May/June 2009 issue
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In Mozart's Shadow: His Sister's Story by Carolyn Meyer; Harcourt Children’s Books: New York, 2008; $17.00
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was gifted in music beyond imagination. He was a genius, a prodigy. He is remembered and respected by thousands of people all over the world as one of the greatest composers. But no one remembers his sister, Nannerl Mozart. She was almost as talented as Wolfgang, but she was a girl. Possibly the best harpsichordist of her time, Nannerl was pushed away from her musical dreams to make room for her brother’s brilliance. As children, Wolfgang and Nannerl sat for hours, side by side, at the harpsichord, making music together. At one point in Carolyn Meyer’s book, In Mozart’s Shadow, Nannerl says, “My brother might tease me about almost anything but he never said a critical word about my keyboard technique. I adored him for that.”I found In Mozart’s Shadow to be a rather sad, yet compelling story, not because of death or tragedy, but because Nannerl had more disappointments than joys. Her one solace was her music. I have had three very disappointing piano teachers, causing me to lose joy in my music. But reading Nannerl’s story and how she loved making music has inspired me to love playing again. I live in a pretty, small town, not as ancient and refined as Salzburg, Austria, where the Mozarts lived, yet like it in some ways. Sometimes when I am at home, I feel caged and isolated, and when I am away from home, I miss it and realize how wonderful it is. In the story, Nannerl Mozart can never achieve her full potential living in Salzburg, but she yearns for it when she leaves it.
The character I could not make up my mind about was Nannerl’s father, Leopold Mozart. He was a devoted teacher to his children and he took them all over Europe. They traveled to the courts of the greatest powers of the time, to entertain the nobility with their extraordinary playing. But soon Leopold gave all his attention to Wolfgang and forgot his daughter until the end of his life when he needed her. I have conflicting feelings about Leopold; I can see why he would give up his talented daughter for his brilliant son. However, to leave Nannerl behind when he took Wolfgang to Italy, and not give her her chance, was awful. Leopold loved his daughter, but she was a girl, and her only respectable future in his eyes was marriage. The father and son traveled to Italy numerous times, where Wolfgang studied music. Yet Wolfgang resented the never-ending control of his father and he longed to break away. Probably all of us have known someone who grew up too closely tied by their parents and when they broke free they became distant or moved away, fearing to be fettered again. So it was with Wolfgang.
My brother and I often play with dolls. We can spend hours making up stories for the dolls to act out. Nannerl and Wolfgang did a similar thing with chess pieces. As they played the game of chess, they would make up stories for the pieces to live out. Nannerl often felt that she and Wolfgang were two halves of one person, and when they played together they became whole.
I thought Carolyn Meyer wrote a beautiful story about people who really lived. Through the eyes of Nannerl Mozart, the characters struggle and achieve, living out their lives with both sorrow and joy.