To me, Mozart is a god. I was brought up that way. My pianist mother played his music. My grandmother wrote a children’s biography dedicated to me and my brother. The Magic Flute is my favorite opera. And I didn’t much like Amadeus because Mozart is portrayed as a crude, childish oaf, almost an idiot savant.
Matt Rees isn’t an Amadeus fan, either. His new novel, MOZART’S LAST ARIA, presents the composer as playful, but also intellectually and politically sophisticated. Still, he does echo the Peter Shaffer play in turning Mozart’s death into a murder mystery. In Amadeus, rival composer Salieri engineers his nemesis’s final illness; in this book, during his last days, Mozart tells his wife, Constanze, that he is being poisoned.
"Music is notoriously difficult to capture in prose; Matt Rees tries valiantly, elegantly, and for the most part successfully to do justice to a composer who is regarded --- and not just by me --- as a deity."
In Rees’s story, however, the composer is already dead when the action begins, and the protagonist is a different Mozart: his sister, Maria Anna, known as Nannerl. I have had great compassion for Nannerl ever since I saw a French film called Mozart’s Sister and read about her thwarted ambitions as a pianist and composer. When she became too old to be trotted out with her little brother as a prodigy, she was married off to an older widower and stuck in a small mountain village. In MOZART’S LAST ARIA, Rees imagines that when Nannerl hears the news of Mozart’s suspicious death from her sister-in-law, she rushes to Vienna.
There, in a big, rich city teeming with schemers and actors and aristocrats, Nannerl breaks out of her pedestrian life. She is exhilarated: “I was cautious and thrilled, like an adventurer entering the heart of a forbidden civilization in some far continent.” Although she finds, to her own peril, chilling evidence about her brother’s demise, she also gets a chance to display her own musical virtuosity…and to have a romance with a charming baron. But can she trust him? Can she trust anyone in this hotbed of refined manners and deep deceit?
Rees knows from tangled politics, for he lives in Jerusalem and has written a mystery series featuring a Palestinian detective. Here he re-creates the Vienna of 1791, where certain fraternal organizations, notably the Masons (of whom Mozart was one), espoused libertarian ideals that made Austria’s imperial rulers uneasy. The Magic Flute especially is notable for its Masonic themes; The Marriage of Figaro is based on a famously subversive play. It had been only a couple of years, remember, since the storming of the Bastille. The French king and queen had not yet been guillotined, but the crowned heads of Europe had to be worried about their own necks.
Into this jittery milieu comes Nannerl. Although a consummate musician, she has led a conventional life in recent years --- nursing her father; tending to her husband, children, and stepchildren --- and at first she is a bit flummoxed by the urban climate in which she finds herself. But she did, after all, perform for royalty as a child and the poise learned early does not desert her now. Like her brother, she is accepted into the highest circles by virtue of her talent and the Masonic concept of equality (Wolfgang joined the Masons, one of his friends tells Nannerl, “to be the equal of those who paid him to perform his music”). Initially demure, she grows in confidence as she learns of her brother’s secret plan for a Masonic lodge that (gasp!) admits women.
But it is in the musical realm that Nannerl and her brother bond most intimately. Their souls seem to sing in tune. “Every note spoke to me like the voice of my brother when we had been children,” she muses after performing a concerto. “The joyous theme carried me to a sense of such complete triumph and life that I barely heard the applause.” From the supplementary material included with this paperback original, it’s clear that Rees is equally passionate about the music; he lists the specific works mentioned in each chapter and recommends recordings (excellent suggestions, by the way). He even structures the book around a particular piece, the great A Minor Sonata.
My mother practiced this sonata for hours in my childhood, and I, too (in my amateurish fashion), have studied it. Mozart wrote it in response to his mother’s death, and Rees calls it, rightly, “disturbing.” The opening Allegro maestoso, with its intimations of discord and violence, stands for Nannerl’s wild grief when she hears of Wolfgang’s death. The plangent Andante cantabile con espressione follows her as she investigates what happened to her brother. Unfortunately, I found this middle section of the book on the static side: too many scenes of Nannerl with one or another of Mozart’s friends, fellow Masons, and patrons (counts and princes and barons, oh, my!) in which she in effect interviews them about his death. In pursuit of his plot, Rees sometimes loses his characters. But things pick up during the lively and eventful final chapters (paralleling the Presto movement of the sonata).
If MOZART’S LAST ARIA never quite catches fire as brilliant fiction, it is nonetheless a very good read. Music is notoriously difficult to capture in prose; Matt Rees tries valiantly, elegantly, and for the most part successfully to do justice to a composer who is regarded --- and not just by me --- as a deity. Rees himself comes off in interviews as gently eccentric: “I write standing up, doing yoga stretches, and listening to Mozart,” he confides.
I think Wolfgang would have liked that.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 5, 2012