Although much has been written about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, less is known of his older sister, Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart, commonly referred to as Nannerl. A genius in her own right, Nannerl is feted by society for her prodigious talents until the birth of her brother, father Leopold proud of his young daughter’s musical accomplishments.
It is a bitter pill for Nannerl, then, after a happy childhood shared with her younger sibling, the two indulging in childish fantasies and musical creativity, to be asked to step aside to promote the interests of the male heir to the Mozart name. The one time that Wolfgang announces that the composition he has just played was written by his sister, Leopold flies into a rage, demanding that Nannerl desist from ever composing music again, a gender-specific activity in 1770’s Salzburg.
To further prove his point, Leopold demands that Nannerl remain behind when father and son tour Italy. Moreover, it is her duty to take on wealthy piano students, remitting the proceeds to finance the tour. Deeply depressed, Nannerl caves under the weight of her disappointment.
Rescue comes in the form of a promising student, Victoria, who awakens Nannerl’s love of music, her protégé giving the teacher some semblance of contentment after her drastically changed fortunes. It is Victoria’s father who further inflames Nannerl’s imagination, leading her into another direction that at least allows Nannerl to survive the death of her hopes.
It is through Nannerl’s letters to Victoria’s father that her story is told, broken dreams embellished by a tragedy she hasn’t the strength to overcome. Nonetheless, Nannerl believes she has found resolution until Wolfgang returns, the relationship lost to years of estrangement and resentment. The unkindest cut of all, Nannerl stands accused: “You brutally killed your musical soul.”
Throughout the novel, Mozart’s sister struggles with the painful loss of her dreams as well as a shattered relationship with her brother, ignored by an angry father, left to pine away with no recognition for her talents. Nannerl’s choices are dictated by the times and what society will allow a woman to accomplish. While Wolfgang is feted, Nannerl languishes.
It is not surprising, then, that such a woman would rebel against expectations, even if her actions are misdirected and leave her without hope for the marriage she has dreamed of, her clumsy attempts at love grounded in naiveté.
In the end, it is Nannerl who secures Wolfgang’s legacy, years of separation forgotten in an effort to save his work for those who follow. This is the great torment of Nannerl’s soul: genius denied.