The many muses of Amadeus
Is the key to Mozart's splendidly drawn female characters to be found in his life story?
The year 2006, the two hundred fiftieth anniversary of Mozart's birth, has unsurprisingly yielded a plethora of new Mozart biographies. Yet as far as I know, no one besides the British conductor Jane Glover has devoted an entire book to the women, "who inspired, fascinated, supported, amused, aroused and sometimes hurt Mozart throughout his life."
In Mozart's Women, Glover argues that since Mozart created some of the most "vividly drawn and brilliantly understood" women ever to grace the opera stage, all of his female family members and acquaintances bear closer scrutiny. Glover is a tremendously enthused author, whose love of Mozart's music - especially opera - makes her writing quite pleasurable, if often a bit gushy.
A well-respected conductor of 18th-century music, Ms. Glover writes perceptively and knowledgeably about the theatrical genius of Mozart's operas ("The Magic Flute," "The Marriage of Figaro," "Don Giovanni," "The Abduction from the Seraglio," "Così Fan Tutte," etc.) and her expertise contributes significantly to the pleasures afforded by this volume. Those who know and love these glorious works will delight in Glover's long and excellent essay, the eponymous "Mozart's Women," placed at the heart of the book.
And then there's the story of Mozart's life. Surrounded by a stellar array of famous musicians, royalty, friends, and a devoted wife, Mozart spent his childhood as a prodigy in a rather enclosed sibling world of games, secrets, and shared musicmaking with his older sister and best friend, Nannerl.
The two were schooled entirely at home and on tour by their irascible, bullying father Leopold. Throughout their prodigious childhood, they were very close both as friends and as chamber musicians, playing Wolfgang's piano duets on one keyboard.
Sadly, they drifted apart after their teenage years, and saw each other rarely after that. However, after Mozart's death, Nannerl was indispensible to biographers seeking material about the composer's childhood. In fact much of what we know today about Mozart's early days comes solely from her.
The next group of women ("Mozart's other family" as Ms. Glover dubs them) to appear and play important roles in Mozart's life was the close-knit quartet of Weber sisters, first cousins of the famous composer Carl Maria von Weber. (Apparently they are important to Glover as well; in the acknowledgments at the end of the book, she writes of planning a television play about the four sisters.)
Many of Mozart's best concert arias were written for Aloysia Weber both in the midst of and then long after his infatuation for her. Josefa sang the lead roles in many of his operas both during his lifetime and after his death. Sophie had a crucial role in tending to Mozart during his final illness (he was 35), and 25 years later she wrote a powerful memoir about Mozart's last days.
Constanze Weber, the sister Wolfgang eventually married, has generally been "maligned, ridiculed and slandered by the cruel tongues of posterity." Ms. Glover convincingly paints a unusually sympathetic and favorable portrait.
"Supportive, intelligent, and encouraging," Constanze was "a fun-loving companion" who, after Mozart's early death, did her utmost to ensure Mozart's reputation would be stellar, and that his music would be in the hands of reputable publishers.
Many of the works Mozart began before and shortly after his marriage to Constanze were left unfinished, like the great C minor Mass. Some biographers have speculated that there was a shallowness of feeling between the couple based on their observation that none of the works dedicated to Constanze was ever completed.
Glover, to the contrary, argues that "the vast conception and 'tailor made' solo writing for Constanze are spectacular indicators of his great love for his new wife," particularly as they demonstrate his awareness of the music that she both liked and could sing.
Glover writes about the operas and their plots, librettists, singers, and music in great detail, often sounding like the enthused announcer at the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. While the section of the book devoted to the operas may be of only minimal interest to those without intimate knowledge of Mozart's operas, for true enthusiasts they will be fascinating, particularly to the degree that they illuminate the influence a great singer can have on a great composer.
Female characters and female psychology dominate Mozart's operas; the singers with great voices allowed his imagination to soar. Mozart wrote in a deeply personalized way for the voice, Glover explains, "the better he knew his interpreters, the better the product."
The structure of "Mozart's Women" is somewhat awkward. It could best be described as two different books housed - sometimes uncomfortably - under one cover. Redundancies crop up that an editor should have caught. And an occasional musical example to illustrate a point that Glover regards as unusually important would have been of great help to the reader; the extra cost would have been worth it.
This said, for those who love Mozart, this is a book of great interest.
• Susan Miron is a harpist and writer living in Newton, Mass.