Women’s History Month: Mozart’s Muse

Women’s History Month: Mozart’s Muse

This piece, in a series of posts highlighting women in history, comes from Vivien Shotwell, author of Vienna Nocturne, a fictionalized account of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and soprano Anna Storace, his muse.

In reading about Mozart, and studying his letters, and listening to his operas, it’s hard not to come away with an impression of his great respect and love for women. Although he lived in a time when women had little freedom, and were often poorly educated, he had a warm relationship with his mother and with his brilliant older sister, Nannerl. Nannerl in her own right was an extraordinarily gifted pianist, but she was not allowed, by her father or by society– so at least is my impression — to perform in public as an adult. She lived with her father in Salzburg until finally she made the only sort of escape open to her, marrying a widower in the country with five children and an untuned piano. Had their positions been reversed, had Wolfgang been the girl and Nannerl the boy, so much would have been different, and Mozart could not help but to have known this.

The women in Mozart’s operas are often strong, opinionated, and intelligent. Nowhere is this more true than in the character of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro.  Susanna is one of the longest roles in the soprano repertoire and demands great vocal and theatrical energy. She teaches the men of the opera to sing to her tune, escapes the lecherous predation of the Count, and remains, throughout, loving, clever, and true to her purpose and desires. Much credit for this strong character is due to the sparkling libretto, but Susanna’s spirit and wit also shine through every note of Mozart’s music, which he composed for one of his favorite sopranos, Anna Storace, the heroine of Vienna Nocturne.

I first came to Anna’s story through a delightful concert aria Mozart wrote for her, for which he played the obbligato piano part. The aria suggested to me feelings of admiration, high esteem, and perhaps even of love. Once I began my research about Anna, I realized why he must have felt that way. It was a privilege to imagine her life and to learn about her story. At a young age she gained wealth, celebrity, and an extraordinary degree of independence, even while she was also struggling against an abusive marriage and the pressures of the expectations of society. Anna found freedom, employment, and adventure in a time when young women had little of these things, and she did it through her own strong determination, and her skills and hard work as an actor and musician. Little wonder that a man like Mozart, with his remarkable sister and his impatience for dullness and convention, would have loved to know someone like Anna. For him, as for me, she was inspiration of the happiest kind.

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