A few days after Beethoven’s funeral, his friend Karl Holz found a secret compartment in one of the composer’s cupboards. There he found, aside from seven shares in the Austrian national bank and Beethoven’s now famous and heartbreakingly sad will, a letter that, one hundred and eighty years later still has not been fully explained. The letter was not addressed to anyone but there was no doubt as to what kind of letter it was. It began: ”My angel, my all, my self”.
It is a beautiful, moving and very sad love letter that, together with his desperately tragic will, strips the Genius of his grandeur and allows us a glimpse of the real Beethoven. And perhaps that is why some of the pondering ”experts” didn’t like the letter. It troubled them greatly, because in their world a Genius did not have time for something as trivial as a woman. They angrily waved their fists in the air – if the letter wasn’t a sham, it was, at most, an expression of creativity, fueled with intense intoxication and with the simple purpose of letting off steam. A mastermind can be a bit of an eccentric, but he cannot be in love.
The authoritative experts that have written shining works on western art history are most definitely a colorful bunch. They know their stuff and, if we’re lucky, they have a greater interest in art and the artists than they have in themselves. But as soon as we’re talking about composers the portrayals tend to wander into the peripheries of credibility. It seems that when composers become Great Dead Men, their music promptly goes quiet. Admittedly, it is easy to understand how, in their awe and amazement of standing before a truly great composer, someone might enthusiastically ascribe characteristics to that person that they never actually possessed. And even though the rose-scented, chocolate- and nougat-drenched Mozart ”kitsch” becomes overwhelmingly nauseating after just two and a half minutes in Salzburg – not to mention the nightmare visions you’ll meet in Wagner’s Bayreuth – all this tackiness probably fills a purpose. What is truly unbearable is something completely different.
Great Dead Men shouldn’t be so hard to portray. By their contemporaries they’re often portrayed as they’re remembered, they’re born, celebrated, they die and they are mourned – although not necessarily in that order. If the portrayals are hiding something it is often to protect those who outlived the deceased, not to protect the deceased himself. But with time, the reverse happens, they become fixed stars of the heavens and no one has the heart to take them down from there. And it’s even worse for the black holes of that star-speckled sky, the people who were the closest to the Great Dead Men. Men, women and lovers that were always there, sunny as well as stormy days, who provided inspiration, support, pulled them out of bed, brought them down to earth, made demands and were willing to go through it all if only the Geniuses could behave like normal folk every now and then!
But what they have in common, if we are to believe those somber biographers, is that their genius didn’t encompass their choice of life partner. Sure, it is said that no one had seen Haydn as happy as when his doomsday-religious wife died, but that was a special case. These women can be as crazy as they like, the “expert’s” respect hinges on the wife entering marriage without saying a word and that she stays quiet until she dies in childbirth, preferably after having “given the Master” a decent number of sons. If they’re lucky they’re not mentioned at all. If they’re unlucky they become the most hated women in music history. If anyone thought that Yoko Ono was the perpetual owner of that title, Constanze Weber’s destiny will come as an unpleasant surprise.
Just a few affectionate quotes:
“She wasn’t even a good wife and homemaker”
“Her fame consists of the fact that her husband loved her, but that doesn’t mean she deserved this love”
“She was unloved by many, even by her own children”
“She had no part in his success”
“She stood in the way of his success”
“Her continuous pregnancies distracted him”
“She had no understanding of homemaking”
“Her carelessness contributed to the financial ruin of the family”
“Her continuous chatter plagued a whole world”
“Her sexuality robbed him of his productivity”
“She was deformed”
So, who on earth was this horrible woman who instilled fears into the artist’s heart and sucked the life out of his soul? There is actually nothing particularly remarkable about her; Constanze Weber’s fault seems to be that she was a completely ordinary young woman! And, of course, that she was married to the greatest composer the world has ever seen – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It must have been difficult being married to a myth, but luckily Constanze – and Wolfgang – were unaware of how their famously happy marriage would come to be portrayed by spiteful men in a distant century.
The retouched portrait
The conventional story of Mozart is simple: He was born in Salzburg in 1756 and, because he, like his “forgotten” sister, was much more than a musically gifted wunderkind, their family travelled Europe playing music. Wolfgang was soon world famous and began to compose the most beautiful music the world had ever, and probably ever will experience. As long as he stayed in Salzburg, nothing could go wrong.
Twenty-five years old he moves to Vienna and that’s where it “all” goes wrong. Despite trying to avoid his landlady’s intrigues he is forced into a deeply unhappy marriage with her ugliest daughter – Constanze – a yokel, a giggling, sentimental nymphomaniac and the most horrendous, uneducated hussy that ever set foot on the beaches of Danube, on the hunt for a poor, honest man to have fun with for an hour or two. When they marry, “Mozart sinks to a lower level of existence!” Her nymphomania robs him of his productivity. It is probably the careless, perpetually unfaithful and deceiving Constanze’s fault that he died too. It was her imagined illnesses that made Mozart die, impoverished. She didn’t even want to pay for a decent funeral, which led to the greatest composer known to the world being thrown into an anonymous mass-grave. He was given no coffin, flowers or tombstone.
According to all the contemporary voices, Constanze Mozart was a very pleasant, well-educated and intelligent woman, who spoke excellent Italian and French. She came from a family of talented musicians, among them the composer Carl Maria von Weber. Her sister Josepha, who premiered the role of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, became the prima donna at the Theater auf der Wieden, while Aloysia sang italian operas at Kärntnertortheater as well as at the Burgtheater. Constanze, for whom Mozart would write the challenging solos in his Mass in C minor, was a coloratura soprano of quite remarkable ability.
“There have always been, there will always be insensitive, pretentious fools (who condemn what they are incapable of appreciating and loving)”, wrote the French writer and historian Marcel Brion and the casualty of this folly would have signed off on every word.
In the misogynous early 20th century Constanze fell victim to the attacks of a handful of, so called, Mozart-experts – a collection of pompous, humorless and quite often tone-deaf (!) members of a pretentious and petulant men’s club in which they, under the presences of a slightly amusing sense of self-aggrandizement were able to uninterruptedly cultivate their staunch misogyny. Their Victorian locker-room talk, became immortal Factoids in the popular version of the history of music. But their hearts were smoldering graves, everything they touched withered and died. Of course they weren’t able to agree with each other; the whole point about the men’s club was to establish who really was closest to Mozart, who understood him and, in an unspoken extension of this – who was most like him. Since not one of them could be said to be a musician, and since it is quite impossible to be on intimate terms with a composer who’s been dead for 150 years, they had to trust their own imagination.
Although they didn’t miss many opportunities to steal honor and glory from each other, they had one thing in common – their raging hatred towards the person that actually was the closest to Mozart. In their minds, the Great Master’s alleged misery originated from his horrible wife’s stupidity, carelessness, lack of musical talent and her promiscuous living. The spiteful and nasty attacks on Constanze are so absurd that the more rational reader has no choice but to suspect there is something wrong with them.
And it is! The spitefulness is completely fabricated. And as awful as it is, it is in this moment that they become quite interesting, for what soulless depths exists within the middle-aged bachelor that becomes so fixated with Constanze’s sexuality that he exposes his ability to fabricate facts to the whole world? How could they even get away with such blatant lies? That last question is particularly worrying.
The rumors about Constance’s sexual hyperactivity and insinuations of her infidelity are shameless and quite absurd considering she was a twenty-nine-year-old woman who, during a marriage that lasted nine years, four months and two days, was pregnant, recently out of childbirth or breastfeeding for eight years, eleven months and 22 days. One of these thinkers does not mince his words when he suggests, outright, that Constanze was a nymphomaniac and that her sexuality robbed Mozart of his productivity. This statement becomes particularly interesting when you find out it comes from an author who lived his life as a bachelor and only wrote two books. The ones who knew her say that she had a genuine musical education and that she was neither stupid, nor careless. The men’s club’s endless moaning doesn’t become less absurd by the fact that there probably never was a happier marriage in music history – and we have their own words to prove it.
One of the decidedly most perfidious portrayals of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s life claims that his biography is ”an attempt to through free associations and non-systematic narrative, painting a portrait of Mozart.” It had been a brilliant idea, if it had not been at the expense of the truth and the composer’s wife. His work, published in 1977 became a veritable success, celebrated everywhere and gave male critics even more fuel on their fire, throwing new, never before known accusations at Constanze.
“It is unlikely”, he writes, “that she ever suffered psychologically, and even her physical suffering can be seen more as a convenient reason for having to frequent the spa.” And he brings even worse accusations – he’s suggesting that Mozart’s children are not Mozart’s children at all.
What he seems to insinuate is that, when Mozart was away, touring with his concerts, Constanze would have gone to various “spa’s” to “have a good time” – as if these spa-towns were the 18th century’s response to Las Vegas or Atlantic City. There, a young woman, with accompanying children, would apparently have found it easier to “find erotic pleasure” than it would have been for Mozart on his tours – since he had so many difficult, serious and real obligations when he was travelling the continent – like playing cards with princesses or eat ice cream with lords, dukes and counts.
What actually happened was that Constanze went to one of Europe’s most well-known rehabilitation centers. The reason being that she was seriously ill. At this time she was bed-bound with a high fever and severe pain and, since she was six months pregnant the doctor didn’t want to take any risks. He established that she already had bedsores and since he wanted to prevent infection, which could have been life threatening to both her and the baby, he made sure that she came to the rehabilitation center where they were used to dealing with such issues. It is during this time that she, according to “research”, would have been constantly roaming around on the hunt for men.
The most good-hearted
It is difficult to understand that a seemingly sane person, without having been forced to do so, considered it their life’s work to, about two hundred years too late, turn a loving marriage between two people into a connubial disaster zone, despite actual witness statements of the contrary. It is equally puzzling that someone would take it upon themselves to spread spiteful rumors about how two people met and what evil-doers pulled the strings to get them married. But one thing is clear – they could never imagine that love had anything to do with it.
It must all be soiled, or they are clearly not well, and that’s why it’s suggested that the young couple’s marriage must have been a skillfully set trap, a spider’s web where Mozart was the helpless butterfly, Constanze the silly little honey trap and the old Madame Weber, Constanze’s mother, the Mother spider herself.
One of the “experts” is filled with rage at this thought. He abandons all scientific principles of research and, in his frustration, spends four pages describing this poisonous intrigue, well aware that not a single word of it is true!
The whole thing was not quite so scandalous. Mozart had left his poorly paid position as a court musician of – get ready for this – Count Hieronymus Joseph Franz de Paula Graf Colloredo von Wallsee und Melz! – the tone-deaf archbishop of Salzburg. He travelled from Salzburg as a twenty-five year old to finally stand on his own two feet in Vienna, without his father telling him what to eat, when he should sleep, how deeply he should bow to the filthy rich philanthropists and how grateful he should pretend to be when they didn’t pay him for his work.
Mozart needed somewhere to stay and his choice of landlady naturally fell on someone he was already familiar with. The family had three daughters and he took a particular interest in the oldest. He was miserable when he realized his feelings were not reciprocated, until he saw the middle sister – Constanze – “the most good-hearted, the most intelligent”.
With time, Madame Weber realized that the two were a bit too friendly toward each other. She wanted her house to remain a respectable one and therefore she, kindly but firmly, asked him to leave. Mozart was perhaps not a great admirer of his mother-in-law to be, but he couldn’t blame her for her actions – in the 18th century marriage was as much a financial transaction, an alliance, as a declaration of love between two people, and Madame Weber could easily motivate her actions by referring to Mozart’s lack of financial stability.
But they were so in love they didn’t care what people thought. A few months later they were married. And whatever the spiteful men might say Constanze was not in the slightest bit pregnant. The pair was practically an example of puritanism, their first child not born until ten months after the wedding.
There are many voyeurs amongst the Mozart biographers, after having read their works you feel like you’ve been standing outside, peeking through their window. There’s no lack of sexual references in Mozart’s letters to Constanze, indeed, they are plentiful, but their love life is actually none of our business. The only thing we can say about that is, that if musical productivity was in any way related to the level of bedroom activity, then it was a terrible shame so many other composers remained bachelors! Mozart actually never composed as much music as when he was married to Constanze. During these nine years he composed most of the music that today are considered his greatest work.
There’s a funny story told by a friend of the family who decided to visit them one afternoon. He knew the family was struggling financially and he was therefore surprised to hear roaring laughter from inside their apartment. When he entered the apartment he saw Constanze and Wolfgang dancing happily with each other – stone cold sober!
“There was no firewood in the house, but they were engaged in a cheerful dance!”
He concluded that this couple was cleverer than many others, they knew the art of amusement through sprightly lunacy when things looked bleak. But that was not how the “experts” saw things. A Genius is of a thinking nature does not engage in banalities or even smiles. Let alone laughs – despite Mozart’s contemporaries describing him as a cheerful man. If he did happen to laugh, it must have been because Constanze drove him insane.
One myth that is easily dispelled is the one about poverty, even if it ruins a good story at the same time. Mozart didn’t die poor, he wasn’t broke. The truth is that 1791 was Mozart’s most financially successful year. The inventory of his assets clearly shows that Mozart, by the time of his death, possessed, not only a stylish and well-furnished home, but an expensive, fashionable and, indeed, valuable collection of clothes. But the family did have debts, debts that Constanze – who had quite a brilliant sense for business – paid off at a fantastic rate once she became a widow and, hence, received the right to handle and manage the family finances. What the spiteful men, the ones that know so much about Mozart, also don’t mention is that 1791 was one of Mozart’s most productive years.
In Peter Shaffer’s ”Amadeus”, the mediocre Italian composer Antonio Salieri decides to quiet God’s ill-chosen instrument by letting Mozart work himself to death. Rancorous envy, wrath against God – the main antagonist – it all works fine as motivations for the drama’s protagonist. After all, the poor man promised God a life of chastity and abstinence in exchange for some musical talent, but all he receives from God is Mozart! Try to compose another “Te Deum …” after that!
The problem is that the only one who seriously thought that Salieri killed Mozart was Salieri himself, a man who, in his old age, went completely insane and claimed to have done so many terrible things that Beethoven, always up for a bit of gossip, developed an eager interest in seeing what Salieri would admit to next.
Most other people knew that Mozart died of the same streptococcus infection that killed so many others in Vienna during the unusually damp and dark December days of 1791.
One question that some of these miserable men consider it necessary to discuss, is whether Constanze’s tears were genuine or whether she faked. Here the 20th century “experts” say one thing and the eyewitnesses another.
When Mozart died Constanze’s world fell apart. You’d think anyone with a reasonably normal emotional life could empathize. But not so – one of the greatest “Mozart experts” – who unfortunately embodies a terrifying combination of misanthrope and psychotherapist – thought he knew Mozart so well that he, almost three hundred years later, was convinced that Constanze was play-acting her emotions. And when Mozart wasn’t buried with all the expected fuss but, instead was “lunged into an anonymous mass grave”, that was, of course, due to Constanze’s “avariciousness”. Yet, the fact that Mozart was buried in a communal grave was not particularly unusual for 1791s Vienna. This burial custom formed part of the old emperor’s initiative to improve hygiene during times of epidemics in Vienna and, since Mozart was assumed to have died from the contagious illness that plagued so many other men his age there were not many options for his burial.
And it is not until now – when Mozart is dead and Constanze is no longer a problem – that the spiteful men actually offer some kind words, even if they make it sound as disparaging as they possibly can. They are a little bit impressed that she, on her own, paid off the family’s debt, collected Mozart’s works, had them published and made sure that his music was not forgotten. But it was not until 1809 that she became respectable. Because that is when she married the Danish legion council Georg Nikolaus von Nissen. ”Under Nissen’s influence”, someone writes, ”she even came to be a good mother”.
What that writer characteristically overlooks is that, by that point, her youngest child had already moved out.
An Ordinary Young Woman
A person does not disappear from our world, she’s there, once and for ever. It is easy, easier than one might think, to shove someone onto the stage of history, but it’s completely impossible to push her off that stage again. That’s exactly why there is a point to being a bit more accurate when portraying people from the past.
It is said that all stories are love stories. Now, I may imagine this, but I’m sometimes under the impression that it is no longer possible to tell those stories. Violence, intrigues, affairs, cruelness, all that works, but if you start telling a love story the cynics are immediately there, sniggering. Nothing is allowed to be real, behind everything beautiful there is sarcasm, an intrigue, every unprompted smile seen as calculating and manipulative. It is both terrible and fascinating at the same time. Imagine if a handful of “Beethoven experts” were equally angry about that love letter that they, in their thrill and excitement, forgot what Beethoven’s old friend, Franz Gerhard Wegeler, had said – he, who with a tired scoff said that, if Beethoven wasn’t currently involved in a passionate and loving relationship, he was certain to be throwing himself into a new one. And why is it so hard to believe Mozart’s own words when he says: “Constanze has the biggest heart in the world. I love her and she loves me.” It was for her he wrote his most beautiful pieces of music and it is thanks to her that so much of his music has been kept for posterity.