MUSIC / Talking to Aunt Mozart: As the 'Vote for Women' concert series ends, the composer Alison Bauld speculates about the fate of one of her predecessors
Saturday 10 April 1993
At least while you read these pages, it is important that you believe in their written truth. This is the story of my Aunt Nannerl, sister of the composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was my father. I, Franz Xaver Mozart, have been asked to serve as her interpreter during conversations with some English visitors. They, in return for my aunt's partisan recollections of my father, will show an appropriate gratitude that will appease their conscience about her enduring poverty.
I look across this shabby room. The walls have an incurable skin disease. In the shadows, damp, pustulant bumps erupt beneath the stripes of the paper near the corners of the floor. An odour of must and urine hangs in the air, mingling. My aunt sits stiffly against her rocking chair, accustomed to the mould and decay. She is old, cantankerous and frail, but garrulous with company.
'Why should I complain? I am alive. I have memories. My thoughts cannot stop running because I remember everything. I shall let no one else know that I can still see, hear, smell, feel think. It is our secret. These other people do not really want to know the truth about me. They are strangers. But you are my family. I shall speak softly and you may tell them as little or as much as you wish.
'I shall tell you about the lace caps and ribbons, the hours of scales with a stick stuck up my back, the longings that I carried in my head or in my thighs. I will tell you how well I practised my galanteries and how such precision was greatly praised. Your father said that a woman of talent plays with more sensitivity than a man. How strange. I just thought it was me.
'As for my appearance, you will judge it for yourself, although I am told that my frisure - this elegant bird's nest - is more auburn than grey, and that these eyes, now covered with skin like a sausage, are without colour. I am stooped as a widow, yet my tomb must not be small.
'I could play the clavier for you, but my fingers are feeble from lack of exercise and my right thumb has a large lump below the knuckle which aches when it rains. An impromptu sarabande might sound more like a minuet for a lame donkey. The concert would destroy any spell for those who regard me as my brother's sister, even if it is a fact that I played better than he.
'However, there was little in it. Jack Pudding was so 'small, thin, pale, and entirely lacking in any pretensions as to physiognomy and bodily appearance.' People thought him younger than he was, although we were prodigies together, until Papa considered I was too old.
'What is more, Papa regarded my increasing height and swelling body as symptoms of my destiny, from which neither he nor I could escape. This man, your grandfather, alternatively foresaw my death in childbirth, or worse, my life as a fat, beribboned female, indifferent to the pleasures of counterpoint and modulation.
'The idea of my obscurity repelled him because it was an inevitable, natural, social rebuffal of his will, and he hated to let go of a bone. I saw the sour disappointed look, the shrug in his shoulders that was always there as he listened to me play - this man, my father, who would leave the music-room, howling for Jack Pudding whenever my performance achieved perfection - this man, your grandfather, whom I loved and who loved me.
'On 13 December 1769, they left for Italy without me. I practised my scales until I ached all over and then I realised it was really toothache, not heartache or finger ache or arse ache, and my whole face swelled up so that Mama was provoked into saying that I really looked like the trumpeting angel.
'At this moment of considerable pain, I perceived a future in which my brother's name would be enshrined and mine would be forgotten. With this understanding, I carefully placed all my compositions in the bottom drawer of my father's desk. Aut Caesar, aut nihil. For quite some time, I felt I was nothing.'
A LETTER FROM BROTHER TO SISTER: Rome, 7 July 1770
'Cara Sorella Mia]
I am amazed to discover how well you can compose. In a word, the song is beautiful. Try this more often. Send me soon the other six minuets by Haydn. I beg you farewell.
PS My compliments to all my good friends. I kiss Mama's hand. Mademoiselle, j'ai l'honneur d'etre votre tres humble serviteur e (sic) frere.
Chevalier de Mozart
Addio. Keep well, and shit in your bed make a mess of it.
Nannerl had not faltered once in reminiscence, although there was a calculated pause of triumph before she uttered the opening words of her brother's letter: 'I am amazed to discover how well you can compose.' Her eyes, like milk jellies behind their cataracts, sought mine across the room and for a moment it seemed to me that she could actually see, such was the force of their expression.
The tuberose fingers of one hand were pressed deeply into the crack of her lips, then fell back into her lap to clasp the others, as if to signal that she had said enough. Those ghostly eyes were now closed and in the stillness, I could hear her wheezing softly. The English visitors had not stirred. They sat like twin porcelain figures on the window seat, an incongruous luxury in this bare room. They were waiting for me to translate.
'My aunt is tired by her exertions. Perhaps we may discuss her recollections at another time?' I was infected with the venom of my own malice and could not imagine how it would end. In response, the china gentleman caressed his polished chin with slow, contemplative strokes. His voice was as deep as Sorastro.
'Of course my dear sir, we are entirely reconciled to wait at both your convenience and that of your aunt in this matter. Indeed we understand the necessity for tact and consideration. Think of us as painters wishing to capture an image on a canvas. My wife and I would be happy to return tomorrow, or whenever you wish.'
He spoke one thing but meant another. I could hear the disappointment in his voice and I noticed the anticipation of defeat in the sharp, staccato manner in which his wife closed her fan. We left the room together as Nannerl began to snore.
ARIA: April 1993
Long before I gave thought to the plight of Nannerl Mozart, I had developed an indignant, often belligerent response to those who categorised me as a female composer and sought my thoughts on the subject. It is true that as a 'woman composer', I have sometimes felt like a minority specimen about to be pinned under glass and assessed as an oddity. We were vastly outnumbered as a sex 20 years ago, but why should we need to ascribe gender to ourselves when male colleagues are called composers, nothing else?
Do we move on, in the manner of feminine and masculine cadences, to music which has sexual attributes? I have heard some compositions dismissed as lacking 'balls'. These pieces had been composed by men. Can genitalia be relevant unless they are seen as emblems of some masculine or feminine predisposition for a subject?
As I write, I hear Elisabeth Lutyens grunting from another world, mischievously, and with such seductive malice, urging me to discuss the nature of homosexual music and thus bring a balance to the subject. But it is time for me to squirm as I remember past, public declarations that I have never been the victim of discrimination in my profession. Perhaps I should have added 'knowingly.' Every time someone states with triumph in their voice that there are no great female composers, we are the victims of discrimination, prejudice and historical ignorance.
So why do we lose balance? Because we have had it stacked against us from the beginning. Ever since women first composed lullabies to send their children to sleep, they have endured taunts that 'this' is all they were ever designed to create - children, not lullabies. Now I am aware of some new optimism looming and we can stop worrying about nomenclature. Unlike Nannerl Mozart, the answer may lie with middle-aged females who are on the cusp of some new, overdue emancipation. Forget the implications of the contraceptive pill - to have or not to have a family is a separate problem to be resolved by the individual. After all those vicissitudinous, hormonal years, with or without child-rearing, what freedom lies ahead.
I have a vision of a horde of invigorated, post-menopausal women, composing divinely, their output increasing, their quality not in doubt, but depending upon longevity. As we cease to be a minority of females amongst males, the need to distinguish us by gender will at last seem irrelevant.
The Preambulum is fiction, but the letter from Wolfgang Amadeus and the Aria are not. Nannerl Mozart lived in or on the edge of Salzburg for all her adult life. At 32, she married a magistrate of St Gilgen, Johann von Berthold zu Sonnenburg. They had two daughters who died in infancy and a son who survived them both. After the death of her husband in 1801, she resumed her career as a piano teacher in Salzburg. In 1829, she was visited by Mary and Vincent Novello, who described her as feeble, lonely, blind and impoverished. Mozart's younger son served as their interpreter during these visits and she died in October of that year at the age of 78. None of her compositions has been found. - Final concert in the 'Vote for Women' series is at the QEH tomorrow, 7.45pm. Alison Bauld is a composer and teacher
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