________________ CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 13 . . . . November 28, 2014


The Secret Wish of Nannerl Mozart.

Barbara Kathleen Nickel.
Toronto, ON: Sumach Press/ Three O'Clock Press, 1996/2014.
161 pp., trade pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-1-927513-26-2.

Subject Headings:
Berchtold zu Sonnenburg, Maria Anna Mozart, Reichsfreiin von, 1751-1829-Juvenile fiction.
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, 1756-1791-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 4-10 / Ages 9-15.

Review by Ruth Latta.

***½ /4



Wolfi finished with a flourish and stood up to bow. Thirteen variations! The applause sounded like this afternoon's thunderstorm. Nannerl got ready to stand and curtsy. Surely they would stop clapping for Wolfi soon. But they wouldn't stop, not until he had bowed and got out his violin. Papa sat at the clavier. Nannerl sat back and groaned inside. Now Wolfi and Papa would play a concerto for violin and clavier and it was already almost nine thirty...

... Nannerl rose to play. But others were beginning to stand and gather their cloaks. It was a quarter to eleven. People wanted to go home. Nannerl sank into her chair...

..."It has been twenty five years since I've played." [Sopherl] took a sheet of Nannerl's symphony and studied it. "But you and your beautiful music helped me to play and speak again." Sopherl's voice seemed to brighten like the tone of her violin.

In The Secret Wish of Nannerl Mozart, Barbara Kathleen Nickel explores the themes of parental favouritism, sibling rivalry, the creative process and the true value of artistic pursuits. The novel opens when Leopold Mozart and his wife are leaving Salzburg to take their two musical prodigy children on a tour. The elder, Nannerl (Maria Anna), was once the solo prodigy, acclaimed for her precocious abilities on keyboards, but, by 1863, when the novel begins, the younger child, seven-year-old Wolfi (Wolfgang Amadeus) is composing and playing on a par with his 12-year-old sister and has become the focus of their father's attention.

      Nannerl is jealous when Wolfi is greeted as the wunderkind. Subtly, Nickel shows how Wolfi is favoured over his sister. She is required to do a lot of sewing and packing while he practises with their father. Wolfi is given a violin, but Nannerl is not. Wolfi takes over the diary that she received for her birthday and has already begun. "Papa" focuses on Wolfi because a son has a future as a professional composer and performer while a daughter's pursuit of music for a public audience will end when she reaches marriageable age.

      Nannerl decides to write something big to draw attention to her abilities, and she works on a symphony during their six month road trip through major German cities, culminating in Paris, France. Although she sometimes vents in her diary, saying that she "hates" Wolfi, her kindness to him when he is sick says otherwise.

      In one scene, while rubbing his back during his illness, "she started to hum, making up a tune to fit the slow rhythm. There was something of Salzburg in it, a falling of snowflakes, grey cobblestones, the clop of a horse. She hummed in bits of Wolfi's laughter, the feel of his hand in hers, the way she could hear his heart when they played duets, even the awful ache she felt in her throat when everyone clapped for him."

      The economic uncertainty of the Mozarts is apparent when Nickel shows the family waiting around in a city for the local prince to pay them for their performance. In Paris, shopping for new clothes to wear for their performance at Versailles, Papa vetoes a fabric that Nannerl likes because it is dark and would make her look more mature. If she's too grown up looking, she won't be a child prodigy any more. The Mozarts were not always booked in advance: "Papa always made sure that they stayed at the best hotels so he could meet important people and get invitations for her and Wolfi to perform."

      Both Wolfi and Nannerl look forward to meeting the composer/performer Johann Christian Bach, a son of the great Johann Sebastian Bach, in Paris. Bach is delighted with Wolfi, but when Nannerl tries to show him her symphony, he is merely amused. She receives support, however, from three women: her girlhood chum in Salzburg; a French diplomat's daughter who is a gifted amateur musician, and from Maria Sophia Wenzel, sister of Elector Maximilian III of Bavaria.

      Maria Sophia Wenzel (Sopherl) was a real person and is known to have enjoyed playing music with her brother, the future elector, when they were children. Author Nickel creates a scene in which the elector appears to prefer Nannerl's playing and introduces her to his strangely silent widowed sister from Paris who is visiting him. Later he gives Nannerl his sister's Paris address and urges her to look her up. After the disappointing encounter with J.C. Bach, Nannerl does so. We learn that Sopherl gave up the violin to please her controlling husband. Nannerl's playing, however, has raised her spirits and reminded her of the joy she found in music. She encourages Nannerl to seize an opportunity to show off her musical gifts.

      Encouragement also comes from Wolfi. His mischievous, outgoing personality in this novel reminds one of the irrepressible, merry prankster Mozart depicted in the movie, Amadeus. Toward the end of Nickel's novel, in a reconciliation scene, the little boy confesses to having read Nannerl's entries in the diary. Shocked at being "hated' by his beloved big sister, he apologizes for reading her journal entries. He has also read her symphony without her permission, but he assures her that it is great. (Indeed, as an adult, he wrote her letters praising her compositions none of which have survived.)

      Within the time frame of the novel, Nickel has done an excellent job of creating a protagonist with emotions to which readers can relate. There are no "flashes forward" to the future, and no epilogue, though, probably because Nannerl's potential as a composer and performer was never fully developed.

      Those who have seen Amadeus know that, as a young married man, Wolfgang became estranged from his controlling father. Nannerl, however, remained under the paternal thumb until their papa died. Leopold Mozart forbade his daughter to marry the (quite eligible) man she loved, and, although Wolfi urged her to follow her heart, she obeyed her father and declined the proposal. (See the Wikipedia article for "Maria Anna Mozart".)

      Later, Nannerl married a village magistrate, a widower with five children. When she had a baby, her father persuaded her to let him raise the little boy, perhaps hoping to mould another genius like Wolfi. When Nannerl's son was three, however, Leopold Mozart died. Nannerl became a music teacher in Salzburg after she was widowed at fifty. She also assisted biographers of her famous brother who had died tragically young at thirty five.

      In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf imagined that Shakespeare had a sister, potentially as talented as he was, and discussed the many obstacles that would have kept a female sibling of the great playwright from achieving similar literary stature. The sad truth is that a potentially great composer of the calibre of Wolfgang Mozart was lost to the ages because his sister was discouraged from developing her talent. Barbara Kathleen Nickel writes convincingly about the joy and satisfaction in the creative process and in sharing one's gifts, and these joys are certainly real, but they do not make up for what might have been.

Highly Recommended.

Ruth Latta is working on an historical novel for young adults. For information about her books, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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