Nannerl Mozart: Neglected Sister or Wolfgang’s Childhood Muse?

by Jacqueline Leung (MGBH)

At times, “history” has been interpreted as “his story”. Although the ancient French root of the word “estoire” does not point to this particular meaning, it is, nevertheless, impossible to deny that up until the late 19th and early 20th century, the majority of historical documents which have been preserved, passed down, and studied, were written by men. In music textbooks, we have been taught that the reason female composers are so rare is because of lack of educational opportunities with their only role being a mother and wife rather than having an option to also pursue a career path.

On several occasions as I raised the topic of Nannerl (OBM), the common reaction would be, “Mozart (OBM) had a sister? I never knew that!” When the word “Mozart” is mentioned, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is the name, which springs to mind and, perhaps, by relation, his father Leopold Mozart (OBM). Maria Anna, or Nannerl as was her nickname, is rarely mentioned. Alongside Wolfgang and Leopold, at most, there would be a sentence referring to her as “an accomplished musician”. What were the events that rendered her to become a mere minor figure alongside her superstar genius brother after being recognized as his equal during their childhood and teenage years?

Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart was born in 1751, four and a half years before the most famous musical genius known to mankind. She began musical training with her father, who taught her to play the harpsichord at the age of 7. Subsequently, when Wolfgang’s precocious musical talents began to manifest itself by the age of 5, Leopold jumped at the chance to display his two “wunderkinder” around Europe like a circus act, enduring all the discomforts of 18th century travel to perform for royalties and aristocrats in some of Europe’s most lavish palaces and noble homes. In a study of letters where Maria Anna’s name was mentioned, there was nothing but words of praise. In letters to his wife from Leopold Mozart, it is evident that many members of royalty and aristocracy remember Nannerl fondly and regularly asked her father to send her their best regards. In a particular letter home dated 3 February 1770, Leopold mentioned that Pietro Lugiati (OBM), a wealthy man from a Venetian family and an official of the Venetian Republic lauded his “astonishing daughter” as an “object of universal admiration” and, in particular, praised her “rare talents” (1).  In another account from Count Karl von Zinzendorf of Munich (OBM), Nannerl’s performance was described as “masterly” (2). In order for the two children to be displayed as a pair of “wunderkinder” and for the performances to garner such praise, it should not be presumptuous to assume that Nannerl’s musical skills were on par with Wolfgang’s, at the very least.

… her perfect insight into harmony and modulations when she improvises is so successful that you would be astounded.

Some may argue that the aristocrats and royalty who adorned Nannerl with such flattery and commendation were not professionally trained musicians and were, therefore, less discerning. However, in her father Leopold’s own words, he proclaimed her to be one of the finest keyboardists in Europe, and “her perfect insight into harmony and modulations when she improvises is so successful that you would be astounded” (3). Up till now, studies have concluded that none of Nannerl’s compositions survived. Yet, when we read Wolfgang’s letters to his sister, we find evidence that she did, in fact, compose. In a letter written while Wolfgang was on tour, he wrote, “My dear sister! I am in awe that you can compose so well…the song you wrote is beautiful” (4). And in another letter from 19 May 1770, evidently having reviewed his sister’s composition, he commented, “You’ve written a wonderful bass for it, without a slightest mistake” (5).

The siblings had been extremely close since childhood. Not only did they share a secret language together, which is evident in some of the letters, but they also imagined a kingdom where they ruled together as King and Queen. As Wolfgang grew, Nannerl also matured. Unfortunately, she had reached the age at which it was unsuitable for her to travel as a performing musician. Her gender meant that her role in society was bound. When she reached marriageable age, she was instructed to remain home for protection while Leopold took young Mozart to perform all over Europe. However, for a young girl who has travelled across Europe and performed in Paris, London, and the Hague in front of Louis XV (OBM), King George III(OBM), Queen Charlotte (OBM), and Johann Christian Bach(OBM), the homebound lifestyle would take a toll. In Leopold’s letters to his wife, it is apparent that he was very much concerned with Nannerl and asked questions such as, “Is Nannerl keeping busy practicing the harpsichord regularly?”(6).

As a musical genius himself who possessed skills and talent rising above so many, he had great reverence for Nannerl.

For a pair of siblings who shared stage time and musical language as well as so many travel experiences, separation proved to be difficult. There are often references in Wolfgang’s letters of him wishing for Nannerl’s company. He longed to hear from her everyday. As a musical genius himself who possessed skills and talent rising above so many, he had great reverence for Nannerl. He once wrote, “I said to Papa at once: Oh! If only I were as clever and wise as she is!”

Musically, apart from being on stage together, they were collaborators and inspired each other. Wolfgang’s Prelude and Fugue in C, K. 394 was written for her and his Divertimento in D major, K. 251, nicknamed the Nannerl Septet, was written for her name-day. He also frequently sent her his latest piano concerti. Examining earlier compositions, K. 16, Wolfgang’s first symphony, received help from Nannerl who was responsible for putting some of the music from pen to paper.

The most well known group of compositions associated with her name is the Nannerl Music Book (Nannerl Notenbuch), recently published by Henle Verlag (MGBH). These compositions date back to the years between 1759-64 and originally were comprised of 48 pages. However, only 36 pages survived to this day with 12 pages missing. According to historical sources, the notebook was compiled by Leopold who wrote pieces for the young Nannerl to practice. Within the book, there also are compositions by the five year old Wolfgang with the authorship of miscellaneous pieces not verified. They are currently categorized as “Anonymous 1, 2 & 3”. In light of this, is it rather inconceivable that none of her compositions survived? For a girl who most certainly possessed such a high level of musical skills, would it be impossible that she also had written compositions in her own musical notebook? And what course of events made those 12 pages disappear so mysteriously?

K. 16, Wolfgang’s first symphony, received help from Nannerl who was responsible for putting some of the music from pen to paper.

According to practices of the time, women would not be earning from a performing career. When Nannerl’s performing tours abruptly ended, she became a piano teacher in Salzburg. Her father dictated her marriage. She was forced to abandon her true love Captain Franz d’Ippold (OBM) and married the twice widowed magistrate Johann Baptist Franz von Berchtold zu Sonnenburg (OBM). When her first child was born, she left him in the care of her father Leopold who wished to train another musical child prodigy. Subsequently, she bore two daughters but both died – one at infancy and one at age 16. Was this the real reason why the shadow was cast over Nannerl which propelled her into oblivion for the rest of her life and in the textbooks of musical history? Was little Wolfgang engineered by Leopold to be the sole breadwinner of the Mozart family because Nannerl would not be able to provide?

Of course, it is not my intention to conjure up radical conspiracy theories, yet it could open the doors to some important questions. Was Nannerl Mozart’s voice stifled and were her wings clipped because she was born at the wrong time? Is it really plausible that even with limited opportunities for education no women had musical talents to match their male counterparts for the past hundreds of years? As I dug deeper into this, I could not help but ask, how many other women composers’ works may have been made to disappear and how many were published under a man’s name with their talents unduly neglected?

References:

(1) Davis, Elizabeth. “Was Mozart’s Sister Actually the Most Talented Musician in the Family?” Classic FM. 2 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 May 2016.
(2) Eisen, Cliff et al. In Mozart’s Words, ‘Maria Anna Walpurga Ignatia (Nannerl) Mozart’ <http://letters.mozartways.com>. Version 1.0, published by HRI Online, 2011. ISBN 9780955787676.
(3) Milo, Silvia. “The Lost Genius of Mozart’s Sister.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 08 Sept. 2015. Web. 18 May 2016.
(4) Rusch, Elizabeth. “Maria Anna Mozart: The Family’s First Prodigy.” Smithsonian. 27 Mar. 2011. Web. 18 May 2016.
(5) Scheideler, Ullrich. “Preface.” Piano Pieces from the “Nannerl Music Book” Berlin: G. Henle Verlag, 2014. Web.
(6) Scheideler, Ullrich. “Critical Commentary.” Piano Pieces from the “Nannerl Music Book” Berlin: G. Henle Verlag, 2006. Web.

 

About the author:

Jacqueline Leung is a Hong Kong based concert pianist and educator. She was trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She has performed on four continents and is in demand as a solo and chamber musician, lecturer and adjudicator. Alongside music, her passions include traveling and cooking. She also holds a MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong.

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