Thursday, November 10, 2011

Will the Real Maria Anna Mozart Please Stand Up?

It's my pleasure today to share a guest blog post by friend and fellow critique-group member, Elizabeth Rusch.

Elizabeth writes:

Will the Real Maria Anna Mozart Please Stand Up?
A critique of the French film Mozart’s Sister

Soon after my newest nonfiction title for young readers, For the Love of Music: The Remarkable Story of Maria Anna Mozart (Tricycle Press/Random House, 2011) was released, I began getting emails from friends telling me about a French film on the same subject called Mozart’s Sister. The film finally came to Portland, and I was invited to do a Q&A after the show on opening weekend. Thank goodness, because whether I was invited to or not, I would have wanted to stand up in front of the audience and set the record straight.

What Is Accurate: The Mozart family did indeed tour Europe for three years, traveling by carriage for more than 3,000 miles, giving concerts in 88 cities. Maria Anna, older sister of Wolfgang by five years, was a child prodigy, a gifted virtuosic pianist. She composed music, and indeed, her music has been lost.

What I Loved: The depiction of the Mozart family relationships, their affection, dedication to music, and the silliness that bordered on bawdiness (especially when Leopold and the two children stand at the bathroom door while the mother tries out the bidet) captured visually what I read in the Mozart family letters. There were other gorgeous moments in the movie that probably came from primary source material. Maria Anna writes in her journal from the European trip about watching the waves come in and out at Calais. And there it was, the beautiful Marie FĂ©ret, hair fluttering in the wind, staring dreamily at the ocean. Wolfgang loved canaries, and there he was poking one with a violin bow.

What Is Inaccurate, Misleading, and Troubling: Soon after establishing the Mozart family on their journey, a carriage wheel breaks outside Paris. Broken carriage parts are mentioned frequently in the family letters, but here the movie jumps off a solid foundation based in fact to a completely fictional account that is not only inaccurate, but also blatantly contradicts what we know about the Mozart family and their daughter.

In the movie, Maria Anna develops close friendships with a daughter of Louis XV and the crown prince. The second relationship is struck while Maria Anna cross-dresses to deliver a letter, and plays violin and sings for the prince. Maria Anna begs to stay in Paris while her family continues on the musical tour. When they leave, she continues her relationship with the prince, studies composition at a Paris academy dressed as a boy, and writes a violin concerto.

The critique: Oh, where to start! Maria Anna was closely chaperoned by her parents at all times, did not stay in Paris alone as a young, single 15 year old, developed no relationship or romance with French royalty, didn’t cross dress, or even play violin! While there are references in letters to Maria Anna singing, they usually entail Wolfgang teasing her about her singing voice. Maria Anna’s singing was not her genius, her harpsichord playing was.

The movie depicts Maria Anna burning her violin concerto and claims that she never composed again, had only one child, and that she died blind and poor. Yet later letters from Wolfgang praise Maria Anna for her compositions, she eventually married a baron enabling her a comfortable living, and she had three children, only one of whom died in childhood.

The Story the Movie Missed: In the end, Mozart’s Sister seems more obsessed by the weird court of Louis XV than in its title subject matter. So much rich, dramatic material about Maria Anna Mozart’s life was distorted, misrepresented or ignored.

Here’s what I find amazing about Maria Anna’s story: She was a child prodigy, thought to be a better pianist than Wolfgang – and all the other pianists in Europe. She was Wolfgang Mozart’s closest musical collaborator, and, as I explore in a recent Smithsonian magazine article, was probably an important musical influence. There’s an incredible scene from Maria’s life that the movie skips completely. While in London, Leopold falls ill and the children have to be very quiet – they can’t even play their instruments. So together, Wolfgang and Maria Anna write what is known as Wolfgang’s first symphony. But it is in Maria Anna’s handwriting.

After the three-year musical tour, the family returns to Salzburg. But when Wolfgang sets off to tour Europe with his father and later with his mother, Maria is left home. While he learns composition and is exposed to the stimulating musical life of Italy, Maria oversees the cook, gathers herbs, and mends clothes. But she also continues to practice for hours each day, teaching herself harmony, modulation, interpretation -- and composition.

She falls in love, and she and Wolfgang share a dream of the family reuniting in Vienna, where she would be married to her love, teaching music and giving concerts. Sixteen months later, Maria Anna is married off to a baron who is twice widowed and already has five children. But she continues to play three to four hours every day – even when her instrument goes horribly out of tune and can’t be fixed for more than two years. When her husband dies, Maria Anna returns to Salzburg where she teaches music and gives private concerts.

At the age of seventy-eight, Maria died. Two weeks before she died, though she was blind and has lost the use of one hand, she asked to be carried to the piano that she and Wolfgang play on together as children. Found on the piano were scores from her brother’s operas Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, probably the last music she ever played. On their childhood tour, Wolfgang often played blind to astonish audiences. At the end of her life, his sister Maria Anna also played blind, and with only one hand, for the sheer love of the music.

What bothers me most about Mozart’s Sister is that the film used Maria Anna to get to the Louis XV court and then ignored her and who she really was.

Maria Anna Mozart’s story is one of not only musical genius, but also of undying musical passion and commitment. There is a beautiful film to made, but Mozart’s Sister is not it. Maybe I should write it ☺

Elizabeth Rusch

1 comment:

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Such an interesting post! It makes me nuts when people from history aren't given a fair shake. Me? I wrote about the real John Smith, not the fake one in the movies or the bad guy a northerner turned him into during the Civil War in order to make a southern hero look bad. I will always maintain that he should be one of America's biggest heroes. What makes one super-talented person catch on in the public imagination and another equally talented person disappear forever is beyond me.