In your novel Mozart’s Sister, your protagonist, Maria Anna Mozart (nicknamed Nannerl), is denied the spotlight in favor of her talented brother. What drew you to Nannerl’s story?
I was immediately struck when I found out that Mozart had a sister who had been another musical prodigy. I think that it was my sister who first brought her to my attention; we were both studying music and she came across Nannerl in the Maestro’s biographies. Later, I was writing an article for a magazine and in preparing an historical digression I went back to the essay A Room of One’s Own that I had read some time before. In it, Virginia Woolf sketches the biography of William Shakespeare’s imaginary sister-poetess in order to demonstrate that had Shakespeare been born a woman, not only would he not have known success but he would also have come to a bad end. Suddenly the figure of Nannerl flashed before my eyes and I thought to myself, this really happened!
How did you research Mozart’s Sister, which draws heavily on Nannerl’s passion for music?
I had to undertake a large body of research on Nannerl’s life. It was not easy to find detailed information about her; at that time there was only one biography of her, in German, and out of print. Even in the most famous works of fiction on the life of Mozart, Nannerl was almost always notably absent. So I left for Salzburg. I wanted to go to the Mozarteum library, which contains all that is published in different languages on Mozart and his family, A dysfunctional family, sex scandals, and true love?—eighteenth-century Europe was a far different world from ours, yet Rita Charbonnier’s skill and verve make us feel at home, and we cheer for the brilliant, resilient Nannerl as she struggles to become much more than Mozart’s sister.
—Karen Harperand to visit the places where the Mozarts were born and lived — in the hope of absorbing the feeling of the places. It is a mania that I have always had, even before becoming a writer. My love for history is not fed by the study of facts, dynasties and wars but by interest in the human world of the past; often when I visit historical places, I begin to fantasize about who lived there in times gone by. Sometimes I indulge in thought that every ancient place conserves a scintilla of the people who have gone before, and that we can feel that spark.
As for music, I did not have to do a great deal of research because I had the fortune of studying the piano from when I was a small child. For a while, when I was an actress and singer, music was my profession, and even now it is a fundamental part of my life. To tell of Nannerl’s feelings as she plays, or doesn’t play, meant also drawing on my own past feelings, when I was on the stage, and then when I decided to come off the stage.
Tell us something surprising about women in 18th century Europe.
The process of researching that period brought me into contact with various musical women, and many more than I would have imagined; among them even women composers. When I could, I brought them alive in the novel: Mademoiselle Jeunehomme, Princess Maria Antonia… Naturally, they were infrequent cases, and they were not usually “normal” women; if a princess wants to compose, no-one would be very surprised and certainly no-one would mock her for it, which means a lot.
One aspect that made me smile was discovering the foul-mouthed language used by Anna Maria, Mozart’s mother. The same taste for obscene jokes that has made some of the Maestro’s letters so famous can be found in his mother’s letters too; there is even one, addressed to her husband, in which she composes a sort of rhyming poem about excrement. Nannerl’s letters, on the other hand, contain nothing of the sort. She was a very well-mannered woman and probably somewhat inhibited when it came to expressing her emotions.
Parts of your novel are told through Nannerl’s letters. What made you choose to tell some of the story in this way?
I suspect that it was reading Mozart’s correspondence that led me unconsciously in that direction. I initially wrote various letters but had not yet had the idea of making the first part of the novel the ideal account of her life that Nannerl gives to the man she loves, through a correspondence. When the character’s psychology became more clear I understood that Nannerl is a woman whose extreme sensitivity is hidden beneath a thick carapace that is simply a reaction to the pain she has suffered. The private and emotional dimensions to the love letters allow me to express this hidden sensibility.
Even biographies of Mozart rarely mention his sister, and then only in a marginal way. In your opinion, why has she generally been so undervalued?
Perhaps because in the public imagination there is already Antonio Salieri, by Mozart’s side, occupying the position of the less-accomplished figure. The main difference is that Salieri represents envy, while my Nannerl is never jealous of her brother. She knows and understands music too well not to love Wolfgang Amadeus’ music without reserve.