Showing posts with label Carolyn Meyer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Carolyn Meyer. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

In Mozart's Shadow by Carolyn Meyer

Title:        In Mozart's Shadow: His Sister's Story

Author: Carolyn Meyer
Publisher: Harcourt
Rating: WARTY!

The story begins with Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart (known as Nannerl) having all the musical attention, in fact being rather spoiled (I skipped the prologue in this story since it offered no attraction for me).

I tried to find out why there is this obsession with adding '-erl' to people's names, but could find no reference to it in anything I read about Anna or Wolferl (Mozart). Name etymologies all suggested different derivations, which only goes to show that none of them really know what they're talking about! It would appear, at least at first blush, that it derives from Anna, but I still have no good idea what the deal is with this. I can only assume it’s some sort of affectionate term applied to youngsters and cute pets.

Meyer uses this diminutive routinely, and I have to say I find it insulting. Given that Meyer's obvious agenda here is to promote 'Mozart's sister' and her accomplishments, why would she undermine that aim by consistently relegating Anna's status to that of to a child with a pet name? Th ebook itself is divided into four parts, every single one of which is titled using one of Wolferl's names: Wolferl, Amadeo, Wolfgang Mozart! How insulting! The book is supposed to be about Anna,. yet it's really about Wolferl all along! It's Meyer who actually puts Anna into her brother's shadow! I have, therefore, decided to rebel against this, and to refer to her as Anna from here on out! So there! And I'm going to use Mozart's diminutive from here on out, too. Take that!

Anna's privileged position changes significantly when her brother Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (as he evidently liked to be known later in life), called Wolferl (and their dog was Bimperl!) arrives, and as he grows, shows himself to be a musical prodigy. The story really takes off when Wolferl is five and Anna is ten, and their father insists upon taking them to Vienna (later to become the home of the famous Strauss musical dynasty) to get them known, and to make money. They end up performing successfully for royalty, for which they're rewarded with money, clothes, and marzipan cakes.

OK, now you know my superhero weakness. Yes, you attack me with marzipan and I am defeated instantly.

I have read five chapters of this as of this writing, and I have to say I'm having some small difficulty with Meyer's style. I'm not a fan of historical fiction (and especially not historical romance, which this isn’t) so I'm biased against this in a way, but I am interested in reading historical work if it’s informative and well done. Meyer's effort isn't a disaster by any means; I get no feeling so fat that I want to ditch this novel prematurely, but it's a bit choppy and her style is not easy on my mind. It feels a bit like reading a high-school essay!

It's like she read up industriously on all things Wolferl, which is commendable, but she's now simply transposing those notes directly into a novel without thinking too deeply about the flow of her prose or of smoothing out the rough edges and balancing things. This lack of attention to composition I find rather sad given that this novel is very much about composition (in music), about musical talent, and about harmony. Her style betrays that somewhat, but I'm going to stick with it.

When you're writing about someone whose native language isn’t English, it's hard to strike a balance between using plain English and conveying to your readers that this person is not English, does not speak English and may have thought processes which are rather alien to those of us whose native language is English (especially when such people are removed from us by many generations). Meyer approaches this by tossing in a German phrase here and there, which I found disruptive because it does keep reminding me that I'm reading a novel, but it’s not a game killer. Of course, if this novel were written in German I’d be lost because I can’t speak it! What you gain on the carousel you lose in the vomit, I guess....

Anyway, after their success in Vienna, their father is determined to make a grand tour of Europe. Already by this time we can see Meyer's bias strongly coming to the fore. She's very much determined to make Anna's father a villain, and to transform Anna into a tragically robbed victim of child abuse. Maybe she's right, but I'm not ready to buy into this wholesale.

From what I've read of Wolferl and Anna, it would seem their father was driven; that he was one of these parents we see all-too-often today, who want their children to make up for some perceived lack in their parents' character or achievements instead of allowing the child to be a child and as they grow to play to their strengths, and flourish in their own right. So they keep pushing and pushing the child.

There's another assumption at play here, too: that Anna was on a much greater par with Wolferl than history has allowed her, but the fact is that we do not know this at all. We know she could play and compose. We know she was good enough to play in public and her father encouraged this, although he made her increasingly take a back seat as Wolferl himself came to the fore. But we have no compositions of Anna's extant, so we have no means at all of really judging how good she was, and even if we had her compositions, it would not tell us how well she herself played.

Some point to the fact that Wolferl, in at least one letter, referred to Anna's composition and encouraged her to continue, and he even played some of her pieces (so I understand), but this still doesn’t speak to how competent or talented she was. It’s possible that Wolferl was merely indulging his sister out of familiar affection. It’s possible that he truly did believe she was talented and wanted to encourage her. I don't think we know the answer to that question. Not from what I've read, anyway.

I'm a strong champion of women, but I don’t think anyone does women a service by falsely promoting them or by promoting them to great heights without sufficient justification for it. Perhaps Anna was worthy of every accolade with which her champions seek to shower her, but given our obsession with creating heroes out of everyone these days, I think we need to exercise caution in these endeavors, and to accept that if we’re honest, we really have insufficient data to make that call with any real confidence. It’s like Syndrome says in The Incredibles: "Once everyone is a superhero, then no one will be."

What I can readily agree upon is how shamefully women were treated back then (and still are today it needs to be said). We can agree that Anna was robbed of the opportunity to succeed or fail, but the assumption from which Meyer is operating: that Anna was seriously talented and that she was desperate for recognition and her own career in music is not something of which Meyer or my own reading at this point, has convinced me.

On another topic, here's a problem in jumping from one genre directly into a novel of a completely different genre: when I read of the young Wolferl's playful relationship with his cousin Maria Anna Thekla Mozart, who was referred to as bäsle (little cousin) all I could think of was Baal, the evil demon who attacked Jael in Misfit! Sad, sad, sad!

<>The grand tour takes them over three years to complete and they visit a variety of places, including Paris, England, and Amsterdam. Every time they think they're going home (and this is something which Anna evidently dearly wants), their father determines that there is just one more place they should go in pursuit of the almighty franc, pound, or guilder. They also get dangerously sick a few times, especially Wolferl.

Given all of the traveling which this family undertakes, the story suffers because it’s never about the journey, always about the destination which is rather odd in a story which is ostensibly about Anna's journey through life! It would have been nice to have shared with the family some of the hardships they endured actually during the journey. Yes, we hear of bad roads and uncomfortable seats, at one point a broken wheel, and at another a game Wolferl and Anna played with their stylist, but I get the feeling that these were only there because Meyer had made a note of these things and was determined to include them no matter what, rather than tell us something more interesting about the people who undertook these awful journeys, how they spent their time, and what they discussed. It’s not like you set out in the car and you're there three hours later having listened to music from your player all the way! These were long, painful, arduous journeys, but we hear almost nothing of what really transpired during them.

Noting that absence of discussion also makes me wonder why this family never discuss their siblings. Of course, they were all dead by the time the novel begins! The only place I have found any information on them was in the wikipedia entry on Anna's mother.

Anna and Wolferl were the only two survivors of seven births (and Wolferl himself had only two of his six children survive). Yes! Disease was brutal on children back then which was one reason (the other being lousy contraception!) why they had such huge families - so many of the children died that if they had only one or two, they would eventually and in short order be childless. Families were not outraged by this; they accepted this appalling attrition as part of family life. Of course, they were grieved by them, but they did not rail against an unjust and callous god for hacking down their infants with the very diseases he had purportedly created during the only six days he worked in his entire life! It was normal for them to have so many children die so readily. Three of the five siblings of Anna and Wolferl died before either of them were born, but two of them died during Anna's lifetime, yet she speaks not a single word about them.

When the Mozarts arrive home they're celebrities (this sounds like it could be a TV sitcom, doesn’t it, rather like the Partridge Family! Lol!). However, daddy isn't content (not to be confused with incontinent), and wants them to tour in continent some more. They make an abortive return trip to Vienna, where a massive smallpox outbreak prevents them from performing and eventually lays both Anna and Wolferl low. Each time they get sick, they 'take powders' and have blood let, and steadfastly maintain that they must endure god's will no matter what it is. This is why their father refused to have them inoculated against the smallpox. Upon their return home, they eventually get the good news that their archbishop is willing to fund a trip to Italy for them. The catch is that 'them' means only Wolferl and father. The women of the house cannot go, so daddy says.

The story telling style hasn’t improved. In fact, what Meyer is conveying to me with all this is that Anna spends all her time bemoaning the endless travel and whining about her having to play second fiddle (or rather, second harpsichord) to Wolferl, whilst her brother is spending all his time practicing, practicing, practicing, and composing. The funny thing is that at the same time as she's frequently referring to Wolferl playing in the background or in another room, Anna is also insisting that he needs no practice and that she must practice constantly! Yet we never get the feeling that she is practicing so tenaciously! It’s mentioned here and there, but we're never allowed to be with her when she's practicing, nor to learn how she feels about it, or what her difficulties and real joys are. This is not a good way to get the impression over to me that she's somehow being slighted or derailed despite her endless hard work whilst spoiled brat Wolferl is getting a free ride.

I also have to observe that despite the fact that this entire novel revolves around the passion for music and musical accomplishments, in the first hundred or so pages, we learning nothing about music or about how Anna plays or relates to it, even as we're urged to accept that she's head-over-heels in love with it! We're frequently told that all she wants to do is play, play play, but we never sit with her at the harpsichord or the clavicle and get to feel how she feels about it, or what goes through her mind as she's playing.

In Misfit, Jon Skovron routinely conveyed Jael's experiences and her depressed or elevated feelings really well. We experienced the same thing in You Against Me. I tried hard to convey this in Seasoning, but here in this novel, we're offered no real reason to buy into what we're told about Anna's deep attachment to her music. I find myself querying whether Meyer herself is that interested in music - or at least in this period's music.

I know a lot of writers like to play music when they write. Some even publish their 'playlist' with the novel it accompanied. I can't do that. I find myself far too distracted by the music, and my writing suffers for it! But in this case, with this novel, you'd think that we'd have much more conveyed to us about the music for its own sake. Ideally, a novel like this ought to be issued with a CD of music labeled so that you can listen to it at appropriate moments during reading, or the music ought to be supplied on a web site for download to your favorite listening device.

As it is, I'm disappointed, but I am still willing to continue my 'suspension of disbelief' contract with Meyer in this tale. My feeling at this point is that even if I'd been more disappointed in it than I am, I’d still be inclined to rate it as worthy because I think it’s important that people read works of this nature in order to understand better what our ancestors endured and what, in this case, women endured, even if the telling of the tale lacks something in credibility or isn't presented to its best advantage.

She could, had she thought more deeply about it, have found herself a husband who could have helped her continue working towards her musical ambitions, but all Meyer does is to continue to paint Anna as a maudlin victim, someone who is completely helpless without a man (in this case Wolferl) at her side. How does this render a portrait of a talented young woman who only needs a bit of a springboard to launch herself into the atmosphere she supposedly deserves? I don't think Meyer does Anna any service whatsoever, frankly, and now I want to read something about her written by someone who actually is telling it the way it was. I also want to read Anna's letters to Wolferl and his to her.

Meyer writes that Wolferl composed a sonata duet for Anna's twenty-first birthday, but when they come to play it together on the same 'keyboard', her fingers are stiff from lack of exercise. How are we supposed to comport this with the underlying theme which is Anna's passion for music? Surely if her passion was so great, she would have played regularly instead of buying a canary with the attendant resolve to teach it to sing? But we honestly don't know whether Anna's fingers really were stiff. We do know that Meyer has made this up and that she's really betraying Anna here, rather than championing her.

Meyer writes that Anna is pleased that Wolferl never criticizes her 'keyboard technique'. The word 'keyboard' did not come into use until long after the period about which Meyer is writing! Anna would never have used that term, but that's not the worst crime. Meyer is here betraying the understanding that some people have, that Wolferl thought Anna's talent to be strong, and her composition to be good. If he is, as Anna states here, so averse to criticizing her, then we have no meter whatsoever with which we might accurately measure her talent. For all we know, based on Meyer's writing, Anna could have been quite average, with Wolferl praising her only because he didn’t want to upset his emotional sister. I'm not saying that's the way it was, but Meyer certainly isn’t making a convincing case that it wasn't!

I began this on Anna's side. I wanted to see that, and understand how, she had been robbed. Unfortunately, the more I read Meyer's words, the more I find myself in a state where I can be easily convinced that she wasn't, but whether Anna was robbed or not, the fact remains that it’s not reality which is convincing me, it's Meyer herself! Presumably this is the very opposite effect to that which she sought to achieve with this novel! My feeling right now is to go ahead and recommend reading this, but to treat it as pure fiction, bearing the same relationship to reality that an impressionist painting does to a sharp color photograph. Yes, it's an image of the same scene, but if you want to pick out the fine details, you need the photograph. It you want all emotion and don’t really care about how things really are, then you need the painting. The painting is far more about the artist than it is about the scene the artist paints. And I only recommend this novel if it has the effect on you that it did on me: now I really want to learn the truth from a reliable source. Or at least as closely as we can approach the truth some two hundred years after the fact of it.

Meyer writes that Wolferl composed a sonata duet for Anna's twenty-first birthday, but when they come to play it together on the same 'keyboard', her fingers are stiff from lack of exercise. How are we supposed to comport this with the underlying theme which is Anna's passion for music? Surely if her passion was so great, she would have played regularly instead of buying a canary with the attendant resolve to teach it to sing? But we honestly don't know whether Anna's fingers really were stiff. We do know that Meyer has made this up and that she's really betraying Anna here, rather than championing her.

Meyer writes that Anna is pleased that Wolferl never criticizes her 'keyboard technique'. The word 'keyboard' did not come into use until long after the period about which Meyer is writing! Anna would never have used that term, but that's not the worst crime. Meyer is here betraying the understanding that some people have, that Wolferl thought Anna's talent to be strong, and her composition to be good. If he is, as Anna states here, so averse to criticizing her, then we have no meter whatsoever with which we might accurately measure her talent. For all we know, based on Meyer's writing, Anna could have been quite average, with Wolferl praising her only because he didn’t want to upset his emotional sister. I'm not saying that's the way it was, but Meyer certainly isn’t making a convincing case that it wasn't!

I began this on Anna's side. I wanted to see that, and understand how, she had been robbed. Unfortunately, the more I read Meyer's words, the more I find myself in a state where I can be easily convinced that she wasn't, but whether Anna was robbed or not, the fact remains that it’s not reality which is convincing me, it's Meyer herself! Presumably this is the very opposite effect to that which she sought to achieve with this novel! My feeling right now is to go ahead and recommend reading this, but to treat it as pure fiction, bearing the same relationship to reality that an impressionist painting does to a sharp color photograph. Yes, it's an image of the same scene, but if you want to pick out the fine details, you need the photograph. It you want all emotion and don’t really care about how things really are, then you need the painting. The painting is far more about the artist than it is about the scene the artist paints. And I only recommend this novel if it has the effect on you that it did on me: now I really want to learn the truth from a reliable source. Or at least as closely as we can approach the truth some two hundred years after the fact of it.

Meyer writes that Anna is pleased that Wolferl never criticizes her 'keyboard technique'. The word 'keyboard' did not come into use until long after the period about which Meyer is writing! Anna would never have used that term, but that's not the worst crime. Meyer is here betraying the understanding that some people have, that Wolferl thought Anna's talent to be strong, and her composition to be good. If he is, as Anna states here, so averse to criticizing her, then we have no meter whatsoever with which we might accurately measure her talent. For all we know, based on Meyer's writing, Anna could have been quite average, with Wolferl praising her only because he didn’t want to upset his emotional sister. I'm not saying that's the way it was, but Meyer certainly isn’t making a convincing case that it wasn't!

I began this on Anna's side. I wanted to see that, and understand how, she had been robbed. Unfortunately, the more I read Meyer's words, the more I find myself in a state where I can be easily convinced that she wasn't, but whether Anna was robbed or not, the fact remains that it’s not reality which is convincing me, it's Meyer herself! Presumably this is the very opposite effect to that which she sought to achieve with this novel! My feeling right now is to go ahead and recommend reading this, but to treat it as pure fiction, bearing the same relationship to reality that an impressionist painting does to a sharp color photograph. Yes, it's an image of the same scene, but if you want to pick out the fine details, you need the photograph. It you want all emotion and don’t really care about how things really are, then you need the painting. The painting is far more about the artist than it is about the scene the artist paints. And I only recommend this novel if it has the effect on you that it did on me: now I really want to learn the truth from a reliable source. Or at least as closely as we can approach the truth some two hundred years after the fact of it.

I began this on Anna's side. I wanted to see that, and understand how, she had been robbed. Unfortunately, the more I read Meyer's words, the more I find myself in a state where I can be easily convinced that she wasn't, but whether Anna was robbed or not, the fact remains that it’s not reality which is convincing me, it's Meyer herself! Presumably this is the very opposite effect to that which she sought to achieve with this novel! My feeling right now is to go ahead and recommend reading this, but to treat it as pure fiction, bearing the same relationship to reality that an impressionist painting does to a sharp color photograph. Yes, it's an image of the same scene, but if you want to pick out the fine details, you need the photograph. It you want all emotion and don’t really care about how things really are, then you need the painting. The painting is far more about the artist than it is about the scene the artist paints. And I only recommend this novel if it has the effect on you that it did on me: now I really want to learn the truth from a reliable source. Or at least as closely as we can approach the truth some two hundred years after the fact of it.

Meyer really picks up the pace of the book, with considerable amounts of time passing and very few pages expended in detailing them. We quickly find that Anna is 23 and is playing not at all, but is instead obsessing on her hair, her clothes, her friends who are becoming engaged or married. She does get to visit Munich for a month, but that's all.

Her father and brother go on several trips, none of which results in jobs for either of them. She makes mention that music is her first love, but spends her time shooting air guns, socializing, and playing cards instead of playing music! Finally her father essentially gives up and sends Wolferl out with his mom this time, leaving Anna at home with him, which she resents, but which actually results in her playing music again. So much for her abusive gather! Strict? Yes! Domineering? Yes! Opinionated? Yes! Abusive in any meaningful sense? No, not from what’s written here and not by the standards of their time. Anna of course resents that she must now take charge of the house, evidently having learned nothing of how to do that during those long periods when she was home with her mother and her mother stepped up and took charge.

At this point, I'm actually feeling far sorrier for Wolferl than I am for Anna. Yes, he gets to travel and play, but he's working constantly, creating sonatas, operas, masses, and earning money, and he cannot find a patron for himself. He's constantly under the weighty thumb of his father.

One thing I don't understand is why her father has not moved the entire family to Italy. It would cost no more to to do that than to fruitlessly travel as much as they do, the weather would be more kind, and they would be in a more conducive atmosphere for Wolferl's work, as well as keep Anna happy (not that this was one of his priorities!). But there it is!

I started wanting to like this, and hoping it would be interesting, informative, and not too far flung into the realm of wild speculation and melodrama, but at this point I'm afraid I cannot recommend this novel. Maybe if you're under the age of fourteen and not too discriminating, you will find it enjoyable, but I can no longer support it.

The latter part of the book descends into one long tiresome tirade of how badly Wolferl is behaving, and how he's harming his family. There's nary a word about his struggles; about what he's truly suffering through, only about how Anna is suffering. We do get to feel for Anna as we learn that her mother died whilst traveling with Wolferl in Paris, but she's evidently soon over that (to be fair, perhaps the startlingly rapid passage of years at this point accounts for that).

At this point I've really ceased to care very much what happens to Anna. Whatever it is, I'm honestly beginning to feel that she deserves it! I'm sure that's not what Meyer intended, but it is what she has achieved with me! Fortunately, I feel this only about the Anna whom Meyer has invented, not about the real woman, whom I honestly feel I do not know despite having completed almost all of this book.

We do see more mention of Anna's attachment to music, but we see far more mention of her socializing, her resentment and frustration over Wolferl, her gossiping, and her growing attachment to her star crossed captain, but even that is odd. At one point, Meyer has Anna refer to him as captain immediately before she reveals that she now calls him by his first name. Anna shamelessly (for the time) kisses him in the street and then has the hypocrisy to feel embarrassment over Wolferl's behavior towards the woman who will become his wife!

Her father refused her the marriage to her captain for what were (for the time in which these events take place) reasonable objections, such as that he was almost twice Anna's age, and had little income - an income he was likely to lose if he married Anna. These reasons were no different from those many other fathers of the period undoubtedly employed to refuse their own daughters. Yes, it's appalling that people in love are refused the chance to share that love with each other and to marry; we see that same shameful state still today, especially when those who are in love and wish to marry are of the same gender, but to seek to pillory Anna's father for the refusal is nothing but drama on Meyer's part.

Eventually we learn of Wolferl's meeting with and courting of Constanze Weber, who became his wife. She was from a musical family and was the sister of renowned singer Aloysia Weber. She wrote the first biography of Mozart after his death. We learn that Anna eventually talks her father into granting permission, and Wolferl marries. If this (Anna's part in it) is true, then it's heartbreaking that it's her influence which allows her brother to enter into the marriage he seeks and from which her father initially withheld consent, when she herself cannot marry because she lacks this same consent, but with this story, we don't know if this is what really happened or if Meyer is simply making it up as she goes along, in order to 'enhance' the story! That's sad.

Shortly after Wolferl's first child dies, Anna meets Johann Berchtold, the man she will marry. He is older, and has several children already, but he is wealthy. They marry and now Anna has something new to complain about: the manners and habits of his children. I find what Meyer has written on this score hard to believe. Perhaps it was true, but I have no way of knowing that and no longer trust Meyer at this point!

I find it especially hard to swallow this given what I know about the real Anna: that when her first child was born, she left it with her father to raise until he died when her son was about two years old. Hypocrite much, Anna?! Of course, this, once again, actually isn't Anna, but merely Meyer's impressionist painting of Anna, and she paints it that Anna is so miserable in her married life that she doesn't want her child to be subject to it; that she can't bear for her own child to be drowned in this, and she's doing it all for love of him! I'm sorry but I don't buy Meyer's account here at all. Some argue that this arrangement was enforced upon her by her father's wish to try and raise another musical prodigy, or that it was because Anna's poor health, or because of of the strain of being mother and stepmother to so many children, but the plain truth is that we don't know.

We know that Anna's father supported her in the sense that he sent her much music during her rather isolated living circumstances in her new married life. This tends to discount somewhat the claims made against him that he was an unrelenting tyrant!

The novel tends to just run out of breath at the end and it ends when Wolferl dies, yet another reminder that this really isn't a novel about Maria Anna Mozart at all, but is, instead, a shadow of a novel about Wolfgang Mozart, and that's a different story altogether.