. I discovered that its author is R. Murray Schafer, composer and educator (not to be confused with either F. Murray Abraham or Peter Shaffer!)

As to the theories about how Wolfgang died, my favorite is the one blaming the bad schnitzel! But maybe that’s the perspective of a vegetarian!

Special thanks to Eva Rieger, whose excellent book Nannerl Mozart: Leben einer Kunstlerin im 18. Jahrhundert (1991) has unfortunately never been translated into English.

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