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In Mozart's Shadow: His Sister's Story


Papa steps into the salon brilliantly lit by chandeliers that blaze beneath the painted cherubs on the ceiling. Our papa is tall, handsome, a commanding presence. The audience -- the highest nobility -- seated on carved and gilded chairs, falls silent. My brother and I wait behind heavy velvet draperies, out of sight. Papa launches into his pretty speech: "It does us great honor," et cetera, et cetera.

Wolferl fidgets with his little ceremonial sword. He is exquisite in a suit of lavender satin trimmed with gold lace. Our hairdresser adjusts Wolferl’s wig, rearranges the ribbons in my elaborate curls, and dabs a bit of powder on my nose.

Papa’s rich baritone rises to the pitch that signals my entrance. "Now it is my privilege to present to you my daughter, Maria Anna Mozart," he trumpets, "just eleven years old with talents that, you will surely agree, are a gift from God."

Papa always has me go first. I glide out from among the folds of the draperies and offer my hand to Papa, who bows and kisses it. Then, gathering my voluminous silk skirts, I honor the bejeweled audience with a deep curtsy. I love this moment, when all eyes are upon me!

"Another inch lower and you’ll fall on your face, Nannerl," my brother whispers from behind the curtain. With a secret smile I sink down one more inch. I don’t fall.

The audience applauds politely.

Arranging my skirts, I seat myself at the harpsichord and wait, my hands calm in my lap. This, according to Papa, will focus the attention of the audience. Then I lift my hands and begin to play. Papa chose the piece to show off my skill: fast, accurate, brilliant. I love to play, love to perform. The applause rises, warm and admiring. Papa smiles.

After two more bravura pieces I step aside, and Papa plunges into his Wolferl spiel, pronouncing my brother’s full baptismal name: "Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart. My son will astonish you, esteemed ladies and noble gentlemen, with his incredible displays of keyboard virtuosity. And he is only seven years of age!"

Papa is lying. Wolferl is eight, going on nine, but so small no one doubts Papa’s word. I’m thirteen, still without noticeable breasts; Mama dresses me to look younger. I wish Papa would be truthful about my age, but he insists the little deception is necessary.

My brother struts in, grinning impishly and exuding endearing charm. Papa makes a s how of helping him up onto the chair on which a thick cushion has been placed; Wolferl's tiny feet dangle several inches above the floor. He looks like a precious doll. But in the next moment his little fingers are skimming expertly over the wooden keys. His performance is breathtaking. When he finishes, I can hear the gasps of astonishment.

Papa enthralls the audience with one trick after another. "Next, our little Wolfgang will play with just one finger!" And he does so, precisely and at unbelievable speed Amazed murmurs rustle like a breeze. "Now, dear friends, Wolfgang will play with the keyboard completely hidden out of sight beneath this black cloth!" The rapt listeners lean forward, their chairs creaking. They've never seen the like! He's got them in the palm of his hand....

At last Papa calls for me to join my brother at the keyboard, and we begin a duet....

A Note from the Author

Mozart would have been astonished.

Musicians and music lovers worldwide celebrated the year 2006 as the 250th anniversary of his birth. There were countless performances of his music in cities large and small throughout Europe and the United States. Thousands upon thousands of tourists (I was among them) flocked to Vienna and Salzburg to visit his birthplace, wander through the streets where he once walked, gaze at the instruments he played, sit in the churches where he performed, listen to the sublime music, and buy souvenirs with his likeness on music boxes, T-shirts, chocolates.

But there are no souvenirs of his sister, Nannerl.

What must it have been like to be the highly talented sister of a genius? I wondered. What was it like to live in Mozart's shadow?

To answer my own questions, I decided to write this book.