Mozart was fascinated, amused, aroused, hurt, and betrayed by women. He loved and respected them, composed for them, performed with them. This unique biography looks at his interaction with each, starting with his family (his mother, Maria Anna and beloved and talented sister, Nannerl), and his marriage (which brought his "other family", the Weber sisters). His relationships with his artists are examined, in particular those of his operas, through whose characters Mozart gave voice to the emotions of women who were, like his entire female acquaintance, restrained by the conventions and structures of eighteenth-century society. This is their story as well as his - and shows once again that a great part of the composer's genius was in his understanding and musical expression of human nature. Evocative and beautifully written, Mozart's Women illuminates the music, the man, and above all the women who inspired him.
In real life, this is a collection of three extended essays, written in non-technical terms for the general reader, looking at the role played in Mozart's life, his operas, and his posthumous reputation by a group of extraordinary women, in particular his sister Nannerl, the pianist who inspired all his early keyboard music, and his wife Constanze Weber and her three sisters, all of them highly-talented singers. Lesser parts are played by Mozart's mother (who acted as his business manager on his Paris tour, when his father couldn't leave Salzburg) and by some of the other distinguished singers for whom he wrote parts in his operas.
Glover confesses herself to be a fan of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus and credits Simon Callow with helping her to get started on this book. But she quietly sets aside many of the more romantic myths we cherish about Mozart. Salieri was a personal friend as well as a professional rival, and his mistress Caterina Cavalieri (Constanze, Donna Elvira, the Countess, etc.) was one of the most important singers to work closely with Mozart. In Josef II's Enlightenment Vienna it was not at all the custom to organise splendid funerals and tombstones; the "pauper's grave" story comes from nineteenth-century views of Mozart's death. Count Walsegg-Stuppach's habit of commissioning works anonymously from composers and then passing them off as his own was a standing joke in musical circles, and Mozart was simply playing along with it by describing the count's agent who came with the commission for a Requiem as a "ghostly messenger".
Even Mozart's financial situation wasn't quite as dire as it's usually presented - Constanze had taken things in hand (a little late in the day, admittedly) and spending was under control and a lot of the debts already paid off by the time of Mozart's death. Posthumously, Constanze went back to performing for a while, and showed herself to be a skilled manager of Mozart's reputation, who managed to do well financially out of his manuscripts and biography (left unfinished by her second husband, Georg Nissen, and published under Constanze's control).
I found the account of Mozart's operas to be the most interesting part of the book - this is obviously Glover's bread-and-butter, and she presents interesting practical insights into the way Mozart wrote to take advantage of the particular gifts of the singers he had available to him. And puts his work into context, so that we can see just how radical and innovative he was as a composer. Of course, it's a lot easier to write in non-technical ways about opera than it is about orchestral music, because you have the narrative as a foothold for those who would get lost in key-changes and tempi, but this still struck me as a great example of how you can write about music for the non-technical reader without obviously dumbing things down. Excellent stuff!
The basic facts are well known (although I have to confess that, before reading this book, my own understanding of Mozart’s life was formed essentially through the prism of the film Amadeus): the child prodigy who grew into one of the most gifted and prolific composer of his, or indeed any, time. Because of my familiarity with the film, I had known that his father, Leopold, was a major influence on Mozart’s life and output. I had not, however, appreciated how talented his sister, ‘Nannerl’ was, or that the two of them had been touted around Europe. I didn’t even know that the Mozart family had visited England as part of the tour showcasing the two child stars, and lived in London for the greater part of a year. Indeed, I was amused to read that, during an outbreak of plague [with all the stark resonances that brought as a book read during lockdown] while the Mozarts were living in London, they decided to move out to the country, relocating to a house that is now in Ebury Street, Chelsea.
Beautifully written, and (I presume) exhaustively researched, this book is a joy from start to finish: highly informative, but supremely accessible.