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In her brilliantly rendered historical novel, Stephanie Cowell transports the reader back to eighteenth-century Austria, when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was no longer a child prodigy but not yet a revered (or even successful) composer. There, in 1777, he first met the Weber family, and their four daughters, who would come to affect his life so deeply.
We meet young Mozart at his first introduction to the Weber family. There, in their crowded top floor apartment bursting with other starving artists, the Webers' doting but destitute father works intermittently as a music teacher and copyist while the oldest two teenage daughters sing in salons for wealthy patrons. Their meddling mother, desperate to make one of her daughters an advantageous match, sees their lives only in terms of marriage prospects and financial gain. But her daughters' passionate natures prove disastrous for her opportunistic plans.
There is Josefa, the eldest, whose large tomboyish frame make her a difficult match for her mother's matrimonial schemes, but whose rich dark voice inspires some of Mozart's greatest female roles (including the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute); Aloysia, the tiny, delicate soprano, whose astonishing if cold beauty captivates young Mozart and ultimately breaks his heart; Constanze, third in line and always in her sisters' shadow; and Sophie, the baby, idealistically devoted to her family and her faith, she hopes only for her sisters' happiness, and for herself, to enter a convent.
It's Sophie, as an elderly woman at the end of her life, who recounts this story of her sisters' passions, her own childhood, and the temperamental genius who loved each one of them and ultimately changed their lives:
"Yes, we're all there," I said. "All of us, you seeAloysia, Constanze, Josefa, and meall our moods, our sensuality, our youth. Whatever score you take upGiovanni, Cosi Fan Tutteyou'll find something of us. We're the playful girls, the lonely countesses, the abandoned women. I see myself in the chambermaid disguised as a notary, though alas! I never did sing, never could sing at all."
In Marrying Mozart, eighteenth-century Austria is re-created in vivid detail, from the quiet village of Mannheim to the thriving capital city of Vienna, bursting with artists, opportunities, and temptations. Its world of opera and privilege is filled with wealthy patrons and starving artists, demanding princes and fickle passions, inspired music and sumptuous gowns; where young girls dream of princes, fall in love with artists, but live for music and rich Viennese chocolates.
Stephanie Cowell is the critically acclaimed author of Nicholas Cooke, The Players: A Novel of the Young Shakespeare, and The Physician of London (winner of a 1996 American Book Award).
What sparked the initial idea for this novel?
I fell in love with Mozart when I was twelve years old; my father bought me a ticket to the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City to hear Le Nozze di Figaro. I had never heard any of Mozart's music and was so spellbound with the beauty that I did not leave my seat even during intermission and it's a long opera: well over three hours! I bought the recording and memorized the whole thing, and sang through it . . . all the parts, all the time! I read Mozart's family letters and several years later I traveled to Salzburg to see where he was born. I walked through those rooms in tears. I was so moved.
When I grew up, my love was divided between singing and writing. I sang many Mozart roles in small opera houses (I am a lyric coloratura soprano). I never expected to write a novel about Mozart though. One afternoon I was sitting in a lovely Viennese café in New York drinking coffee; it's called the Mozart Café, and the walls are full of pictures of Mozart. They were playing one of his horn concertos and I suddenly decided I wanted to write a novel about him, but a happy one in the spirit of his Figaro where crazy and sad and wonderful things happen, but somehow in the end it all turns out right and the characters come together singing as they do in the end of that opera. "This day of silliness etc. can only be happily concluded through love!"
What made you choose to write about Mozart and the Weber sisters at this specific time in their lives?
I wanted to write something happy. It was just four or five months after 9/11 and a family member was just returning to health after a serious illness. I wanted a book about people falling in love . . . what subject is more lovely? And Mozart was a very human man and needed someone to love him.
I knew about the four Weber sisters and that Mozart found a kind of refuge in their home. At that time he was twenty-one years old, no longer a prodigy, but trying to find a way to make a living with his music and still being supported from home, receiving scolding letters from his father back in Salzburg about how Mozart must do better and get on in life and please the right people. His family did not trust him to travel alone to try to find a way to make a living but sent his mother to chaperone him. And there were these four lovely young women from a musical family. Three of them sang and he wrote great music for them. And I thought: how did he end up marrying the sister he married because he could have married any one of them? So it was very much like music in the writing of it, how the different voices come in, duets and trios and quartets and all the string and wind instruments, and in the end somehow they sing together.
How much artistic license was taken with this story? How much is historically true?
I have to really think to answer that. The scenes in the novel are so real to me that it doesn't seem possible all of them might not have occurred just as I wrote them. (Josefa coming into her mother's kitchen wearing her father's old dressing gown and belligerently telling her mother and sisters really shocking news!) A lot of the story is true. There were four musical sisters, two did become famous singers and Mozart was engaged originally to the sister who broke his heart but finally ended up with the right one. We know something about their characters from his letters and from interviews the sisters gave when they were old women about their relationship with him. Mozart did travel to Mannheim, Munich, Paris, and Vienna, and was indeed physically kicked out of the palace of the small-minded Archbishop of Salzburg when he quit working for him. Constanze hid from her mother in the house of a countess, and the horn player Leutgeb owned a cheeseshop in Vienna. So, the major events of the novel are true, even some of the words, but I had to create most of the dialogue and scenes.
Several parts of the novel are recounted in lettersfrom Mozart, his parents, and the Webers. Do such letters exist?
There are many, many extant letters to and from Mozart but the letters in the novel are largely original writing, though they remain close to fact. Mozart's father truly was bitter about Mozart marrying one of the Weber sisters, so a lot of his anger and Mozart's evasiveness comes through in the extant letters.
Did other modern interpretations of Mozart affect your depiction of him? In your novel, you render him a chaste, loving, humorous suitor, whereas other modern works (most notably the Broadway play Amadeus and the subsequent Milos Forman film) depict him more as a womanizer and manic genius. What made you decide to render him in this different light?
In an actual letter to his father, Mozart begs to marry, saying "the voice of nature speaks loud in me" and claims that at twenty-five, he was still a virgin; he did not want to debauch an innocent girl and was afraid of diseases from whores. (Many people died of syphilis in those days.) I believe he did go to his marriage a virgin and rather made up for lost timehis wife was constantly pregnant and he wrote her the most wonderful erotic and tender letters! He flirted a lot before marriage, but most young men do. The Mozart depicted in Amadeus is seen through the eyes of Salieri who was then a crazy old man. (By the way, Salieri did not kill him, as suggested in Amadeus!) Mozart had a lot of nervous energy; he was playful and boyish, and he of course wrote very scatological letters to his family, but that was in keeping with the Austrian humor of the time. His whole family wrote such letters. By all accounts he could be a real cut-up with his friends, but in public he was so dignified and proud that if anyone disrespected or offended him, he would walk out. He was a small man fighting for respect for his gifts.
How did your own musical training as a coloratura soprano inform your writing?
Music is in every part of me. I hear cadences as I write, the way keys change, and music grows softer or is suddenly louder. I think like that. When I began to write a great deal, I stopped singing professionally and I missed that world so much. I was able to come back into it in the book and find it in a deeper way. There are certain things people do in life which have physically specific feelingsthrowing a baseball, baking, many things. I know what it feels like to sing difficult arias, how you breathe, what you do with your abdominal muscles and so on. Singers sometimes feel so emotionally at one with the music, it's as if they are creating it note by note on the spot. When Aloysia sings Mozart's difficult song at first sight, she wonders if it is her music or his. I was happy to be able to include that scene.
You depict the cities and opera houses with such vivid detail. Did you travel to Austria to write the book? How much of the book and its setting comes from your own experiences?
Historical novels for me are an interesting mixture of my own experiences and history. I have a scene where Mozart walks across the floor to the piano to play for the Elector at Mannheim and what the room feels like and what he feels from the audience. I sang so much that I know what it feels like when they announce you and you walk on and hear your footsteps. Yes, I traveled to Austria. I have stood in the cathedral (Stephansdom) in Vienna where Mozart was married, and years ago I visited that gorgeous little jewel box of a theater in Munich where he conducted his opera Idomeneo. I also read a lot of history and studied paintings and historical maps of the time. When I wasn't in Europe, I would call up my stepmother in Switzerland and say, "What side of the street is this on?" And she would tell me and then call me back and tell me something else. She is a great Mozart lover.
All four of your novels are works of historical fiction. What is it about this genre that fascinates you as a writer?
I have had an almost mystical connection with history and certain time periods since I was very young. I feel in a way I belong in those times and places. When I first started writing, I was very shy; I felt I could dare to express certain things only if they were set in another time. But I also have this odd connection . . . I look at an old door in a museum, perhaps cracked and from a fifteenth-century monastery, and start to think, "Who went through that door and what were they feeling?" And before you know it, I am standing there staring, hearing conversations and situations about people who are angry, or in love, walking through that door for many reasons. I remember wandering around the old city of London absolutely in a dream, not seeing the tall financial buildings, but the half-timbered houses of the time of Shakespeare. I stood so mesmerized on one street corner that some kind gentleman stopped and asked me, "Are you lost? Can I help you?" People are always asking me that. I'm not lost . . . I'm just someplace else. It just happens. And it's very powerful. I'm not quite here anymore . . . I'm there.
What authors or books inspire you?
I love so many authors and books, it's so hard to say. Each one gives me something else. I love Shakespeare and his sense of drama and his humanity. It would take me pages and pages to list all the books I love and why. I know Jane Austen had a definite influence on Marrying Mozart though I don't believe I have ever been influenced by her before.
What are you writing next?
I am finishing a novel about a young artist's model in France 1865 who fell in love with the twenty-five-year-old Claude Monet and in a complicated way, also with Monet's best friend Frédéric. It's sort of a love triangle, but more about finding where you belong in life and in art. It's about friendship. There are so many books I want to write! And in each, the people will be as real to me as my friends and family, which is why I am so eager to write about them and share them.
- How does the Mozart of this novel compare to your previous idea of him?
- Discuss how each of the Weber sisters in turn affects Mozart and his music. How does Mozart, his choices, and his passions change over the course of the novel?
- Of the four Weber sistersJosefa, Aloysia, Constanze, and Sophiewho do you think would have ultimately made the best wife for Mozart? Are you content with the choice he made?
- Much of the story rests on the fact that women were wholly dependent on their fathers and husbands for financial security. The fact that the two oldest daughters, Josefa and Aloysia, are able to earn their own incomes as singers made them more independent and rebellious than the two younger sisters. How do you think each of the sisters would have been different had they lived in modern times?
- Josefa and Aloysia are rendered as complete opposites from one another, and also from their younger siblings. Constanze is also depicted as quiet and reserved whereas Sophie is fearless and outgoing. Discuss the many differences between the girls, and the surprising similarities.
- What effect do Fridolin and Maria Caecilia Weber have on each of their daughters, for better or worse?
- Both the Weber girls and Mozart are expected to make advantageous marriages to help support their parents. Yet they are each desperate to make their own way in the world on their own terms. Discuss the role of duty between parents and children of the time.
- Discuss the rebellious nature of Mozart's choices. In leaving the security of the Archbishop and marrying for love instead of money, he makes risky and potentially disastrous gambles.
- How is different is Sophie (our narrator) as a young girl and as an elderly woman? What do you imagine her life was like?