"A grand little mini-opera, filled with twists of affection, musical politics, love, loss, and chocolate." The Seattle Times
Amadeus meets Little Women in this irresistibly delightful historical novel by award- winning author Stephanie Cowell. The year is 1777 and the four Weber sisters, daughters of a musical family, share a crowded, artistic life in a ramshackle house. While their father scrapes by as a music copyist and their mother secretly draws up a list of prospective suitors in the kitchen, the sisters struggle with their futures, both marital and musical—until twenty-one-year-old Wolfgang Mozart walks into their lives. Bringing eighteenth-century Europe to life with unforgiving winters, yawning princes, scheming parents, and the enduring passions of young talent, Stephanie Cowell’s richly textured tale captures a remarkable historical figure—and the four young women who engage his passion, his music, and his heart.
Of middle years, he was a lean man but for a small round stomach under his vest, and he wore a long coat to his knees and mended white cotton hose to his breech buckles. His lank graying hair was caught with a frayed black ribbon at his neck and hung limply down his back. He craned his long neck to see down the stairs.
Behind him, the front parlor of the cramped apartment had been dusted, polished, and abundantly lit with eight candles. There, near the clavier, his four daughters, age eleven to nineteen, stood dressed in their best ordinary gowns, hair glistening with curls that one hour before had been tightly wrapped in rags. It was Thursday. Things somehow always turned out well on Thursday evenings when friends came.
The rest of the rooms were dark, except for the fire in the kitchen, for all the candles were in here. The parlor had been tidied, and a shawl draped over the clavier; all the music had been sorted in neat heaps on the floor. Weber’s corpulent wife, Maria Caecilia, emerged from the kitchen as if she had not been baking there for hours, and stood by his side, murmuring the words he knew she would speak. “There won’t be enough wine. Your cousin Alfonso drinks like a fish.”
“Pour small glasses,” he said, squeezing her arm, and then, turning to the dark stair again, called down happily, “Yes, come up, come up, dear friends—I’ve been waiting for you.”
From the darkness of the stair emerged Heinemann, a violinist from court, extending his always damp hands, and balding Cousin Alfonso, who wore his wig only for his cello performances. The four girls stood nudging one another, whispering, curtseying. Their hands were a little worn and pricked from washing and sewing. There was about them the scent of youth, youth that, with a little soap and a clean petticoat, was as fresh as flowers.
Wine was poured in small glasses, and two more musicians arrived. Every now and then Fridolin Weber peered through the window down to the street. He knew everybody, everything. He knew the world of music especially, because he copied it page after page for a small fee. In addition, he was a versatile musician. For what occasion had he not played his half-dozen instruments at which he was adequately proficient, or poured forth his meager, congenial, slightly hoarse singing voice? But he was modest, his narrow shoulders rounded.
“Who else do you expect this Thursday, Weber?” asked Alfonso, already enjoying his third glass of wine. “You seem to be waiting. Is it Grossmeyer, the choirmaster? He had rehearsal this night, I thought.”
“Some new friends, recommended to me—a matron from Salzburg and her twenty-one-year-old son, who has composed a great deal already.” He leaned against the window frame to look down, and then drew in his breath with pleasure. “Perhaps that ... yes, that must be them. They’re making their way to the door below.” Negotiating among chairs, music stands, and guests, he crossed the room and opened the door to the landing once again. The cold breeze whisked into the room, and the candles fluttered. “Come up, come up,” he cried.
An ample-busted woman with a long mournful face under her piled hair appeared panting on the top step. Behind her, trying to slow his climb in consideration, was her son, a pale young man with large eyes and a large nose, somewhat below middle height but neatly made with supple hands beneath his lace cuffs.
“Frau Mozart, a pleasure, and Herr Mozart, I presume?”
“You’re most gracious to invite us,” replied Frau Mozart.
In a flurry of consultation the four girls disappeared into another room and returned with two more chairs that they offered, and Weber himself brought more wine. Introductions were made, and bows exchanged. Frau Mozart balanced her wine cautiously on her knee. She wore no rouge, and she gathered her dark skirts closely, as if wanting to leave as little of them as possible flowing about her; her mouth was compressed like a tightly drawn purse. She looked into every corner of the room, taking in the piles of music and the few sconces without candles.
Weber rubbed his hands and rocked back and forth in his pleasure. “Do I understand you’ve arrived from Salzburg just two weeks ago? And that your husband is employed there as musician by the Archbishop’s court?”
“Indeed, sir; we’ve come here looking for greater opportunities for my son.”
“Why, there are opportunities enough here, Alfonso will tell you. I copy, I compose a little, I play several instruments. If music is wanted, I’m there to make it.” All this time Herr Mozart said nothing, but looked about the room seriously, bowing when he caught someone’s eye.
Cakes and coffee came; the wondrous fragrance of the hot beverage stirred with cinnamon and cream filled the rooms. Weber would not stint on his Thursday evenings, not even if they had nothing but porridge for three days following, thick and lumpy, with no sugar and only third- quality milk.
“Now we’ll have music,” Fridolin Weber cried when the cake lay in crumbs on coat fronts and across the parlor floor. “What’s an evening without music? Alfonso, have you brought parts for your new trio? Come, come.”
At once the four girls clustered against the wall to make room, while Weber, with a sweep of his coattails, sat down at the clavier and candles were moved to illuminate the music. The sound of strings and clavier soared through the small chamber, Fridolin Weber playing deftly, nodding, exclaiming at passages that pleased him. They finished the last movement with a great sweep of Heinemann’s bow, after which he lay his violin on his knee, perspiring and wearing a great smile. Some other brief pieces followed, and then Weber stood and called, “And will you play something as well, Herr Mozart?”
The young man leapt up to the clavier; he pushed back his cuffs and began a sonata andante with variations. Each successive variation gathered in depth. Weber leaned forward. There was a rare delicacy to the young man’s playing, and an unusual strength in his left hand, which made the musicians look at one another. Heinemann grinned, showing small, darkened teeth. He sat breathing through his mouth, fingers drumming on his breeches above the buckle.
Maria Caecilia Weber maneuvered her full skirts through the crowded room, refilling the coffee cups. She glanced briefly at the man with little white hands who played with such concentrated intimacy, noting that when a spoon she carried clattered to the floor, his shoulders stiffened slightly, and he did not lower them again for a few minutes.
The music ended as abruptly as it had begun, and both Alfonso and Heinemann rose to their feet clapping firmly. The young man’s face was still absorbed, as if he barely noticed the small parlor with its shadowy gathering. He said in his light tenor voice, “A fine instrument, Herr Weber. It reminds me of one I knew in London when I was there years ago as a boy. The Tschudi clavier. My sister and I played a duet on it; it had a remarkable mechanism for color and volume.” “Sir, I thank you,” replied Fridolin, rubbing his hands. “If an instrument could have a soul, mine does. Yes, yes, whatever you all may say, we know it. We all know it. You’re a gifted player! With what piece have you favored us? One of your own, I trust?”
Mozart’s large eyes were now almost playful, and he kept a few fingers on the raised clavier lid as if unwilling to leave it. “The last movement of a sonata I wrote in Munich a few years back. I’ve some themes for another sonata for the daughter of Herr Cannabich, your orchestral director here. Though young, she’s gifted.”
“But you know Cannabich? We all play with him from time to time,” Fridolin said, while Alfonso poured another glass of wine and hooted loudly. Now by a sudden waver of candlelight Fridolin could see that the young man’s face was faintly scarred with smallpox, old marks likely from childhood. Fridolin glanced at Frau Mozart’s stolid expression, thinking how she must have worried and suffered! It was God’s mercy, he thought, that his own lovely girls had not been afflicted.
He cried, “Another cup of coffee, come!”
The last drop of coffee was sipped; the last piece of chamber music ended. Then the two older sisters, Josefa and Aloysia, wound their arms about each other’s waist and began a duet. Both voices were very high, but Josefa’s had darker tones. From the corner the two younger girls watched the rise and fall of their sisters’ full breasts, heard the quick fioritura, sighed at the higher notes that rang round and round the little room.
Heinemann shook his head with pleasure. “In such parlors all over Europe, young girls are singing,” he said. “It’s an art every cultivated woman learns, yet none I believe can do so with more grace than your daughters, dear Weber.”
“Sir, I thank you,” replied Weber in a low voice.
The chiming of a clock some streets away announced that the hour of eleven had come. The guests thanked their host several times and descended; Fridolin Weber, easily made gay with a little wine, held the stub of the candle for them. “Good night, good night!” he called as they went forth onto the streets of Mannheim.
“What does that matter?” replied Fridolin as he undressed. The last small candle flickered in the mirror, revealing his thin legs as he sighed a little to pull off his stockings.
“As far as the young man and his mother are concerned, they haven’t any money, that’s clear. ‘What else does he compose?’ I asked the good woman, and she puffed out her bosom and murmured, ‘Everything!’—as if we should welcome another composer when there are two to be found under every market stall. Did you notice how much cake and wine they consumed, as if they made their dinner from it? Can’t you find any better people to invite? Is this how you look out for the future of your poor girls? What will happen to them? How will they find husbands without dowries? Do you ever plan for the future? How can you provide for four girls on the salary of a music copyist and second tenor in the chapel choir?” Having finished her hair, she flopped heavily into a reclining position on the feather mattress that had been part of her own dowry long ago.
“Soft, soft,” her husband said. “You see, pigeon, it’s not all that bad; what does it matter if we’re poor? We have music and friendship. And they sing beautifully.”
“What will that gain them?” came her voice from the pillow. She raised her head and looked at her husband intensely. “Fridolin, listen to me. You know what happened to my own two sisters, my beautiful sisters! Little Gretchen. You remember the story.”
“I can’t forget it; it means so much to you.”
“Youth doesn’t last forever; they must understand it. And the older two are certainly of an age to be betrothed.”
“Yes, yes, my love,” he said, pulling on his nightcap and stretching out next to her. “That’s wise and true. He plays well, that young man; I believe he has plans for an opera.”
Maria Caecilia had fallen silent, only vaguely aware of her husband’s callused fingertips on her breast and his yawns. She thought of the beauty of her four daughters as they stood by candlelight in the parlor. “Fridolin,” she whispered. “They aren’t ordinary girls; there is nothing ordinary about them. I have my plans for them. I have my plans.”
But her husband was asleep.
Dawn was coming, creeping through the window over the four lovely girls, still in dreams, none yet twenty, half naked: nightdresses fallen from plump, clear shoulders, pulled up high on downy thighs. The warm scent of perspiration, of old gowns, of sensuality blossoming like a garden. Four girls trying to be beautiful on a few yards of good cloth, two pendants from their late, mourned grandmother, and an insufficient number of much mended white hose.
With the first light the eldest, Josefa, sat up, her brown hair in tangled curls. She climbed over Aloysia, making the bed groan with her plumpness, her bare thighs as soft as warm bread beneath her old nightdress, and then climbed even less carefully over the feet of the smaller girls. Six o’clock by the church clock, and they had not gone to bed until one. She stretched to her full height, which made her head nearly touch the sloping ceiling, arching back her full shoulders. Oh, why was it her turn to begin the day? The first clavier pupil came at seven, and father must have his coffee and an ironed shirt.
In the kitchen she coaxed a fire and put the heavy iron on the grate to heat. Outside the small window she could see the milk wagon. Little Sophie was to run down and make sure they had fresh milk for the day; if Sophie didn’t, Josefa wouldn’t for certain. Nothing woke her Sophie, the sloth. Well, they would have dry bread and no milk; it was not her concern. And it was the turn of Aloysia, who thought herself above such things, to trudge down to the common cistern to empty the chamber pots for the refuse collector.
Beyond the church spires, the sky was growing light.
Josefa spat on the iron to test its readiness, sprinkled the shirt with water from a bowl, and began to iron fiercely, the muscles in her firm arm working. What a life, she thought. Always having to pretend you have money when you don’t; isn’t that the way it is? How to bring them from their precarious existence where they were always late with the rent? It had concerned her the past few years since she had begun to understand that none of her darling father’s musical endeavors had yet lifted them from the edge of poverty.
She pressed the iron’s nose firmly into the rough linen of the sleeve where it was set into the body, beginning to hum an aria from one of Piccinni’s popular operas, and then to sing more fully, her rich tones ringing through the small rooms.
From the half-open door of the bedroom came Aloysia’s more silvery voice. “Oh shut up, shut up, shut up. I need sleep.”
“You need sleep! You took up more than half of the bed last night; you always do. You’re always squeezing me out, and this morning there wasn’t any room, and I couldn’t move you, you lump, you cow.”
“No decent person should have to sleep with you, Josefa, the way you toss and turn and shout things in your dreams! I want a bed of my own.”
“Well, you’ll never have one. You’ll be married soon enough to some brute who’ll never let you sleep.”
Josefa put down the iron and ran to the bedroom door, where now both Aloysia and Constanze had raised their heads from their pillows, and were looking bewildered at their angry eldest sister. Sitting up, arms half covering her naked little breast where her gown had slipped away, the delicate Aloysia declared, “I’d rather sleep with Constanze; let’s change. She’ll come to me; you sleep with Sophie.”
The iron sizzled, and Josefa rushed back, but it was only the cloth of the board. She began to iron again while Aloysia entered the kitchen and opened the cupboard for bread, her feet bare and her hair tumbled down her back. By this time only Sophie was still in bed, for she was seldom disturbed by anything.
Aloysia began to grind the coffee beans.
“I know something you don’t,” she said airily. “We’re singing this evening. Father told me last night after the guests left. We’re singing at the Countess’s, two duets and then a solo each. Constanze must let me have her lace.”
“Are you sure we’re engaged to sing?” asked Josefa, at once practical. “How much will they pay us?”
“The saints alone know. If they think you’re pretty, maybe they’ll give extra. Don’t let any of the men feel you. Mama says they will try for sure in those places, so you must be careful, for you don’t want to be damaged.”
The remainder of the household began to stir. Fridolin came out with moderately hairy legs showing under his shirt and said he was so weary he could die. The last up was Maria Caecilia, the bed creaking as she rose to her hasty breakfast. At seven the pupil, an impoverished lawyer in a threadbare coat, arrived, and as the sound of his excruciating mistakes echoed through the fifth- story rooms, the four sisters disappeared to their bedchamber to discuss what the eldest two could wear that night.
Constanze looked about the room, which smelled of burned candles.
Papa had given them all lessons. As early as she could recall, he had lined them up by the clavier according to age, his sharp, stubbly chin nodding, the worn white lacing of his shirt trembling, his fragile veined left hand conducting the air while his right hand played the ivory keys, which were tuned regularly and almost always in perfect pitch. They sang in Italian, the language in which almost all fashionable songs were written. When Fridolin was drunk, however, he sang bawdy songs in German, gathered her squealing to his lap, and told her she was his cabbage, his dumpling.
She remembered standing there all little and chubby, barely reaching the clavier, while her two older sisters, still little girls themselves, pushed and shoved each other under the portrait of the Virgin and Child near high dusty windows that overlooked the street. Sophie was then only a mewling infant; but Josefa had put forth her voice boldly, and Aloysia sang like a lark. Aloysia never had to work at singing, whereas Constanze always struggled. Her notes came tentatively as she gazed from under her lashes at her beloved Papa. She didn’t want to sing; she wanted to please him.
Recently, Josefa and Aloysia had sung without her.
Something rustled, and she heard bare feet on the squeaking floorboards. Turning, she could see Sophie, who at nearly twelve was still quite shapeless, heading toward her across the room past the many chairs and piles of music. The edges of the girl’s nose were red, and her eyes watery, but her face bore the same freckled, unperturbed look she had worn since the age of two. Even now as always Constanze could hear the homey click of Sophie’s wood rosary beads, which the girl kept in her pocket. Sophie was devout. She had at least ten saints to whom she lisped prayers in a litany at bedtime, lulling the others to sleep; she had the hierarchy of saints and angels and cherubim in her head, and could draw you a picture (the figures blurred and clumsy) on the back of a discarded sheet of music of the throne of God if you wanted to know exactly what it looked like.
She was also nearsighted; yesterday, returning from the candle and soap shop, she had mistook a tall nun for a priest, curtseying and murmuring, “Good day, Father,” to the suppressed laughter of her three older sisters. Plans to purchase her spectacles had been discussed.
“Are you waiting up?” she whispered to Constanze. “The bed’s cold without you.” She slid her arm around her sister. “I’m glad I don’t have to go sing; I sound like a sick frog. But you don’t mind not going, Stanzi?”
“No, I don’t like strange people staring at me.”
They huddled closer, peering down at the dark street, Sophie rubbing her bare feet against each other for warmth, for the fire had long gone out.
Sophie said, “It’s so cold for October! I heard Papa say it’s going to be a snowy winter; I love snow falling. It makes me feel safe to be here when it falls. The butcher told Aloysia we’d have our first snow long before Christmas.”
“He’s always telling her things as he wraps the sausages. He can’t keep his eyes from her. I think I saw her reading a note this morning on the scrap paper; maybe it was from him.”
“Perhaps it wasn’t a love note,” said Sophie. “Perhaps it was a list of the dresses she’d like; she’s always making those. She looks in shop windows and writes them down.”
“No, I’m certain it was a love note, but we don’t have to worry. Aly won’t marry a butcher: never. She just likes to flirt.” Constanze peered out into the night at a single horse trotting by. “You know Mama doesn’t want us to marry anyone in trade and live a plain life, as she puts it, with only one good dress for church and that not trimmed. She wants us to marry as high as we can, or at least she hopes Aly will. She hopes she’ll marry someone who is at least asked to dine in the Elector’s palace, maybe even a baron. I heard her and Father in the kitchen earlier today, speaking about it the way they do. She says such a marriage could be made even if the girl has no dowry, if she has charm and beauty.”
Sophie propped her elbows on the windowsill, her face serious. “Yes, and she was also quarreling with Papa earlier about Aloysia and Josefa’s going out to sing at all. She says it cheapens a woman to sing in public. You know, of course, what Papa answered! Serious and sad, looking off as he does when he’s crossing her. He said that it’s only until our fortunes increase, that they are safe as holy sisters and no man dares come within ten feet of them!”
Constanze stroked the long window draperies reflectively. As long as she could remember, she had lived in a house full of girls who loved to chatter and bicker. Her mother held opinions about everything, whether she knew that subject or not; and her father’s philosophical friends weekly settled the world’s problems over a few bottles of wine, shouting and waving their hands. In the midst of all this she seldom offered an opinion but to Sophie, who had been placed in her arms smelling of milk when she was but a day old, and to whom, even then, she told everything.
Now they snuggled close, rubbing their feet together. Constanze knew every angle of Sophie’s little body, having slept with her since the age of five. They shared secrets; she never told her mother about the mangy neighborhood cats and dogs Sophie fed, hiding food in her apron and slipping down the stairs.
Staring out into the street, along which only an old sentry walked, swinging his lantern, she said thoughtfully, “I suppose Aloysia might end up marrying a prince; she’s so beautiful. Even Uncle Thorwart, who’s been in and out of the best houses, says it.”
“Beauty’s a temporal gift,” replied Sophie, “whereas the real treasures are of the soul.”
“Beauty’s more useful in the world. I wish I had it, and I know Josefa does.”
“Josefa’s soul is beautiful.” Sophie raised her freckled face, her nearsighted expression making her look as if she had a clear insight into life. An old soul, her paternal grandmother had once called her.
Constanze sighed. “You’re right, but our Josy stands inches over almost every man, and she doesn’t keep quiet; she blurts things out. She loves books, not people, and she breaks all the nice things she has. The fan she holds when she sings tonight will be in splinters because she’ll twist it and twist it during the hard parts of the songs. I hope not, because Cousin Alfonso’s wife gave it to Aloysia last New Year’s. There will be a fight again, and they’ll be at each other’s throats. I hate that, and it kills Papa.”
“Mama’s family were farmers before they became very prosperous, and she says Josefa takes after them,” Sophie replied, “and that she wishes Josefa had stopped growing but of course she couldn’t help that. How can anyone help growing?” The two girls rubbed feet again. “Mama could have been a lady if she hadn’t fallen in love with Papa; she says that every time they quarrel. They still had their family fortune then before most of it was lost. But you do have beauty, Stanzi; your eyes are beautiful, and your face has a lovely heart shape.”
“No man ever died of love for a woman’s eyes.”
“Well, then, your soul’s beautiful just like Josefa’s, and that’s worth having.”
“How would you know? You’re not twelve yet; you’ve hardly been in the world! You can hardly know what’s worth having and what’s not.”
“I see things. I know things. I sit in a corner making dumplings and observe. I’ve observed you all forever.”
Constanze smiled suddenly, her dark eyes soft; it was a sweet, reflective young smile. In the dark parlor surrounded by the closed clavier, the piles of music, and the many books, she felt very comfortable. The heavy book on the lives of great dead composers was sliding off the others and any moment might fall to the floor. It’s best that Aloysia and Josefa keep singing, she thought. Perhaps then we’ll have more money so Mama won’t worry as much and then we’ll have hot creamy chocolate every single morning. But why do they want things to be another way? Aren’t we happy the way we are now when we gather about the table and all talk at once about music pupils, mother’s family’s silver before they lost it, court gossip, and what’s new at the small theater? Or the way we are on Thursdays, when all the people I love best come up the stairs? Don’t they know that the only important thing is that all of us remain together forever? Papa holds us together, and Mama, and I will, as well. This is my place. I’ll hold us together by my love.
Her hand tightened on the windowsill; she breathed deeply once and held on as if she suddenly understood the depth of the promise she had just made.
But the next moment she was a child again, looking up at her mother who had just appeared at the parlor door in her huge white nightdress. “Why are you up? Come to bed, my little fleas,” Maria Caecilia said.
“We couldn’t sleep! Just a time longer. We want to wait up for them.”
Their mother’s contralto was benevolent. “Drape your quilt around you then. Stanzi, I will never forget how ill you were when you were a little girl. Every time you cough I shudder.” The voice dropped to the low warning she used to tell one of her fearful stories. “My dearest friend as a girl always stood by windows. My saintly friend Therese. It was when our family still had our best silver. And she caught a consumption, and died young.”
“I thought you said she recovered.”
“Nothing could save her. You are lucky to be so healthy, whereas my sisters, my poor sisters!” She sighed. Constanze squirmed a little, hoping that the story would not be related once again this evening. It was hard to pay attention to stories that had interested you in the first telling, but grew unbearably dull after time.
But their mother demurred. “Fetch your quilts.” She yawned, and her voice trailed back at them as she moved heavily down the hall. “Ah, why do they always stay away so long when they sing? But perhaps if the Blessed Virgin wills it, someone will notice their beauty this evening.”
As their mother departed, Sophie stared down at the floor, the corner of her mouth beginning to twitch. “Our aunts,” she whispered. “I forgot to tell you before! A letter came today. They’re coming for Christmas.”
Constanze covered her own mouth with both hands. “Oh Sophie, when have they not come for Christmas? The ridiculous old things huffing up the stairs panting, ‘Blessed Saint Elizabeth!’ ‘Blessed Virgin Mary!’ ‘Blessed Saint Joseph!’”
They began to giggle, flinging themselves on the sofa and stuffing their faces against the pillows to smother the sound. Their mother’s sisters were old, had always been old; when the world was created they were old. There was Elizabeth with her contradictory stories, who kept holy relics in her purse and pressed them against her nieces’ foreheads. And Gretchen, who was simpleminded, though no one admitted it; they claimed it was merely bad memory brought on by some obscure sorrow. Both ate a great deal and were so fat that they did indeed have increasing difficulty in climbing the stairs, taking longer each year. Constanze had kept a record for the last three Christmastides.
Now from the depths of the pillow cushion Constanze gasped, “Oh what will they bring us this time! Dresses six years too small for us, moth-eaten shawls that stink of mildew! And they think bathing’s unhealthy so they never do it! Thank God we never have to go to their house.”
Sophie raised her shiny face and whispered, “No, they always come here; it’s been years since we went to Zell, where Mama and Papa lived and where they met. But it’s not nice to laugh at others. I’ll have to tell it in confession. I try not to, but you know, they’re ... so ...”
“... stupid ... and Papa says ...”
“... they smell like ...”
Now they were shrieking, and only their mother’s sharp call from down the hall made them stifle their laughter; but tears ran down their cheeks, and they careened into the pile of books, which finally tumbled onto the floor. Poking each other, they marched with contorted faces to fetch their quilts. When they could stop laughing but for a hiccup now and then, they knelt by the window, still not daring to look at each other, and shared a cup of cold, grainy coffee between them. The street wavered before Constanze’s eyes, and she lost track of how many times the sentry passed. Hours later they were awoken as the two older sisters burst into the room and opened the wicker basket they carried. Fruits and little creamy chocolates rolled across the top of the music table by the ink pot, and their father happily cried, “A triumph, a triumph!”
“Wolfgang,” came the murmur from the other room. “Wolferl?”
He grasped the pen, the small black marks on the page rushing forth, ink seeping onto his fingertips and into the crevices of his nails. His mother’s voice called again. “Wolfgang, do you hear? Are you still working on that Dutchman’s commission?”
He flung the words over his shoulder: “I’m well into the last movement.”
His mother coughed; and then, “You won’t make the flute part too difficult, will you, dear? He is an amateur, remember, and he does have pride.”
Mozart glanced down at the plethora of rapid notes. “Oh, he’ll manage to breathe somewhere,” he muttered, and for a moment he wondered where and how.
“For Christ’s sake, don’t catch a chill,” Frau Mozart called.
The rapid movement that had been inside his head was now slowly fading; it had flowed from his mind and now lay in cramped, rapid penmanship on the music staves before him. How many hours had he worked? He never remembered. If only I could finish it all tonight, he thought. The whole commission, second quartet, both concerti. If only my hand and eyes weren’t tired. He slumped slightly, one hand on the side of the newly dried ink markings, listening to the sound of late carriages and merrymakers rising up from the street.
After a time he drank some ale and began to gather the music pages. In the rooms below a girl was laughing. He recognized the strange quiet inside himself that always came after working for some hours.
In the next room, also by one candle, Frau Mozart sat up in bed with a portable desk across her knees; she looked up from her writing, her small eyes blinking. Then she closed her eyes for a moment, lips moving in relief, and returned to her letter home to Salzburg.
I wish you had come with us and did not have to remain in your wretched work for the Archbishop. Wolferl worked several hours tonight on the Dutchman’s commission, after two days of complaining how he dislikes writing for flute, particularly when it will be destroyed by the playing of an amateur like DeJean. However, three days ago he completed the first quartet and has promised to make a copy to send you; he wishes me to mention particularly the middle movement with the flute set against pizzicato strings. Two hundred silver florins for the commission when complete, husband! I thank God for our good fortune; this will pay for much.
Tomorrow we go to a private gathering of the best people, where Wolferl is to play for the dancing. We do not know if we will be paid. I still believe something will occur here to forward his talents. I hope he will get a commission for an opera, for a successful opera of all things will truly establish his name, or, if not, at least obtain the position of vice kapellmeister at the court. (The present one, they say, is not long for this world.) Meanwhile, we try to save money and dine out at others’ expense when we possibly can, and only have a fire while dressing.
Above all things I intend to keep him away from Augsburg. I still feel half sick to think of what might have occurred if I had not come suddenly upon your son and that wicked girl, her petticoats entirely raised above her thighs ...
To enter this establishment you opened a heavy door in an alley behind a group of stables and made your way at your peril down the steep, worn, centuries-old steps. Women were here, shrieking in laughter, sometimes suddenly throwing up their skirts to their knees, and in the dim light their white hose glimmered. Law students came, as did actors and poor musicians. Here Mozart came with his friend, the horn player Leutgeb, one week following the completion of the first flute concerto.
They had taken possession of part of a long table in the rear, where the air was thick with pipe smoke. Mozart’s shirt was open, and Leutgeb was pouring more beer. Leutgeb was also a native of Salzburg, where he played horn for the chapel orchestra; he was twenty-five, pleasantly fat and big, with a booming, raucous laugh that shook his whole body. His face was fleshy and never well shaven, as if to say to the world, See what an easygoing fellow I am!
“So you had your cousin with her drawers half down, you dog,” he cried above the noise of music and voices. “My God, Mozart, I’ll make you drunk until you tell me all of it. How much did you have of her?”
“Near to all, by heaven.”
“You were on the sofa at your uncle’s, and her hand was ...”
“Where I’d have it, friend, where I’d have it; but the story ends ridiculously. We heard the door open, and I raised my head over the sofa back; standing there was my own blessed mother. The high sofa back was between us; I’m sure she didn’t know how close we’d come. I thought she was out having her hat trimmed, by God, but there she stood.”
Leutgeb roared. “Devil take it, my cock would have fallen off like the handle of a cracked china cup if my mother had stumbled on such a thing.”
Mozart closed his small hands slowly, as if the girl’s flesh was within them, and leaned back like a prince leisurely surveying his domain. He said, “I won’t mince words with you; I won’t tell you anything but the truth. I could have had her all, I know I could have had her all, but my mother and I were leaving within the hour to come here, so I can’t sleep contemplating it.” He gazed intensely into the smoky air. “If letter writing were copulating, my cousin and I would have done it a dozen times. I tell you it was the best part of our stay in Augsberg! The orchestra there, my friend, could bring on cramps.”
Now he turned his head to study a few noisy students, and slowly leaned forward, arms on the table. “I mustn’t think about her,” he said seriously. “You led me on, you dog. I can’t become involved with a woman for a long time. They don’t want me to marry until I’m thirty. I must secure a decent income for my father, for without my earnings they’ll live wretchedly. I have to make good on the promise of my childhood.” He selected a bone with some meat left on it, and resumed eating.
“What promise?” the horn player asked, wiping his greasy mouth with a large white handkerchief. He thrust back his fair hair, which was already receding slightly.
“You know, you crazed shit! Here I am at one and twenty trying to live up to what I was as a little boy. My good, honorable father thought to make a future with me and my sister by taking us on tour all over Europe.” Mozart took Leutgeb’s handkerchief and wiped his own mouth broadly. “I was five years old when we began to tour, the protégé in a little white wig. Let me have that vinegar.”
Leutgeb slid the bottle adroitly down the table.
Mozart sprinkled it on the bone. “I’m told Empress Maria Theresa in Vienna took me on her knee and kissed me; I don’t much remember. Now my sister’s grown, and my father is back once more in Salzburg licking the arse of the Archbishop, in whose dismal employment he has earned his bread as church musician these many years. He hints I must return there and play organ for his Arch Grossness’s chapel for a pitiful stipend and eat at table with the cooks if I can’t do well here. What a fate; hang me first for a bastard thief.”
Leutgeb offered a bowl of onions. “We won’t have to hang you. I’ve found some work here; you will as well.”
Mozart shook his head. “Some work, but not enough. I’ve this flute commission, and maybe a mass for the court chapel. Unfortunately, I’ve grown up, and people still expect the darling prodigy. They don’t know what to do with a man below middle height whose nose is too big. I’m to play at the Elector’s palace in a week. God willing, he won’t present me with another gold watch, as Princes are inclined to do. I speak lightly, but I tell you, old friend, there’s a sense of urgency in me.”
Mozart began piling up the bones, absorbed, for a moment, as if it were a complicated game of chess he was playing for some great wager. Delicately balancing the top one, he drew in his breath as they all fell to a heap beside the onions, then turned away from them to face his old friend with a wry smile. “I’m much afraid if I don’t make enough money, my father will insist I return to Salzburg where I was born and beg the Archbishop to employ me as His Holiness employs him, when the truth is His Holiness loathes the sight of me and knows I despise that mangy, provincial town. I may go to Paris; I may remain here. In any case, I must succeed for my family. My parents and sister have always given their lives for me. Leutgeb, old friend, what a thing to have to repay.”
Leutgeb whistled for the boy to bring beer. Leaning on the table, he patted the young composer’s hand. “Come!” he said happily. “We’re young, why worry? Look, if music fails us, we can both retreat to my grandfather’s cheese shop in Vienna, and live on great mounds of the stuff, then invite the cousin and both share her. She seems to have enough to go round. Vienna is the most marvelous place in the world; this town is dung compared to it.” He thrust his arm around Mozart’s shoulders, and shook him lightly. “Does your family really expect you to live like a monk for the best years of your life? At least enjoy the society of women if you must keep your breeches buttoned for nine more years. I know some sweet girls here. I believe you said you’ve been to the Webers for one of their musical Thursdays. Two are little girls, but I tell you, Aloysia, the second eldest, is the loveliest apple cake with cream you ever saw; you could eat her in two bites and lick your fingers. But of course they’re good girls, and a decent man wouldn’t—” Leutgeb stood up suddenly. “By God, look!” he said, peering through the smoky room. “There’s a couple of pretty tarts coming this way. Don’t go home with them; they’ll make you sick (by God! I knew a fellow who lost his nose to syphilis!). Still, let’s buy them beer.”
And the girls rushed shrieking at them, feathers in their tangled hair, moist sweat beneath clustered powder on the skin visible above their low-cut dresses, one showing the edge of a hard, brown nipple. Beneath the smoke the two musicians and the girls in their faded dresses caught fingers. It was a dark, hot, secret world here, Mozart thought. One could be another man.
Twenty or thirty feet up in the street the constables walked, and some men and women made their way home from a lecture about freedom of thought and free love.
Yes, the flute quartet is exceptional, as is the little piano-violin duet he sent to Nannerl. His gifts blossom rapidly, so the amount of time we must be content to have you both remain in Mannheim must be carefully considered. If they do not recognize Wolfgang’s genius soon, I must suggest you travel even farther with him. I have enclosed what money I can spare, though things are dear. Our daughter wears herself out giving clavier lessons; she is a saint of God. The enclosed longer letter you will give to him: my thoughts on the flute quartet’s excellent middle movement and news of the latest musical intrigue as it will affect us, written in code. The world is a terrible place, one can get through it only being as somber a Catholic as one can and trusting in no man but those dearest to us.
Mozart was already several men, perhaps more than he realized, but the ones he knew well he kept strictly divided. The man who caroused in the cellar and closed his fingers around the whore’s brown nipple was worlds away from the serious young musician who meticulously put the finishing touches on his dress. As carelessly as he had eaten the beer hall chops, he now just as carefully buttoned on his shirt with the great lace, and his embroidered coat and breeches, each item of clothing unwrapped from under the more common cloth that protected it from the smut of the parlor fire and dust of the street. On his cheeks he dabbed the smallest amount of rouge. The white periwig had been newly brushed that afternoon. On top of that he placed his three-cornered hat, then descended the many dark flights of stairs to set off by foot for the palace, his low-heeled shoes tapping rapidly on the cobbles. A few flakes of snow were beginning to fall.
At the palace gates he made his way through the many arriving guests until a footman took him to a little room that was without any manner of fire. After a time he began to walk up and down, rubbing his hands together to keep them flexible enough to play. When he pushed back the heavy draperies, he could see the snow drifting outside the window and resting on the tops of the gates.
Rooms away he heard bright laughter; one servant rushed by with a basket of pale candles, and another wheeled a cart full of wines. Over the halls came the smell of hot food. By this time his hands were so cold he could hardly feel them. Then another footman poked his head about the corner and gave an exclamation of disgust. “Are you the music maker?” he snapped. “What are you doing here? Don’t you have the sense to go where the others wait?”
And you wait the very first in the line of the worse fools, Mozart thought. He clasped his icy hands behind him and followed the footman, who flung open a door to another small antechamber.
It was already occupied. An unusually tall young woman clutching a fan was striding up and down in a wide blue dress that she kicked out of her way as she went. In spite of her powdered- white hair, which was mounted over pads on her head, he recognized her as one of the Weber daughters who had sung duets a few weeks before in the little parlor. Below the low bodice, her waist was tightly corseted, and every now and then she took a deep furious breath, as if she could not get enough air.
He remembered how after his evening at her house she had run down the steps two at a time to return his mother’s purse, which she had left behind, then bolted up the same way. Tonight she seemed a great, wild creature imprisoned in whalebone and satin. Her powdered hair smelled of lavender and orange blossoms.
He bowed formally, and she curtseyed, keeping her head erect so as not to topple her hair. “I’ve forgotten which Weber sister you are,” he said.
“I’m the eldest, Josefa. My younger sister Aloysia and I are singing tonight. She’s talking to someone with our father in another room now. It’s our first time here. . . and you?”
“My first time in many years.” He lowered his voice and inclined his head to the sound of chatter from the nearby assembly hall and the scrape of chairs over the music of a string trio. “Tell me, did they listen when you sang, or did they talk the whole while?”
“Ah, you know how it is!” she whispered. “They ignore me, and I ignore them. There’s a great deal of food in there, and we haven’t been offered any. We left the house in such a hurry we forgot the basket my youngest sister packed for us. But this is only our fourth concert. They always talk, says my father, and they hardly ever consider that we might like to have a sip of wine or a bite of chicken.” They both became aware of the footman who stood by the door like a wax figure, wearing his shiny white wig and the trimmed livery of the Elector, and they lowered their voices.
When Josefa was called again, Mozart stationed himself by the crack of the door and looked over the brilliantly lit room filled with people seated on gilded chairs. The sisters stood as close together as their great skirts allowed. The candlelight shining through the few loose strands of powder-dusted hair made those tendrils look like white fire. At the clavier he could also see their father, the copyist Weber, bobbing up and down as he accompanied them in an Italian love duet. Their voices rose higher and higher. Aloysia moved her tiny hands; Josefa clutched her closed fan tightly. One voice was brighter and took the highest notes, which rang small and pure over the heads of the audience. Aloysia. Aloysia, Aloysia, the mother had called her, lovingly, chiding. He recalled the warmth and laughter of the large family.
He was the last to play.
He heard his name murmured, and then the sound of his heeled shoes on the floor. There were candles everywhere, and the smell of perfumed clothing and hair powder, and under it always the stink of perspiration. How accustomed he was to this walk, having entered such palace rooms all over Europe when he was so small he had to be lifted to the chair before the keyboard to play, legs clad in white silk stockings dangling.
They were looking at him now as they had then, quieter than they had been for the Weber sisters. Some remembered who he was, perhaps. And there in the center, in two high-back armchairs cushioned in red velvet, were the somber Elector of Mannheim, Carl Theodor, with his long, middle-aged face heavy from years of good eating, and his wife, Electress Maria Elizabeth, leaning her head on her hand slightly so as not to disturb her high cascade of powdered hair. Hand over his heart, he bowed. The majordomo stared straight ahead of him. “Herr Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart from Salzburg,” he intoned.
Mozart bowed again. “Si son Excellence daigne le permettre!” If his Excellence deigns to permit it! “Graciously begging your indulgence, I am most honored to present you with my new composition, a sonata in four movements in C major.”
A few more who had been speaking turned to gaze curiously at him. He seated himself at the clavier keyboard, gazing at the familiar length of black naturals and the white accidentals. Candles glittered in the wood sconces carved with roses. What was the instrument like? You never knew until you tried it; then, if keys stuck, or the action was slow, it seemed like your fault. Fridolin Weber’s playing had been stiff, and he had not been able to judge.
He rubbed his hands to warm them, then began.
Under his hands the instrument was responsive, and during the andante he could feel the two sisters watching him from the crack in the door. Someone was talking; he bit his lip and finished the last movement a little more quickly than he would have liked, then stood, bowing.
Elector Carl Theodor and his wife beckoned to him, and at once he went forward, kissing their perfumed, limp hands in turn. “Has it been truly fifteen years since you were here, Mozart?” the Elector said. “I recall you as a child with your ceremonial sword and your elegant court dress, hardly to my wife’s knee! Don’t you recall the little fellow, my dear?”
From a chair near them the Elector’s daughter stammered, “On ne peut pas jouer mieux!” No one is able to play better. She then added, “You told me of him, Papa!” Mozart smiled at her good nature, and kissed her freckled hand.
“Do you play yourself, my lady?”
“Un peu. Perhaps if you were remaining a time in Mannheim, you could give me lessons.” That will get me closer to an appointment, he thought, and kissed her hand again between the jeweled rings. “That would be a great honor, Gracious Princess!” Then the majordomo pressed a small velvet bag in his hands, and he bowed again, hand to his heart.
Just as a great silver tray of cakes was carried into the room he was shown out, his mind filled with the possibility of the lessons and the certainty of moving closer to a position. Still deep in thought, he saw the Weber sisters and their father had not yet left but were just now fastening their cloaks.
“Ah, young Mozart!” Fridolin Weber cried. “A pleasure to see you again. A fine piece, beautifully played. The guests seemed suitably impressed, as they should have been. Now, have you a carriage? No? We hired one to save my daughters’ dresses from the weather. Let us take you to your lodging. Where’s your music?”
“In my head, Herr Weber.” Through the window he could see how the snow was piling in the yard. “I gratefully accept your offer.”
“Come, my dears.”
The four of them ran through the snow and climbed into the carriage, squeezing together on the facing cushioned seats, for the width of the dresses took up a great amount of room. Both girls had to struggle to keep their heads erect. Slowly the small carriage, drawn by a weary horse, began to nudge its way through the many grander ones of departing guests; the air was filled with cries of “Make way, make way, make way for the Bishop, for the Countess!” A few hot bricks, surrounded by bundles of straw, lay on the coach floor to warm their feet.
Josefa reached behind her, tugged, and then sighed. “I hate and despise tight corsets,” she exclaimed. “If it were up to me, I’d sing in my dressing gown. Stupid, pretentious people! One man kept gaping at me until I thought his wooden teeth would fall in his wineglass. Hasn’t he ever seen a tall woman before? Now I’m truly starving—where’s the basket they gave us, Papa? If they hadn’t, I swear I would have slipped half a dozen chicken legs in with my music.”
“They have paid us, dear; we can’t ask for more.”
“Yes, darling Papa, and you played so well for us. Now, be the table chamberlain and serve us food.”
Fridolin Weber removed the linen covering from the basket and, holding it in the air like a waiter at the finest table, said, “We can’t eat if you won’t join us, Mozart. Will you? Good. Yes, when people make music, they must eat soon after. Come, reach in; there’s no ceremony here.”
Hurled against one another with every jerk of the carriage, the four of them pulled forth fowl, fish, and cakes, and sat back to eat as neatly as they could, sharing the linen basket covering as a napkin. The horses clopped slowly, and the road was crowded, rumors circulated of a carriage broken down a little ahead. Fridolin reached below the food and pulled out a few bottles of wine that they passed about, having no cups; outside the snow fell softly over the city and drifted in through the slightly open window to their laps.
Mozart glanced at Josefa as he passed her the bread. Her eyes were warm in her long, thoughtful face, and she laughed as robustly as she ate. Her nails were bitten to the quick, and she had a space between her front teeth.
Between mouthfuls, she demanded curiously, “Do you play in such houses often, Herr Mozart? The sort with twenty or fifty servants all looking as if they had died and been stuffed and then sewn dead into their livery?”
“More than I can begin to count, Mademoiselle Weber. Unfortunately, they have paid me as I expected they would.” Wryly, he extracted a gold watch from the velvet bag and let it dangle back and forth with the movement of the carriage. Now he was smiling. “I felt the shape of it when they presented it and withheld my groans. Can it be gold ducats, I asked myself. Ah no, said I.”
Aloysia had chosen only sweets, and she was now taking cautious bites from a piece of chocolate almond cake. Her blue shoe was half off her heel, showing her white stocking, slightly discolored with blue dye. Mozart looked at her curiously; so this was the one who was driving his friend Leutgeb from his senses. How little she was! Rather like a porcelain doll he had seen once in an empty anteroom on one of his childhood tours, sitting all alone in a large velvet-covered chair, her legs stuck out before her, her head to one side. He wondered if, should he ever pass that way again, he would find it sitting there still.
Her voice was light. “Herr Mozart,” she said.
“You mentioned when we met a few weeks ago that you had been in London as a boy to play the clavier. (I also play excellently; we all do but for our smallest sister, who wants to be a nun.) Father says you’ve traveled all about the world, to Vienna and Munich and Paris. But oh, Paris! Were you truly at Versailles?”
“I was indeed, mademoiselle.”
“Oh to see it! I think I should faint at even approaching such an exquisite court, the most civilized court in the world—walls trimmed with gold, porphyry, women in hair like sailing ships, or set with bird’s feathers, or with flowers! I’ve seen drawings in a book, and a dressmaker we know was once there. Is it true you played for the King himself?” Her lips were almost trembling. “And that, more, you’ve even seen Venice and the Grand Canal, the palazzo of the Doge? Does he truly walk under a golden umbrella? Can there be no streets but only water and bridges and gondolas gliding in the night? Mon Dieu, you have lived a wonderful life.”
“Some of it was wonderful, and some not,” he replied, his hand over the top of the wine bottle so it would not splash about. “I can’t be myself much of the time in such places, and most of the people I play to don’t listen or don’t understand my music. I’d rather make music with friends; if I didn’t have to earn a living, that’s all I’d do. I enjoyed playing at your house last month.”
“Sir, I thank you,” cried their father, his voice bright with wine.
Aloysia leaned forward, as if with the jolting she might fall toward him. She lowered her eyes as she spoke. “May I suggest, Herr Mozart, that you can afford to dismiss such things because you have them in abundance.”
“But sometimes these things are cold and unwelcoming, mademoiselle.”
“Do you think so? If you say so, it must be so, and certainly I wouldn’t know because, as a woman, I stay mostly at home. But even if we do, we’re highly educated in music. We’ve hardly ever been to school; we’ve lived just the four of us, with Mother and Father. Papa taught reading and writing at home, and of course we speak Italian and French, as any educated person does, but all this was secondary to music, wasn’t it, Papa? Mon Dieu, sometimes we have games to see who can play or sing the most difficult things at sight.” She wriggled the blue shoe so that it fell from her foot. Now she was laughing openly, joyfully. He could see her bare throat quiver under the opened cloak. It was unadorned: no pearl on a gold chain, nothing. “I always win.”
“You don’t always,” said Josefa.
But Aloysia’s thoughts returned to the previous subject. “I’m certain you’re mistaken, Herr Mozart! I’m certain I wouldn’t find living in such a beautiful palace as Versailles cold! I’d be lost at first in the thousands of rooms, but that would be for only a short time. Some kind nobleman would graciously show me the way. Imagine having servants to do everything for you, even dress you. Imagine having twenty dresses, and a personal chambermaid to wash your silk hose and brush your hair two hundred strokes every night.”
Josefa’s reply was sudden and severe. “Oh, there you go with your fantasies and great plans!” she said. “Tomorrow none of them will take down the family chamber pots and start the fire in the cold, but we will.” Her deep brown eyes darkened. She put one hand on her father’s arm, as if to comfort him, to say none of these wants were his fault. She sank back in the carriage shadows, drawing her cloak over her dress.
But Weber cried cheerfully, “There, there, who can say what tomorrow may bring? I repeat the maxim often; my daughters hear it daily, to their boredom! Here’s your street, Herr Mozart. Yes, tomorrow, we would much enjoy the pleasure of your company. May I expect you at seven? Very good, very good.”
The young composer climbed from the carriage and heard their voices as they drove away, “Good night, Mozart, good night, dear Mozart,” and then their laughter.…without a doubt, this is one of the best books I have read in the last year. (Teresa Basinki Eckford, Historical Novels Review) REVIEW A perfect harmony of fact and fiction. (Los Angeles Times Book Review)
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