Mozart's Women: His family, his friends, his music, by Jane Glover

Trio for triumph and tears
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The Independent Culture

Mozart's Women, as its title suggests, is concerned with the three most important women in his life: his mother, Maria Anna, whose cruel death he witnessed; his sister of the same name, who was always known as Nannerl; and his wife Constanze. He nursed an unrequited passion for Constanze's older sister Aloysia, and his first serious infatuation was for his cousin Maria Anna Thekla, to whom he wrote letters replete with sexual innuendo.

Glover has rescued each from the indifference and, indeed, ridicule of posterity. Wolfgang inherited none of his father's misogyny, which was of the comparatively mild kind. Leopold Mozart looms large in most biographies, and rightly so, because of his unlimited ambition for his extraordinary son. Glover shifts the perspective to demonstrate that the uncommon empathy displayed by Mozart in characters such as the Countess and Susanna, Zerlina and Despina, Donna Elvira and Donna Anna, has its roots in the real world.

His titled ladies and his servants - aided and abetted by Lorenzo da Ponte's incomparable libretti - are wonderfully differentiated. His men - even the cynical Count Almaviva and the heartless Don Giovanni - are portrayed with the same keen insights into class and upbringing. The words and music cohere in a way that has never been equalled. Glover is right to remind us that such insights don't come from nowhere, and are not the result of sheer inspiration. In her pioneering study Mozart the Dramatist, Brigid Brophy argues that Mozart is as shrewdly observant as Jane Austen - a view that caused some tut-tutting in 1964 - and the judgment makes absolute sense.

It is impossible to read Mozart's Women without being deeply touched by what it reveals of the people closest to the composer. His sister Nannerl is especially affecting. For a short time in childhood she and her brother were virtually indistinguishable in musical ability, and the harmony between them went far beyond the keyboard. When they were separated, Wolfgang wrote her playful letters filled with private jokes, silly words, scatological references. "The door to this wonderland was slammed in her face in her late teens," Glover observes with undisguised sadness.

Nannerl was denied a performing career by the "dictatorial" Leopold. She was in Salzburg when her beloved mother died suddenly, in Paris in 1778, and for a while took Maria Anna's place in the home, seeing to the immediate needs of father and brother. But as Wolfgang's fame increased, she ceased to be a participant in his music making and could only look on from the sidelines.

Glover sees her marriage at the age of 33 to the twice-married Johann Baptist Franz von Berchtold zu Sonnenberg, whose wives both died in childbirth, as an act of desperation. Nannerl became stepmother to his five surviving children. Berchtold, who was then 48, proved to be as domineering as her father, and the unruly stepchildren made no attempt to hide the fact that they resented her presence.

The family moved to the remote country town of St Gilgen, to the very house in which her mother was born, and Nannerl was cut off completely from the society in which Wolfgang was now flourishing. She gave birth to a son, another Leopold, entrusting him to the care of his grandfather for the first year of his life. Matters improved when she was widowed and could return to Salzburg.

Glover believes that Constanze has been unsympathetically treated by biographers, and takes pains to redress that imbalance. She has not been forgiven for her failure to accompany Mozart's coffin to the cemetery, and for the fact that the grave was raked over in order to accommodate other paupers. She outlived her husband by four decades, and in 1826 saw through publication the unfinished biography of Mozart by her second husband Georg Nissen, after the latter's unexpected death.

Glover is in no doubt that Mozart loved Constanze unreservedly, that theirs was a union of immense devotion and concord, and that its early truncation was brutal. That devotion manifested itself in her determination to keep Mozart's reputation alive as a new century progressed. Who can know what was going through her tormented mind in the hours and days following Mozart's early death?

This is a story of success achieved against often impossible odds, of too many deaths in the midst of life, or sudden wealth and just as sudden poverty. Mozart's miraculous existence is not accountable solely in terms of patrons, musicians, and the fierce pushiness of Leopold. Glover's book is part-biography, part-masterclass. She is an authoritative guide to the operas in particular, having conducted them at Glyndebourne. She has been obsessed with Mozart since childhood, but she doesn't let her obsession lead her into romanticising him.

He remains the dirty-minded enfant terrible, yet one whose understanding of the human heart is on a par with his musical gifts. He not only loved women; he enjoyed their company and relished their individuality. I am speaking for myself when I say that the closing scene of The Marriage of Figaro, with everyone seemingly reunited and all the loose ends tied up, always reduces me to tears. You know, even as you watch and listen, that the Count and Countess will have future problems, and that Susanna will have her work cut out with Figaro. These are immortal creatures, and one weeps for their transient happiness and its glorious expression.

Paul Bailey's 'A Dog's Life' is published by Penguin

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