Maria Anna Mozart; a Prodigy Overshadowed by her Brother?
Why do we remember Wolfgang Amadeus when his sister seems to have been all but forgotten?
When we say “Mozart,” the vast majority of people will think of but one person: Wolfgang Amadeus. History has bestowed him with the title of genius par excellence. In his early childhood, he’d already written outstanding compositions, and his maturity led inevitably into realms of the purest sublime.
Less well-known is a parallel life. In reality, it was a life very close to that of Wolfgang Amadeus. It was that of his sister, Maria Anna, older than he and who, it’s been shown in recent years, would likely also have been called a “prodigy,” the status for which her brother has long been praised.
Among the testimony to support this premise are reviews of concerts given by the two Mozart siblings in 1763 in London. In particular, Maria Anna’s mastery of the harpsichord and the fortepiano was praised by both the public and by the critics, who mention the lightness and impeccability of her performance.
One of the few and most prominent of revisionists of this history is Sylvia Milo, an actress, and writer who spent years training as a violinist. One day, before a portrait which Johann Nepomuk della Croce had made of the Mozart family, Milo was stunned to discover that the genius Wolfgang Amadeus had had a sister, whom nobody had ever mentioned in all her years of music lessons.
From that day on, Milo undertook not only an investigation into Maria Anna Mozart but also a reflection on the place that women have occupied in Western music, especially in the composition of so-called classical music. Among other things, the actress realized that neither in history nor in practice did there seem to be any women composers. They were neither mentioned nor even included.
In her research, Milo found references such as the review cited above and others that confirm Maria Anna’s ability as a musician. Letters between Wolfgang and Maria Anna and their father, Leopold, make reference to the compositions of “Nannerl”, as she was affectionately called. These compositions, unfortunately, do not seem to have survived. Wolfgang, however, praised her ability and encouraged her to cultivate it.
Although history has been particularly averse to women and to the social development they were allowed in all periods, the 18th century was especially repressive. It was very limited, to put it mildly. Take, for example, Wolfgang Amadeus’ own operas, in pieces like Così fan tutte or The Magic Flute, and in which women can be little more than the lovers of male characters, mothers or wives. This was especially true if a woman belonged to a higher social stratum as had Nannerl.
Milo undertook the task of vindicating of the possible genius of Maria Anna Mozart. With the information she was able to gather about her life and abilities, she set up shop with the director, Isaac Byrne, and composers Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen, to produce a theatrical and musical piece called The Other Mozart. Success was notable on the stages of the United States and London. The show also draws attention to the notable absence of women throughout the history of music.
So, it is worth asking: how many other moments of genius and satisfaction, like those in the music of Wolfgang Amadeus, are being lost due to a general myopia when it comes to women’s creativity?
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