“The little girl, who is in her twelfth year, will play the most difficult compositions of the greatest masters… From a promotion piece by Leopold Mozart, 1763
Her life was one of complete—and tragic—subservience to her father, Leopold. Four years older than her far more famous brother Wolfgang, Maria Anna, or Nannerl, originally had top billing. As soon as her little brother began to toddle to the harpsichord demanding to take part in her lessons, her eclipse—a woman in a man’s world--became inevitable.
At first the children were emotionally close. They made up a fantasy world—The Kingdom of Back--of which they were King and Queen, and which they ruled together happily. Early letters are full of allusions to this imaginary world, and it must have provided an escape from their father, that harsh and unrelenting taskmaster.
“…You are aware that my children are used to work; …custom is an iron path…”
It seems clear that Nannerl and Wolfgang shared immense joy in and talent for music. While they were small, their father exhibited them as a pair, billed as miracles of nature. Posters exhorted people to come and see: “the astounding genius of the Mozart children.” From early childhood, they endured long journeys—winter or summer—with all the suffering and discomfort 18th Century travel entailed. Leopold traveled “noblement” that is, as if they were on a social par with the aristocrats whose favor he was courting. Their instruments, including the clavier, rattled along on the roof of their coach.
Their early travels were from Salzburg to Passau to Munich to Linz. The success of these forays filled Leopold with dreams of gold and grandeur, and soon the family was off Vienna, the royal palace their goal. As hoped, the Empress Maria Theresa invited them to play and she and her children—future kings and queens--were delighted by the talented children. Her high favor set the stage for the rest of the nobility to follow suit, and money, court clothing and scores of golden trinkets, toys and jewels filled Leopold’s pocket. Success would only whet his appetite for more—and more!
The longest journey of Nannerl’s life began in 1764. In Paris, the children performed before Louis XV, his Queen and Court, among them, the legendary Madame Pompadour. From there, pockets full and emboldened by such great success, Leopold took his family to London. Here they played for George III and Queen Charlotte, as well as for Johann Christian Bach and other notables, both musical and scientific. Months later, they sailed back to the Hague, having garnered an international reputation at the finest courts in Europe. Here, travel and exhaustion took its toll on the “wonders of nature.” First Nannerl and then Wolfgang fell seriously ill. Nannerl was actually given up for dead and given last rites. Her father doubtless hovered over her bed, piously exhorting her on the blessedness of death.
The Mozarts finally returned home in 1766, where Papa Leopold had to face his by now extremely irate employer, The Archbishop of Salzburg. This grand tour, however, would be the final great journey of Nannerl’s brief career. She was barely fifteen years old, a talented and thoroughly schooled musician, but she was also female, and this mere biological fact would, from now on, control her destiny.
When, a few years later, her father headed off to Italy with Wolfgang, Nannerl and her mother were left at home. Separation was hard on the siblings who until now had shared everything. Wolfgang wrote to her often, telling her all about their travels, filling the letters with allusions to shared secrets and affectionate nonsense. She was his “Carissima Sorella Mia.” We can only imagine how she felt, no longer of much interest to her father, abruptly set to keeping house beside her mother. Occasionally in Salzburg Nannerl gave piano lessons, but that was the only use to which her skill was put. The size of her world—in childhood, all of Europe—had shrunk to the confines of provincial Salzburg.
“We are both longing for you to make your fortune, for that, I know for certain, will mean happiness for all…” Nannerl to her brother during his Milan journey of 1769-1770 .
Wolfgang, as we know, would eventually escape his father’s grasp and seek his fortune in Vienna as a freelancer. After he disobeyed his father by marrying Constanze Weber, the bonds of family affection were permanently shattered. Apparently, Leopold impressed upon Nannerl the idea that her brother had, for reasons entirely selfish, abandoned them. She must renounce the love she had once had for him because his departure had condemned the family to demeaning servitude in Salzburg. Worse, (and, as events would prove) a flat-out lie, he told Nannerl that she would be impoverished after he died. From this time forward, she was condemned to care for her increasingly bitter and anxious father, the same person who had earlier abruptly ended her musical career.
“Your sister is now my support and I try to banish the cares which seem to overwhelm me. She extemporizes so successfully you would be astounded…and do you know what has inspired her with this determination and terrific industry? My death! She realizes and foresees the misery into which she would be plunged were I suddenly to breathe my last…” Leopold to Wolfgang
Leopold had set up a nasty game of “Let’s You and Him Fight” between the once loving brother and sister. Nannerl became, according to Mozart’s biographer Maynard Solomon, “…the vessel into which Leopold’s rancor and discontent overflowed.” She seems to have fallen into the role easily; after all, her own pent-up hostility at the brother who had replaced her in her father’s affections must have been enormous.
“Next to God comes Papa.” Wolfgang wrote these words in a letter years before his flight from home. For Nannerl, however, it would always be true.
As years passed, she received offers of marriage from eminently suitable gentlemen, but these would be coldly rebuffed by her father. The most painful of these affairs was the courtship of Captain Franz d’Ippold, a handsome, sympathetic widower, with whom Nannerl had fallen in love. Mozart wrote from Vienna to encourage his sister to do as he had done. She and her sweetheart should marry, he advised, and then come to Vienna to seek their fortune. It seems neither party had the courage to dare this admittedly uncertain move. d’Ippold eventually married someone else.
It might appear that Nannerl had been in all ways a perfectly submissive daughter, but more sacrifices were on order. Leopold had finally found a man of sufficient wealth and status to please him, Johann Berchtold zu Sonnenburg, a widower with a crew of half grown children from two previous marriages. She was duly wed and went to live with him in the smaller town of St. Gilgen, miles distant from all her accustomed pleasures and friends.
The next year, Nannerl returned to her father’s house to give birth to a son, unsurprisingly named “Leopold.” After six weeks, she returned to her household duties in St. Gilgen and left her baby behind, a final tribute of flesh rendered to her father.
Perhaps this unusual course had been previously decided by the men who ruled her life. “Herr Sohn,” (as Leopold addressed him,) had five children already, and this grandchild would give Leopold purpose in his old age. His letters show that he believed he could raise another musical prodigy by force of his pedagogic will alone.
When Leopold died in 1788, he made concrete the bond of anger and sacrifice forged between himself and Nannerl. Maynard Solomon believes that Leopold left an estate of over 10,000 gulden, as well as many other valuable pieces of property. The bulk was willed to Nannerl, who also made certain she retained all the family correspondence, the valuable musical instruments, bibelots, luxury items, paintings and all the scores, most of which had been written by her brother. Mozart had to write several times to persuade her to return his originals. He was left, in the end, with about 1000 gulden and a few lesser
trinkets. The pain of this absolute rejection by both father and sister ended the siblings’ correspondence. In his last letter to her, Mozart offered, instead of the “thousand kisses” of their childhood, “a thousand farewells.” He, the eternal optimist, finally understood how things stood, and that his father’s fortune–much of which he personally had created–had been left elsewhere.
By her own admission, Nannerl never communicated with her brother after the settling of the will. When asked by potential biographers of Mozart a decade later, she claimed not even to know the names of his children. It was at this time, certainly, that her son Leopold was returned, briefly, to her care, although he was soon be sent away to school. In 1789 she bore a daughter, Jeanette, who would die in her sixteenth year. In 1790 her third child, Marie Babette, was born, but she did not survive infancy.
After the death of Johann Berchtold zu Sonnenburg in 1803, Nannerl returned to Salzburg. Here she would end her days, living on her father’s sizeable bequest and a small portion bequeathed by her late husband. In the 1820’s, she allowed the precious family correspondence to be used by Constanze and her new husband, Georg Nissen, who were busily concocting a “highly unreliable*” biography of Mozart, smoothing over the great man’s rough spots and “with much care for sundry reputations.*” Constanze, too, would end her days in Salzburg, settling there permanently after the death of Nissen in 1826.
Her son Leopold, raised by his grandfather to be a musician, had not inherited the genes. After his more formal schooling he went into the army and from there into the civil service where he did well. He appears to have been tactful and honest, for he carried out his mother’s final wishes when she, in a late gesture of reconciliation, bequeathed several of the family jewels—crosses and rings--that had belonged to his great-grandmother, Anna Marie Pertl, to Constanze.
While collecting material with her brother, Vincent, Mary Novello would visit Salzburg. They were both devoted Mozart fans and wanted to write a biographical sketch of their hero. The sometimes provocative work, A Mozart Pilgrimage, contains many interesting vignettes. When Mary visited Nannerl, the old lady was “…languid, blind and nearly speechless.”
During that same year, late October, 1829, Nannerl Mozart died. Aged 78, she was a woman whose musical career might have equaled that of her brother’s if she’d lived in a more enlightened age. Nannerl is buried in the family grave in Salzburg with her father and with her much despised sister-in law, Constanze.
* From Mozart by Marcia Davenport, Appendices I
~ Juliet Waldron
Mozart by Maynard Solomon, Chapters 25 and 26
Mozart Family Letters, Translator, Emily Anderson
A Mozart Pilgrimage, Mary and Vincent Novello
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