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*Marrying Mozart* by Stephanie Cowell - author interviewAn Interview with
Stephanie Cowell

Interviewer Luan Gaines: I found your novel Marrying Mozart fascinating. What drew you so specifically to the early years of Mozart’s life?

Stephanie Cowell: I find the formation years, the years of struggle, fascinating in a young artist. The art is strengthening and the personality maturing. Only a few people in Mozart’s life were wise enough to see the depths of his gifts at the time of the novel; he was no longer the darling little prodigy in the white wig but a young man of twenty-one who could not get enough work to support himself. This was also the period of his really wanting to be in love. He was surrounded by beautiful young women, particularly the four lovely Weber sisters whom he met in 1777 in Mannheim, one of whom he would marry. Which one would he marry and how?

In the novel, the youngest sister, Sophie, has boxes of letters written by her sisters sixty years earlier. In your research when writing the novel, did you have access to such documents?

No, most of these letters are lost. I was referring in this case to the love letters the 22-year-old Mozart wrote when he was in Paris to his then fiancée, the sixteen-year-old Aloysia Weber who was such a gifted young soprano. He was very taken with her. He wrote to her a lot but to my knowledge only one of his letters to her survives and none of hers to him. Perhaps, as indicated in my novel, she didn’t bother to write him as often as he would like. She was mad at him because she wanted him to make more money by taking a position in the French court, and he didn’t see that as his destiny.

Speaking of research, Marrying Mozart is rich with historical detail. How did you immerse yourself so beautifully in the European landscape of 1777?

The immersion was over a period of time and from innumerable sources. I first went to Salzburg many years ago and have read the Mozart family letters since my adolescence. I read many history books. I feel a bit like a cinematographer when I write, panning in from above in a street scene. I used things like the taking down of the chamber pots every morning to create the details of the sisters’ lives. I remember clearly working on the scene in a Viennese mansion when Mozart comes into a large music room where a symphony has just been played. He wants to make some contact with the Court Opera Director, hoping to receive a commission for one of his own operas. I kept thinking again and again what he would see and hear and smell when he entered that room…the smell of grease the women used to hold their hair in place, the audience chairs pushed back this way and that, a violin bow on the floor near a music stand. I read a lot of history and thought a lot, but to be real it all has to be through the character’s emotion. Mozart enters this room in which he would like his own work to be played, and he knows he’s nobody in particular to them but that he has this burning talent.

Then there’s the multi-lingual ability. Every educated native German speaker also spoke Italian and French. French in particular was considered more cultured. They would send pattern books of the latest Parisian styles to Vienna.

Were such musical homes as the Weber’s common in society during those years? Regardless of financial circumstances?

Most educated people then were musical; music was one of the main entertainments. Every little restaurant had a few instruments. Before television, computers, CDs, radios etc., if you wanted amusement you read or went to hear theater or a concert or opera. And so there were a lot of professional musicians and since every nobleman had his own orchestra and every decent church of reasonable size had its own orchestra and choir, there was a lot of work. It wasn’t necessarily very well paid work, but there was a lot of it. Most music was copied by hand; only some was printed. For the Weber’s, music was the family business; in the case of the father Fridolin, it was his love and ideal. He couldn’t live without it. And then the 21-year-old Mozart walks into Fridolin’s Thursday musicale, and Fridolin Weber knows at once that this is an unusual talent.

Obviously, music enriched the lives of the Weber and Mozart families, when they had little else. If not born to a wealthy family, what were the prospects of actually making a living through music?

You could make a living, as I said above, but you wouldn’t make a good one unless you got a good position. Salieri was talented enough and managed to get a good court job but it also took the ability to be quite political. If you didn’t get a good living, you played in church orchestras, and copied music, and taught lessons cheaply. Someone born to a wealthy family would more likely be a talented amateur. It was from such amateurs that Mozart had some of his commissions. In the early part of the novel a Dutch flautist has commissioned some music from him, but Mozart, being obsessed with Aloysia Weber, never completes the work. His father, who was supporting him from Salzburg, went crazy!

My first mental association with the Weber girls was Little Women. But these young women are unable to hold their family together in dire circumstances. The obvious difference is the role of the mother. Why/ why not?

Several people have associated the Weber girls with Little Women, possibly because there are four sisters, they’re poor and the oldest girl in both cases was a bookish, tall, rather rebellious girl called Jo (Josefa or Josy in my book, Josephine or Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s novel). Amazingly, the real Josefa Weber was also large and clumsy – so I had to go with that! But only the two younger Weber sisters wanted to hold their family together. In Little Women, the mother and father’s main teaching is religious, devotion, service to others; they go to bed reading A Pilgrim’s Progress. The Weber sisters go to bed poring over their mother’s “book of suitors,” with names of all the rich men she’d like her daughters to marry. So the family values aren’t quite the same! And then the father, Fridolin Weber, dies and each girl needs to go her own way as best she can, because their mother is wretchedly impossible.

*Marrying Mozart* by Stephanie CowellBoth Frau Weber and Frau Mozart had very specific agendas for their children. In a male-dominated society, how were these two women able to rule their families?

That’s an interesting question, Luan! Frau Weber ruled the life of the girls more because her husband was easygoing and gave in to her wild matrimonial plans for them even when he did put in his two cents…and then he died, and left it all to her. Frau Mozart and her husband, Leopold, Mozart’s parents, were much in accord: their son Wolfgang must not get involved with any woman who would cost him money and not allow him to scale the ladder and support them.

The older sisters, Josefa and Aloysia, are close, as are the younger, Sophie and Constanze. How was Aloysia able to break away from the family, while Sophie and Constanze’s emotional bond is never really severed, even when Sophie enters the convent?

Aloysia was a self-centered girl, but she was taught to be self-centered by her mother…to display herself, to make a good catch. All that nonsense created by her mother of marrying a baron when they are so poor! She wants wealth and recognition for her talent and beauty, and gets tired of waiting for the struggling Mozart. Josefa is very independent, but constantly made second by her mother to the more beautiful Aloysia, so she creates a rather wild secret life. The four girls’ bond is to what their papa, who taught them music, wanted them to be, and they are each true to themselves. I think the two younger girls have more invested in recreating their lovely childhood when all the musicians came on Thursday evening and their father who was such a good host loved them so. But the real talents of Sophie and Constanze are family and human relations. They don’t want to be performers; they want to be close to those they love. And in the end, surprisingly, Josefa is more like them.

Religion plays a huge role in the Weber’s lives, yet when circumstances warrant, each girl acts contrary to her strict beliefs. Is this a consequence of willfulness or the poverty that is their constant companion?

All four girls are naturally religious, though Aloysia doesn’t let it interfere with what she wants…and even religious girls act on hormonal impulse, and do things their priests would frown on. There was religion and then there was life. They keep them in separate pockets when needs be as do many people.

Mozart is expected to use his talent to provide for his family, after all their sacrifices for him. Is this a common occurrence at the time, that whichever family member achieves position is responsible for the rest of the family?

Prior to recent history, a man would naturally take care of whoever needed taking care of in his family. Eighteenth-century people were not as separate entities as we are now and many grown children, when they could, provided financially for their parents. I think Mozart, who musically continued to share so much with his father, Leopold, would have continued to help him gladly; he had a generous nature. The problem was Mozart had now grown and needed a wife and his own life. He wasn’t just his father’s creation and his father wouldn’t recognize that Mozart was an adult. Some historians believe that Leopold Mozart was not poor at all, having made a fortune from his son’s performances during their tours when the Wolfgang Mozart was a child prodigy.

The Weber family operates on a similar assumption: whoever marries first and well, must provide for the others. Yet Aloysia is inconsistent, at best, when sending money home. Do females bear less responsibility in this area compared to males, like Mozart?

Aloysia’s husband had a contract with Frau Weber, Aloysia’s mother, to send a certain sum every year because the Weber parents had provided for her during her training…they were not supposed to lose the financial benefits of her earnings. Aloysia was inconsistent in many ways! No, the responsibility was on women as well as men…it was considered shameful to just go off with your spouse and forget your family. One of the reasons Frau Weber wanted at least one of her girls to marry very well is that she would also be uplifted in social strata…riding in carriages, served hot chocolate by the maid, moving in with her now fortunate daughters for months at a time.

Fridolin Weber’s death is devastating to his daughters and his wife. In what ways do the daughters act out their loss of their father?

Aloysia spins out of control into selfishness and drops Mozart, making another relationship she would later regret. Josefa begins to live a rather wild life and tell many more fabricated stories to gain the attention she loses when her beloved father dies. Constanze almost gets herself in terrible trouble with a man and Sophie almost commits her life to a nunnery. All this makes it sound like Marrying Mozart is heavily written…it’s not. But like a Mozart opera, there are all sorts of minor keys and sadness underneath the fast stories, and suddenly the depth of the characters appears.

You do an excellent job of illustrating family dynamics, as the sisters become women and yearn to escape their unhappy home. Given the time and place of the story, would their behavior be considered outrageous? How would their individual reputations affect their marriage prospects?

An 18th-century man would not easily want to marry a girl who had lost her virginity; she would be considered damaged goods, and who knows whose child she might be carrying, whom he would then be forced to support? Of course, this dynamic is still true in many cultures today and many areas of our own culture. I think many writers of historical fiction and in historical movies do not understand the huge thing it is for a girl to lose her virginity before marriage and not marry the man! When they are going to the Elector’s palace to sing for the first time, Aloysia warns her sister Josefa not to let the men feel her “for you don’t want to be damaged.” And in the scene where they steal their mother’s book of suitors, they talk seriously of virginity: “Every good girl knew that she must withhold until certain conditions, financial and social, were met….” Mozart has a fit when he understands that Constanze let a man measure the plumpness of her lower leg at a party. This scene was based on a real letter to her.

Much has been written about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his career and his womanizing. Yet you portray him, at age twenty-one, as kind and thoughtful. How did you decide upon this interpretation of the young composer?

My reading of him was kind and thoughtful to those he loved and I believe he went to his marriage in his middle twenties still a virgin. He talks about this in a letter to his father, pleading to be allowed to be married…he says he has too much respect for himself and a good woman to sleep with one, and a great fear of disease from whores and that the “voice of nature” speaks very loudly in him. He knew people dying horribly of syphilis. As a very sexual man (his wife was later constantly with child and he wrote her very tender letters) this must not have been easy for him. He was a religious man also. Yes, he could flirt…who doesn’t? Then there were his highly sexual or bathroom humor letters to his cousin. I’m sure there was a lot of “hands up the skirt and down the bodice” stuff between them, but that was the end of it. I don’t know why posterity has to make sexual athletes of its great men.

Even as Mozart marries, there is the suggestion that he is truly wed to his creative genius, not a happy portent for the future of his union. Was he not aware of this conflict himself?

I have read his letters deeply, and have recently also read a marvelous book by Agnes Selby, a music historian, about Mozart’s wife. Likely everyone who reads this interview will know which of the four girls he eventually married, but in case someone doesn’t I won’t reveal it, so people can look up this fantastic biography under the author’s name! Mozart wrote music very happily after he was married, but there was no conflict…he was also a good family man. He adored his wife and children and couldn’t wait to get home to them. There’s a wonderful story about him sitting up all night to compose the overture to “Don Giovanni”; his wife sat up with him, telling him stories to keep him awake. His wife gave him the stability he needs. Their only conflict was that there was never enough money. I am now working on another novel about an artist who DID have that problem…he was so obsessed with his work he forgot there were people around him, very bad for a marriage. But this was not Mozart. He was a good husband and father, a great friend, a spiritual man and very consistent.

Marrying Mozart posits that the close relationship between the composer and the Weber girls gives him invaluable insight into the complexities of the female psyche, which is evident in his compositions. Are you aware of the appreciation of women in his compositions? Please explain in the context of music.

The personalities of many of the Mozart heroines are particularly subtle. He writes very well of the tenderness between women and the mutual dependency; they play around with men’s hearts but most often only to teach them a lesson. When men seem untrustworthy, they band together. I think of the lovely letter duet from “Le Nozze di Figaro” when the countess and her maid plot to bring the countess’s wayward husband home to her. Those who know the movie Shawshank Redemption will recognize this exquisite, hopeful duet. The same heavenly harmonies exist between the two sisters in “Cosi fan tutte”; one sister is the more faithful, one the more flirtatious. In his short opera “Der Schauspieldirecktor” (“The Impresario”), Mozart writes roles for two competing sopranos who each exclaim in song “I am the best singer,” singing higher and faster than the other one up to the high F, which is very high indeed. One of these roles was created for Aloysia Weber! I am sure that being surrounded with the four Weber sisters when he was young and lonely, each one a different but strong feminine personality, much influenced Mozart’s work.

When reading the novel, your own love of music is evident. Do you think your understanding adds to the passion of the story?

Oh absolutely I do! Mozart was my first musical love and is still my greatest. When I was twelve years old I heard his “Le Nozze di Figaro” for the first time and I was so spellbound I refused to leave my seat in the old Metropolitan Opera even during intermission for fear I would miss a single note. I bought the record and within a year had memorized it. Then I grew up to be a lyric coloratura for some years and sang in many of his operas. During the writing of the novel I became more acquainted with his music for instruments, particularly the winds. I thought of the actual idea for the book in New York City’s very Viennese Mozart Café while they were playing one of his horn concertos. I just did a radio broadcast in which they played a lot of Mozart, including the last act finale. I want to leap up with joy and to cry at the same time.

Each Weber daughter is a distinct individual. Did you enjoy creating them, defining each personality? Were you guided more by research or intuition?

I loved writing them and it was mostly intuition! I read a lot of history and then took off creatively. They just sprang off the page. Much of what Aloysia did is historical but we know relatively little about Josefa; we know that Mozart wrote "The Queen of the Night" for her. Sophie he adored; she was a very close friend. I had to do a lot of creating for Constanze, based on who she was later. Almost no information except baptismal and marital records are available for this family before Mozart came into their lives. The things they do in the novel are so real to me it’s impossible to think they didn’t do them…that astonishing announcement Josefa makes to her family one cold morning when they’re gathered around the kitchen table and she’s wearing her late father’s old slippers. I can’t believe it didn’t really happen.

Save time and place, I was as drawn into the Weber family dynamics as any domestic drama, even more so than I was to Mozart’s problems. Would Josefa, Aloysia, Constanze and Sophie be any different today (other than name changes)?

Well, it depends where they lived and what their family background was. Even in some families I know, virginity until marriage is expected of the girls…and very often mothers do urge their daughters to marry a doctor or someone who can support them. And in certain ways….very, very slight…I used things from my friends and family, certain painful things included. Parents always want the best for their children, which may not be the best; some parents have a hard time knowing when the grown child can make her own judgments.

What was most enjoyable about writing Marrying Mozart?

I loved every single moment of it. It simply flew off the page. I have never written anything so quickly. I was actually writing a much more serious novel which wouldn’t come out right and was weighing me down. Then 9/11 happened in my city…if you were in New York it was so immediate, the acrid smell in the air, the tragic faces posted on lampposts by people seeking those relatives. And at the same time my healthy, beloved husband (who edits my books and is my greatest support) went into the hospital for surgery and a four day stay; he developed complications which they caught very late and he didn’t come home until six months later, having to learn to walk again. When he began to get better, I put aside my serious book and wrote Marrying Mozart. It’s dedicated to him “To Russell, in a time of joy.” I wanted to write a novel about finding and keeping love amid many difficulties. And then the novel originally had a dull title; my filmmaker son Jesse gave it its present name and he was in love, so there was that young love around me. And my older son James and I would take long walks, discussing the similarity between computer systems architecture (his field) and novel structure. He also has a beautiful wife. Oh, it was a happy time…the whole novel with revisions and all probably took less than nine months. And all the time I played Mozart’s music.

What did you find most difficult?

First, making all the secrets and stories come together at the end. And then keeping up my life in this intense period of writing. I had a regular job and my husband was still in and out of surgeries to correct what had gone wrong. I had an agent who was very wonderful with me but who just felt I had to rewrite the novel the way he saw it. It was hard to leave him. But my friend, the writer Sandra Scofield, heard about this and within two seconds had contacted her agent, Emma Sweeney. Emma read the book at once, we had lunch, and five days later we had an offer from Carole DeSanti at Viking. It was a real fairy tale.

I know you have other projects in the works. Can you share something about them?

Yes, I have almost finished a novel on the French impressionists in the 1860’s; it’s a love triangle and about what art gives to and takes from the artist and those close to him, especially with poverty. My parents were both artists, though I have no talent for it; I was taken to museums from my earliest memories. Then I want to finish my trilogy on a brilliant Elizabethan man called Nicholas Cooke; the first two books were published by another publisher, and the second won an American Book Award. Then my editor left and the project was shelved for a time but people write me almost every week asking for the third book of the trilogy. I have a lot on that and hope to finish it soon. And…there are several others. But that’s enough for now!

Do you have any words of advice for would-be writers?

Yes I do. Write from your heart…write from your deepest feelings. When you reread your drafts, try to get a sense of the flow and structure. Give your work to several friends you trust and listen to what they say. I have learned a lot from friends. You must write to your very highest ability and it’s something that grows everyday. Read other writers and try to learn even from the ones you don’t like. There’s so much to learn. Each book is a new challenge and a new joy. There is great joy in creating a whole world for others to share. It’s like a dolls’ house for me (I always wanted a Victorian, antique dolls’ house!) It’s a place to “live” and invite people in – and it can hold all the happiness, heartbreak and hope of the world within its walls.

Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines conducted her interview with Stephanie Cowell via email for Click here to read her review of Marrying Mozart.


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