Marrying Mozart is an engaging journey behind the scenes and petticoats of the fabled composer and his relationships with the Weber family, one of whom (Constanze) fulfilled the literal meaning of the title. But on another plane, Stephanie Cowell’s historical novel delves intriguingly into Mozart’s union with the rest of society who either marvel at his art or writhe in jealousy of his easy genius.
The glue that finally binds the pair is their common desire to hold their respective families together. Mozart, at twenty-one and no longer a child prodigy as the narrative begins, tries to support his mother, father and sister by composing, concertizing and dreaming; Stanzi, the second youngest of the four sisters, is blindly obedient to her marriage-scheming mother and the tirelessly supportive cheer-leader of her siblings whether they are preparing for concerts of their own (the eldest, Josefa and Aloysia are artists in their own right) or abandoning men altogether for a life in service of God (Sophie, the spectacled “baby” who also serves as family confessor to Mozart biographer Novello).
Like overtures, entr’actes and preludes, Sophie’s first-person recollections serve as the curtain-raisers to the six-act narrative spanning 1777 to the première of the Abduction from Seraglio and his wedding day.
Indeed, Cowell’s own background as a lyric coloratura seeps unabashedly into every page. At its best, she digs deep into the feelings and emotions of her cast who must endure overbearing parents and fickle lovers. Where it slips are in the plot points, some of which are nicely set up, but stumble in the payoff (Mother Weber’s secret betrothal book is inadvertently damaged by one of the girls as they surreptitiously read its private contents, but as fast as you can say “Allegro assai” the conveniently nearby paste pot is pressed into service and the matriarch is never the wiser; a sexual party favour given by Constanze to the lecherous piano maker Johann Schantz is unbelievably confessed to Mozart in the shop). Driven by incredible music and magnificent sets, operas can get away with loose story telling—novels cannot.
But the set dressing is fabulous: seasonal lemonade, abundant cakes, dark chocolate and second helpings of veal; oceans of wine, seductive boarders and therapeutic staircases—all carefully combined to bring the reader’s senses and sensibilities convincingly back to the eighteenth century. Only a sprinkle of wig powder, or a slight spray of lavender on each copy could improve Cowell’s magnificent depiction of life in another era and place.
Dialogue is trickier, finding the balance between what might have actually been said and what rings false to today’s eye/ear is challenging: “I’ve some themes for another sonata for the daughter of Herr Cannabich, your orchestral director here,” gives unnecessary information, so seems awkward whereas “If letter writing were copulating, my cousin and I would have done it a dozen times,” is naughtily hilarious.
The many musical references can also be treacherous. We learn that “the ivory keys … were tuned”—surely it’s their strings, yet quibbles such as that are effectively redeemed when we understand that “She was not reading the song; she became it.” Marvellous!
A far cry from the excessive licence taken in Amadeus (cross-reference below), Cowell shows flashes of greatness and, no doubt, the shackles of Salieri-like insecurity will be stripped off completely in her next volume. JWR