Stephanie Cowell

"Marrying Mozart"

(reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 01, 2004)

"[Mozart] 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…"

Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell

Through the four daughters of Fridolin Weber, a poor, but talented, musician who knew just about everyone in the music world of Mannheim, author Stephanie Cowell reveals the rich, musical life of the inhabitants—even poor inhabitants who don't know how they will pay for the next bottle of wine or loaf of bread. Fridolin Weber, in fact, feeds his family primarily by copying page after page of other men's musical compositions, but every Thursday evening, he opens his house to performers, composers, and singers, who entertain an always-enthusiastic audience and an occasional music patron. It is at one of these soirees in 1777, that the 21-year-old Mozart and his mother, visitors from Salzburg, Austria, first meet the Webers.

This meeting is only the first of many over the next three years, as Mozart falls head over heels in love with Aloysia, lives with the family when Frau Weber opens a boarding house in Vienna, and eventually marries Constanze. So close is he to the family that he writes compositions for the voices of Josefa and Aloysia Weber and even creates parts in his operas for them.

Author Cowell portrays the domestic life of late eighteenth century Germany in careful detail, revealing the customs, the lifestyle, and the intellectual life of Mannheim, then Munich, and eventually Vienna. Every homely detail, from the type of stockings the girls wore, to the rags they used to curl their hair and the chores they were expected to do in the house contributes to the realism, along with personal insights into the tenuous and highly competitive life of a budding composer, like Mozart, and the role of the prince-bishop as a patron. The four, highly active Weber daughters, all quite different from each other in personality and each with different goals in life, broaden our perspective of the period and provide insights into what it might have been like to live in Germany two hundred years ago.

The Mozart we see here is very different from the Mozart one may have been exposed to in Amadeus. Passionately devoted to his music, he is somewhat insecure and under intense pressure to help support his much-loved father and sister in Salzburg. Young and in many ways naïve, he is not the petulant and sissified dandy we see in the film. When he brings a cake to the soiree, in fact, he seems rather innocent, a detail that makes his character seem more accessible. He is, however, somewhat clumsy in his personal relationships and unsure how to obtain the kind of commissions and support he needs to allow his prodigious talent to flourish. His father has warned him that he must be sure he can support himself and his music before he can even think about marrying or having a family, and as his compositions expand from sonatas to fully orchestrated operas in the three years of this novel, we observe him continuing to struggle for recognition in a world in which patrons want what they want, not necessarily what the composer may be inspired to create. At the mercy of patrons at the same time that he is the main support of his father and sister, Mozart has few choices open to him.

Women who read this novel will not be surprised at the lack of control women had over their lives two hundred years ago. As the Weber sisters amply illustrate, women are at the mercy of whichever men happen to be in their lives at any given moment, with marriages often regarded more as financial transactions, ensuring the future, than as commitments based on love. A single woman in this period leads a very precarious life, as we see through Josefa, unless she can develop a skill which will support her, and a widow with children faces terrifying prospects. As the Weber sisters and their mother make difficult choices during the three years of the novel, the reader empathizes with their heartaches and the strength of character necessary to put aside personal dreams and goals.

Lovers of romance will find plenty to admire here, as the Weber girls explore their own world, their potential futures, and their sexuality. This is a love story—showing the passionate love between men and women and the quiet devotion between parent and child, in a long ago time and in an exotic, rarified atmosphere. Filled with sensuous descriptions, it is far more a study of the four sisters than it is of Mozart, providing a woman's-eye view of music, the place of music in the lives of these women, and the sacrifices women and their spouses must make for art.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 37 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Marrying Mozart at author's website

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About the Author:

Stephanie CowellStephanie Cowell was born in New York City, the daughter of artists and fell in love with all things English at an early age, reading the complete works of Shakespeare at twelve and studying his age with total fascination. By the time she was twenty, she had won prizes in two national story contests.

In her early twenties, she left writing to train her voice for opera. As a lyric coloratura soprano she sang many roles, including a great deal of Mozart. She also became a balladeer with a specialty in English folk songs, a lecturer on English social history, formed a classical singing ensemble and an opera group called Strawberry, for which she translated Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. This led to her return to writing, which began when two characters in her mind kept waking her in the middle of the night with their talking.

Her second novel The Physician of London won a 1996 American Book Award.

She is married to the poet Russell Clay and between them, they have five grown sons. They make their home on the Upper West Side of New York City. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014