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By Stephanie Cowell
|Review by: Christine Emmert||
Stephanie Cowell has specialized in historical fiction from the Elizabethan era in her three past novels, but this time she has taken a leap forward to the last part of the 1700s where she follows the fortunes of the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and four sisters in her latest work, Marrying Mozart. Many people who think they know Mozart and even Constanze (who becomes his wife) from the play/ film Amadeus will find Cowell paints these two characters with a more delicate brush .
In many ways this novel is as much about whom Mozart doesn't marry as whom he does. Mozart lived with the Weber family while in Vienna as a young man and was first engaged to Aloysia, a rising opera star. He did not marry Aloysia, but rather her younger sister. The hows and whys of this breach of one promise and taking up of another are laid out in a novel that weaves love, disappointment, creativity and parental manipulation into a tapestry of texture and color for the reader.
Cowell is a musician herself, cognizant of the world of classical music. Before settling into a career as a novelist she made a profession as a coloratura soprano. Singing for one's supper--or even playing for it--was the path of both Mozart and the Weber family. Their need for dignity amidst the indignities of having no contracts, just faith that they would not go home empty-handed, is poignant in its immediacy. With no real dowries, the young girls are forced into a world where not only their musical talents, but also their innocence is exploited to keep the home together. Mozart too must generate an income for his family.
The four sisters stand at different ends of the compass, each with her own personality and dreams. Sofia, whose remembrances shape the story as she looks back in old age, is not only the youngest, but the one less inclined to turns of the creative heart. For a time she considers the convent. Josefa, the oldest, is tall, talented, passionate. She has great singing talent, but a wild heart. Aloysia is beautiful in the conventional manner, endowed with a stunning voice, but judged to have no heart. Constanze is the mild hand that steadies the family until she finds a late-blooming love for the young composer who was her sister's suitor.
The character of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is pulled these four ways by the four contrasting personalities. Cowell makes the observation (one of the most insightful of the book) that here was a man who needed to compartmentalize his life, especially in his young adulthood where his hormones raged against the strictures of an immense talent. This was a closed society where family was everything and the existential choice led only to banishment by the community. Mozart proves a young man of character, but some of his choices lead to a regret which the reader feels will follow him beyond the happy conclusion of a wedding. The bittersweet thought that Constanze has opted for her sister's discarded lover hangs in the air.
Genius means different things to different people. It is a word much bandied by our present culture. Mozart was, I believe, a definite genius. It is a hard situation for an artist to have to live with the realities of the mundane while carrying the fire of the gods in his soul. This glimpse of a life which ends far too soon after the novel's conclusion is a look of sympathy for a man who gave the world so much joy thereafter in his composition. Cowell does not judge. Her viewpoints in writing each character endow that character with their own goals and dreams. Even Frau Weber, mother of the four, is not portrayed as the harpy she might be.
Where the title refers to an actual marriage it also defines a marriage between the reader, the story, and the legacy of one musician. It depicts young love, idealized love, parental love with both the attributes of sacrifice and demand, as well as the enduring love of four sisters for each other. It is a novel much in tune with springtime in years lived and emotions stirred. It sings with the beauty that threaded its way through Mozart's operas especially in connection to first love.
One of the most memorable scenes in this book is where Mozart writes a song for Aloysia as a challenge to her claim of being able to sightread perfectly. He brings it with him to a musical evening at her home. Her fears rise as she begins the song, but then her delight in the music and her abilities take over and end in a sensual enjoyment that carries over to a young man at the party. This is where Cowell's writing proves best -- combining the art of the musician with the awakening of passions. The reader senses the ego yielding up to the joy of the deeper need to express. This too is a marriage.