(2005), a historical novel by American author Nancy Moser, imagines the life of Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart, the sister of the great composer. Based on the Mozarts’ letters and other historical documents, the novel underlines that Nannerl’s musical talent may have been comparable to her brother’s, but that she was held back by contemporary expectations about what women could and should do.
Narrated in the first person by Nannerl, the novel opens as Nannerl, still just a girl, gives a rapturously received harpsichord recital. In the audience are her little brother, Wolfie and her father, Leopold. At this moment, Nannerl is happy. She feels she has found her purpose in life.
Nannerl’s father believes his children’s prodigious abilities are a gift from God, and he constantly pushes them to perform before larger and more important audiences. Soon these performances also bring a welcome financial reward. When Nannerl and Wolfie are just 12 and 7 respectively, their father organizes a Grand Tour of Europe. He markets them as the “Wunderkind,” miracle children, telling audiences they are even younger than they are.
At first, Nannerl—the more accomplished performer—receives top billing, and before long, she is famous across Europe for her talent. However, Wolfie’s playing begins to rival hers while he is still very young, and soon he is the more famous of the two for his sheer precociousness.
The Mozarts’ tours take them all over the German-speaking world and on to London and Paris, where they perform for Marie Antoinette. Travel is time-consuming and costly, the children must perform in miniaturized versions of the latest fashions, and the Mozarts struggle with culture shock and language barriers everywhere they go. Nannerl and Wolfie both almost die of smallpox, and Wolfie also succumbs to rheumatic fever. Nannerl nurses him, praying desperately; when he recovers, she feels closer to God.
By the time Nannerl reaches marriageable age, her father is focused exclusively on Wolfie. He tells Nannerl that she must stop performing, as it will hinder her chances of making a good marriage. Besides, he explains, it is hard enough for men to make a living performing and writing music. For women it is impossible. Nannerl is forced to stay behind to keep house with her mother in Salzburg while her father and brother continue the touring life. Miserable and enraged, and still dreaming of being a concert pianist, Nannerl cannot reconcile herself to a more circumscribed life.
Although the tours make money, the Mozarts’ financial situation is precarious. Nannerl’s father works as the assistant director of music for the Archbishop of Salzburg, and when he is away from the city, he cannot draw his salary. The more time he spends promoting Wolfie’s talent and trying to find him a lucrative position, the closer he comes to losing his own job.
Eventually, he finds Wolfie a position in Salzburg, so that the young man can help support his family. Nannerl knows that Wolfie will feel stifled by the small-town musical environment of Salzburg, but no one is interested in her opinion. Soon, Wolfie is chafing at the limitations of the musicians with whom he is working, and he and his father begin to argue. Eventually, Wolfie rebels. He marries a woman of whom his father disapproves, and takes a position in Vienna, leaving Salzburg for good and all but abandoning his family. His father continues to attempt to control him from afar, and Nannerl endures the most of her father’s anger and frustration.
Meanwhile, Nannerl has slowly reconciled herself to her fate. Although she continues to long to play music, she realizes that she also wants to be a wife and mother and that she will not be marriage material for very much longer. Wolfie has become a notorious figure in Salzburg, further limiting her chances of making a good match.
However, Nannerl falls in love with Franz d’Ippold, a former army captain and private tutor who works for the Archbishop. Nannerl feels that she will happily abandon her musical ambitions for this man.
Before they can marry, Franz must seek the permission of his patron, the Archbishop. Unfortunately, having accumulated a considerable store of grudges against Wolfie and his father, the Archbishop denies Franz permission to marry a Mozart.
Nannerl and Franz are condemned always to be only friends. Despite this friendship, these are dark days for Nannerl. Her Christian faith deepens as she wrestles with the question of why God has denied her not just one but two chances for happiness.
Her crisis deepens when her father all but orders her to make a financially advantageous match to an older magistrate, Johann von Berchtold zu Sonnenburg, a widower twice over with five children. Nannerl is reluctant to marry him and soon regrets it, although she sets about trying to forge a family from her stepchildren.
Wolfie dies in Vienna, aged just 35. Nannerl grieves her brother, while her father is almost broken by the loss of his estranged son.
When Nannerl gives birth to her first son, named Leopold after her own father, Leopold senior asks to raise the boy himself, to train him musically. Ever dutiful, Nannerl agrees, though she misses her son.
Nannerl returns to Salzburg to visit little Leopold, and at her father’s house, she sees Franz. The three of them play together and Nannerl has a tantalizing glimpse of the family she might have had. Later, watching her father put her son to bed, she realizes how much the boy means to the broken old man.
Although her marriage remains difficult, Nannerl becomes reconciled to her life. She has not done what she wanted—unlike her narcissistic brother—but she has done what people needed of her, and she has served God.