What Ever Happened to Mozart’s Sister?

This is the story of a little girl born in Austria in 1751 who was a musical genius. Her father, a gifted violinist and composer, was very strict and a fervent Catholic, while her housewife mother was a cheerful and happy soul. Music came as naturally to this little girl as breathing and nothing gave her greater enjoyment than making music: her little hands would fly effortlessly over the keys of her harpsichord and she was able to write any tune she heard, from memory. She also had an uncanny ability to transform everyday sounds into music, and such was her sensitivity to harmony that a lack of it was enough to give her an upset stomach.

Nannerl Mozart
Portrait of Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart – painted around 1763, probably by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni.

Then one happy day the couple’s dreams came true and a son was born. It didn’t take the proud parents long to realize, against all odds, he too was a musical infant prodigy. The names of these children, of course, were Maria Anna — affectionately nicknamed “Nannerl” — and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Nannerl’s existence has been largely ignored by her celebrated brother’s numerous biographers; the only times she is mentioned is to emphasize her brother’s genius when comparing it to her presumed slowness of mind. All the same, ample documentation exists of her extraordinary musical talent. She was a hugely gifted keyboard player; during their childhood the Mozart siblings performed together as child prodigies and in posters and newspaper articles of the day it was Nannerl’s name that came first. We know that she wrote music, even though none of her compositions has survived to the present day. In his letters to his sister, Mozart makes clear reference to her compositions and encourages her to write more because “your music is beautiful!”. We also know Wolfgang greatly appreciated Nannerl’s virtuosity; he often asked for her opinion on his music and referred to her as “my sister, the one with real talent”.

It’s almost hard to believe how Nannerl’s existence has been underrated; there’s plenty of evidence of her impact on Wolfgang’s life. In the Mozart house museum in Salzburg there is a room dedicated to her commitment to music, even if it wasn’t hers. Entering the room an inscription reads, in large, bold letters: “She abandoned her own artistic career for the sake of her brother”. And who knows if Wolfgang would have become the genius whom we know, if he had not followed her example and had not been stimulated by rivalry with such a talented sister?

Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart was born on 30 July 1751 in Salzburg, in a street that is today called Getreidegasse, at number 9. Her parents Leopold and Anna Maria Mozart, née Pertl, had seven children altogether, but she and Wolfgang were the only ones to survive, as infant mortality rates were very high at that time. Nannerl was the fourth child; her mother had another two children after her who died soon after birth and then, on 27 January 1756, at 8.00 pm, Wolfgang was born.

Leopold Mozart, a musician at the Salzburg court, recognised in his daughter — and naturally, later on in his son — an extraordinary talent and started teaching her to play the harpsichord. By 1762, when Nannerl was ten and Wolfgang six, she was trotted around Europe along with her brother by their ambitious father, playing for nobility. The family made a number of artistic tours, one of which lasted three years (1763-1766).

The little Mozarts
Ivory miniature portraying the two little Mozarts, by Eusebius Johann Alphen.

During these trips, both children repeatedly fell seriously ill, with potentially fatal diseases such as smallpox and typhus fever — however both eventually recovered. At the time, Nannerl and Wolfgang must have had a strong connection. Love, support and music were one and the same for the Mozart siblings; they had musical forms and daring harmonies in their minds that only they could understand — that only they could share. Wolfgang was a bundle of energy wrapped in the body of a small boy who looked much younger than his years. Nannerl, however, was less assertive; she didn’t have a ready reply and the unexpected left her mute and lost.

Inevitably, the time came when the circumstances of their lives and respective destinies finally separated the siblings. As Nannerl moved into her teens, Leopold decided that Wolfgang was more likely to bring his family the fame and fortune he craved for. So Nannerl was left behind.

In 1769, father and son left for Italy, the birthplace of the opera, in search of glory; in order to help fund the men’s journey, Nannerl started giving harpsichord lessons at home in Salzburg where she was forced to stay with her mother. Her sacrifice was in consonance with the historical period in which the Mozarts were living; her gender precluded Nannerl from aspiring to a career as a composer — an ambition in a woman that was simply unheard of at the time. Still, it was a sacrifice paid in salty tears, shed in silence.

The renunciation of artistic expression is a form of spiritual mutilation — a mutilation for Nannerl that inexorably took effect on her psyche. What is more, she fell out of contact with her brother, who had once been her closest friend and confidant. The siblings’ separation during their crucial adolescent years changed their relationship irrevocably. At home they were treated too differently to be able to continue loving each other unconditionally.

Nannerl Mozart...?
Anonymous, portrait of Maria Anna Mozart.

In 1778, Anna Maria Mozart — the mother — died and in 1781 Wolfgang moved to Vienna, where he was apparently surrounded by all the comforts of a successful composer. He got married to Constanze Weber and had two children. Nannerl stayed with her father in Salzburg until she married a wealthy civil servant and moved to Sankt Gilgen — a small village a few hours’ coach ride from Salzburg. She had three children and looked after her widowed husband’s children, thus abandoning all musical activity for nearly twenty years. She almost entirely stopped corresponding with her brother; the two only exchanged the occasional formal letter. But perhaps sometimes, in the evening, when she was alone and had finished with her household duties, Nannerl found herself thinking about what kind of person her brother had become…

Leopold Mozart passed away in 1787; brother and sister argued over hereditary claims and this marked the final break in their relationship. Then one awful day, four years later, Nannerl was given the shocking news: Wolfgang had suddenly died, at the age of thirty-five. She wept bitter tears of regret when she learned just how difficult her brother’s final years had been; if she had known, if they had remained friends, perhaps she could have helped him.

Nannerl eventually emerged from this maze of grief and found new meaning through the promotion of her brother’s music. In 1801, after the death of her husband, she returned to Salzburg and went back to teaching music. She started working together with Mozart’s biographers and supervised the publication of his work; when a flood of compositions presumably written by Mozart invaded the market, she authenticated the real ones and denounced the fakes. As the sister of the genius and an unacknowledged, unspoken genius herself, she was the only one who knew Mozart’s work as if it were her own and could recognize at a single glance the style of the real Maestro.

During the last years of her life, Nannerl was given the consolation of an affectionate relationship with her nephew Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, her brother’s youngest son. She died on 29 October 1829, at the age of 78. Today, she is buried in Salzburg, in St. Peter’s Abbey, near Johann Michael Haydn — Franz Joseph Haydn’s brother, also a musician and composer. Isn’t it strange that Mozart’s sister and Haydn’s brother should be buried next to one another?