Marrying Mozart

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9780143034575: Marrying Mozart

Amadeus meets Little Women in this irresistibly delightful historical novel by award-winning author Stephanie Cowell. The year is 1777 and the four Weber sisters, daughters of a musical family, share a crowded, artistic life in a ramshackle house. While their father scrapes by as a music copyist and their mother secretly draws up a list of prospective suitors in the kitchen, the sisters struggle with their futures, both marital and musical—until twenty-one-year-old Wolfgang Mozart walks into their lives. Bringing eighteenth-century Europe to life with unforgiving winters, yawning princes, scheming parents, and the enduring passions of young talent, Stephanie Cowell’s richly textured tale captures a remarkable historical figure—and the four young women who engage his passion, his music, and his heart.

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About the Author:

Stephanie Cowell is the critically acclaimed author of Nicholas Cooke, The Players: A Novel of the Young Shakespeare, and The Physician of London (winner of a 1996 American Book Award).

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

part one

Mannheim and the Webers, 1777

Up five flights of cracking wood steps of a modest town house in the city of Mannheim, Fridolin Weber stood peering over his candle, which cast a dim light down the rounded banister below. “Mind the broken step,” he called convivially to his visitors. “Come this way, come this way.”

Of middle years, he was a lean man but for a small round stomach under his vest, and he wore a long coat to his knees and mended white cotton hose to his breech buckles. His lank graying hair was caught with a frayed black ribbon at his neck and hung limply down his back. He craned his long neck to see down the stairs.

Behind him, the front parlor of the cramped apartment had been dusted, polished, and abundantly lit with eight candles. There, near the clavier, his four daughters, age eleven to nineteen, stood dressed in their best ordinary gowns, hair glistening with curls that one hour before had been tightly wrapped in rags. It was Thursday. Things somehow always turned out well on Thursday evenings when friends came.

The rest of the rooms were dark, except for the fire in the kitchen, for all the candles were in here. The parlor had been tidied, and a shawl draped over the clavier; all the music had been sorted in neat heaps on the floor. Weber’s corpulent wife, Maria Caecilia, emerged from the kitchen as if she had not been baking there for hours, and stood by his side, murmuring the words he knew she would speak. “There won’t be enough wine. Your cousin Alfonso drinks like a fish.”

“Pour small glasses,” he said, squeezing her arm, and then, turning to the dark stair again, called down happily, “Yes, come up, come up, dear friends—I’ve been waiting for you.”

From the darkness of the stair emerged Heinemann, a violinist from court, extending his always damp hands, and balding Cousin Alfonso, who wore his wig only for his cello performances. The four girls stood nudging one another, whispering, curtseying. Their hands were a little worn and pricked from washing and sewing. There was about them the scent of youth, youth that, with a little soap and a clean petticoat, was as fresh as flowers.

Wine was poured in small glasses, and two more musicians arrived. Every now and then Fridolin Weber peered through the window down to the street. He knew everybody, everything. He knew the world of music especially, because he copied it page after page for a small fee. In addition, he was a versatile musician. For what occasion had he not played his half-dozen instruments at which he was adequately proficient, or poured forth his meager, congenial, slightly hoarse singing voice? But he was modest, his narrow shoulders rounded.

“Who else do you expect this Thursday, Weber?” asked Alfonso, already enjoying his third glass of wine. “You seem to be waiting. Is it Grossmeyer, the choirmaster? He had rehearsal this night, I thought.”

“Some new friends, recommended to me—a matron from Salzburg and her twenty-one-year-old son, who has composed a great deal already.” He leaned against the window frame to look down, and then drew in his breath with pleasure. “Perhaps that ... yes, that must be them. They’re making their way to the door below.” Negotiating among chairs, music stands, and guests, he crossed the room and opened the door to the landing once again. The cold breeze whisked into the room, and the candles fluttered. “Come up, come up,” he cried.

An ample-busted woman with a long mournful face under her piled hair appeared panting on the top step. Behind her, trying to slow his climb in consideration, was her son, a pale young man with large eyes and a large nose, somewhat below middle height but neatly made with supple hands beneath his lace cuffs.

“Frau Mozart, a pleasure, and Herr Mozart, I presume?”

“You’re most gracious to invite us,” replied Frau Mozart.

In a flurry of consultation the four girls disappeared into another room and returned with two more chairs that they offered, and Weber himself brought more wine. Introductions were made, and bows exchanged. Frau Mozart balanced her wine cautiously on her knee. She wore no rouge, and she gathered her dark skirts closely, as if wanting to leave as little of them as possible flowing about her; her mouth was compressed like a tightly drawn purse. She looked into every corner of the room, taking in the piles of music and the few sconces without candles.

Weber rubbed his hands and rocked back and forth in his pleasure. “Do I understand you’ve arrived from Salzburg just two weeks ago? And that your husband is employed there as musician by the Archbishop’s court?”

“Indeed, sir; we’ve come here looking for greater opportunities for my son.”

“Why, there are opportunities enough here, Alfonso will tell you. I copy, I compose a little, I play several instruments. If music is wanted, I’m there to make it.” All this time Herr Mozart said nothing, but looked about the room seriously, bowing when he caught someone’s eye.

Cakes and coffee came; the wondrous fragrance of the hot beverage stirred with cinnamon and cream filled the rooms. Weber would not stint on his Thursday evenings, not even if they had nothing but porridge for three days following, thick and lumpy, with no sugar and only third- quality milk.

“Now we’ll have music,” Fridolin Weber cried when the cake lay in crumbs on coat fronts and across the parlor floor. “What’s an evening without music? Alfonso, have you brought parts for your new trio? Come, come.”

At once the four girls clustered against the wall to make room, while Weber, with a sweep of his coattails, sat down at the clavier and candles were moved to illuminate the music. The sound of strings and clavier soared through the small chamber, Fridolin Weber playing deftly, nodding, exclaiming at passages that pleased him. They finished the last movement with a great sweep of Heinemann’s bow, after which he lay his violin on his knee, perspiring and wearing a great smile. Some other brief pieces followed, and then Weber stood and called, “And will you play something as well, Herr Mozart?”

The young man leapt up to the clavier; he pushed back his cuffs and began a sonata andante with variations. Each successive variation gathered in depth. Weber leaned forward. There was a rare delicacy to the young man’s playing, and an unusual strength in his left hand, which made the musicians look at one another. Heinemann grinned, showing small, darkened teeth. He sat breathing through his mouth, fingers drumming on his breeches above the buckle.

Maria Caecilia Weber maneuvered her full skirts through the crowded room, refilling the coffee cups. She glanced briefly at the man with little white hands who played with such concentrated intimacy, noting that when a spoon she carried clattered to the floor, his shoulders stiffened slightly, and he did not lower them again for a few minutes.

The music ended as abruptly as it had begun, and both Alfonso and Heinemann rose to their feet clapping firmly. The young man’s face was still absorbed, as if he barely noticed the small parlor with its shadowy gathering. He said in his light tenor voice, “A fine instrument, Herr Weber. It reminds me of one I knew in London when I was there years ago as a boy. The Tschudi clavier. My sister and I played a duet on it; it had a remarkable mechanism for color and volume.” “Sir, I thank you,” replied Fridolin, rubbing his hands. “If an instrument could have a soul, mine does. Yes, yes, whatever you all may say, we know it. We all know it. You’re a gifted player! With what piece have you favored us? One of your own, I trust?”

Mozart’s large eyes were now almost playful, and he kept a few fingers on the raised clavier lid as if unwilling to leave it. “The last movement of a sonata I wrote in Munich a few years back. I’ve some themes for another sonata for the daughter of Herr Cannabich, your orchestral director here. Though young, she’s gifted.”

“But you know Cannabich? We all play with him from time to time,” Fridolin said, while Alfonso poured another glass of wine and hooted loudly. Now by a sudden waver of candlelight Fridolin could see that the young man’s face was faintly scarred with smallpox, old marks likely from childhood. Fridolin glanced at Frau Mozart’s stolid expression, thinking how she must have worried and suffered! It was God’s mercy, he thought, that his own lovely girls had not been afflicted.

He cried, “Another cup of coffee, come!”

The last drop of coffee was sipped; the last piece of chamber music ended. Then the two older sisters, Josefa and Aloysia, wound their arms about each other’s waist and began a duet. Both voices were very high, but Josefa’s had darker tones. From the corner the two younger girls watched the rise and fall of their sisters’ full breasts, heard the quick fioritura, sighed at the higher notes that rang round and round the little room.

Heinemann shook his head with pleasure. “In such parlors all over Europe, young girls are singing,” he said. “It’s an art every cultivated woman learns, yet none I believe can do so with more grace than your daughters, dear Weber.”

“Sir, I thank you,” replied Weber in a low voice.

The chiming of a clock some streets away announced that the hour of eleven had come. The guests thanked their host several times and descended; Fridolin Weber, easily made gay with a little wine, held the stub of the candle for them. “Good night, good night!” he called as they went forth onto the streets of Mannheim.

Husband and wife cleared away the glasses and retreated, yawning, to their bedchamber, which was furnished with a large iron bedstead, some trunks, a wardrobe, and a dark portrait of Christ as a child. Maria Caecilia Weber sank down on the mattress edge, which sagged beneath her; she had already removed her corset and pulled on her wool sleeping gown. She was now winding her hair in rags, her swollen fingers deftly dipping each rag first in the warm, milky broth of a cracked cup. “You and your old friends,” she muttered. “Alfonso never returns the invitations; we never eat at his expense.”

“What does that matter?” replied Fridolin as he undressed. The last small candle flickered in the mirror, revealing his thin legs as he sighed a little to pull off his stockings.

“As far as the young man and his mother are concerned, they haven’t any money, that’s clear. ‘What else does he compose?’ I asked the good woman, and she puffed out her bosom and murmured, ‘Everything!’—as if we should welcome another composer when there are two to be found under every market stall. Did you notice how much cake and wine they consumed, as if they made their dinner from it? Can’t you find any better people to invite? Is this how you look out for the future of your poor girls? What will happen to them? How will they find husbands without dowries? Do you ever plan for the future? How can you provide for four girls on the salary of a music copyist and second tenor in the chapel choir?” Having finished her hair, she flopped heavily into a reclining position on the feather mattress that had been part of her own dowry long ago.

“Soft, soft,” her husband said. “You see, pigeon, it’s not all that bad; what does it matter if we’re poor? We have music and friendship. And they sing beautifully.”

“What will that gain them?” came her voice from the pillow. She raised her head and looked at her husband intensely. “Fridolin, listen to me. You know what happened to my own two sisters, my beautiful sisters! Little Gretchen. You remember the story.”

“I can’t forget it; it means so much to you.”

“Youth doesn’t last forever; they must understand it. And the older two are certainly of an age to be betrothed.”

“Yes, yes, my love,” he said, pulling on his nightcap and stretching out next to her. “That’s wise and true. He plays well, that young man; I believe he has plans for an opera.”

Maria Caecilia had fallen silent, only vaguely aware of her husband’s callused fingertips on her breast and his yawns. She thought of the beauty of her four daughters as they stood by candlelight in the parlor. “Fridolin,” she whispered. “They aren’t ordinary girls; there is nothing ordinary about them. I have my plans for them. I have my plans.”

But her husband was asleep.

In the Webers’ apartment on the fifth story of the old stone house in Mannheim, there were, other than the tiny parlor and dining room, a kitchen and two sleeping chambers, each also small. In the second stood two more iron bed stands with torn hangings, each narrow enough for one girl yet, out of necessity, sleeping two. A print of Caecilia, the patron saint of music, eyes raised to heaven and delicately playing a viola, was hung on one wall, while chemises and petticoats dangled everywhere from hooks. To get to the door of the room, you had to climb over one of the beds.

Dawn was coming, creeping through the window over the four lovely girls, still in dreams, none yet twenty, half naked: nightdresses fallen from plump, clear shoulders, pulled up high on downy thighs. The warm scent of perspiration, of old gowns, of sensuality blossoming like a garden. Four girls trying to be beautiful on a few yards of good cloth, two pendants from their late, mourned grandmother, and an insufficient number of much mended white hose.

With the first light the eldest, Josefa, sat up, her brown hair in tangled curls. She climbed over Aloysia, making the bed groan with her plumpness, her bare thighs as soft as warm bread beneath her old nightdress, and then climbed even less carefully over the feet of the smaller girls. Six o’clock by the church clock, and they had not gone to bed until one. She stretched to her full height, which made her head nearly touch the sloping ceiling, arching back her full shoulders. Oh, why was it her turn to begin the day? The first clavier pupil came at seven, and father must have his coffee and an ironed shirt.

In the kitchen she coaxed a fire and put the heavy iron on the grate to heat. Outside the small window she could see the milk wagon. Little Sophie was to run down and make sure they had fresh milk for the day; if Sophie didn’t, Josefa wouldn’t for certain. Nothing woke her Sophie, the sloth. Well, they would have dry bread and no milk; it was not her concern. And it was the turn of Aloysia, who thought herself above such things, to trudge down to the common cistern to empty the chamber pots for the refuse collector.

Beyond the church spires, the sky was growing light.

Josefa spat on the iron to test its readiness, sprinkled the shirt with water from a bowl, and began to iron fiercely, the muscles in her firm arm working. What a life, she thought. Always having to pretend you have money when you don’t; isn’t that the way it is? How to bring them from their precarious existence where they were always late with the rent? It had concerned her the past few years since she had begun to understand that none of her darling father’s musical endeavors had yet lifted them from the edge of poverty.

She pressed the iron’s nose firmly into the rough linen of the sleeve where it was set into the body, beginning to hum an aria from one of Piccinni’s popular operas, and then to sing more fully, her rich tones ringing through the small rooms.

From the half-open door of the bedroom came Aloysia’s more silvery voice. “Oh shut up, shut up, shut up. I need sleep.”

“You need sleep! You took up more than half of the bed last night; you always do. You’re always squeezing me out, and this morning there wasn’t any room, and I couldn’t move you, you lump, you cow.”

“No decent person should have to sleep with you, Josefa, the way you toss and tu...

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