Have you heard of Maria Anna Mozart? Perhaps you have, but I’m guessing a large number of people haven’t, and I certainly hadn’t until I studied Mozart in a module of my Open University Arts and Humanities degree. If someone says the name ‘Mozart’ to you, you will almost certainly think of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who of course has had a reputation as a musical genius and for having been a child prodigy for over 200 years, and who is seen as one of the world’s greatest ever composers. But is it possible that his older sister Maria Anna was the more musically talented Mozart sibling, and that Wolfgang wouldn't even be a musical genius without her?
Maria Anna, known as Nannerl, was five years older than her brother, Wolfgang, and from a young age both children were taught music by their father, Leopold, who was a violinist at the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg, with the encouragement of their mother, Anna Maria. Nannerl began playing the keyboard when she was 7 years old, and displayed significant talent. As we all know, Wolfgang was also extremely talented at a young age, and by the time he was 4 years old had learned several pieces that were written in his sister’s music book. This book contained pieces transcribed by their father, some by other composers and some by the young Wolfgang. One example is this piece, '
Nannerl is known to have composed her own works too, and it is likely that she also wrote down some of Wolfgang’s while he was still too young to do so. Perhaps she even contributed ideas to them, meaning that the ‘Mozart’ pieces we now credit to Wolfgang may also be in some part the work of his older sister. When Nannerl was 10 and Wolfgang was 6, their father decided that they were talented enough to begin performing outside of their hometown. The children went on several tours of Europe with their father from 1762 to 1769, performing in concerts and showcasing their talents to European royalty and nobility. In a letter written in June 1764, Leopold wrote of his daughter: ‘My little girl, although she is only twelve years old, is one of the most skilful players in Europe’. Why, then, is Nannerl no longer heralded as a musical genius?
It is probable that as well as teaching his children music, Leopold also taught them other subjects such as maths, literature and languages. However, as they grew older their education began to follow different paths and Nannerl was taught housekeeping by her mother, although she did continue learning the keyboard from her father. In 1769, Nannerl turned 18, and from then on was no longer allowed to tour Europe with her father and brother because she was of marriageable age. The young Wolfgang would one day be financially responsible for his family, so his father encouraged him to build his talents as a way to earn money, whereas Nannerl was expected to marry for financial support. She stayed at home with her mother in Salzburg and was able to make some money teaching keyboard. Nannerl married at age 33, and up until that point she had continued to write some music herself, but none of her works have survived to the present day. As a girl and then young woman in the 18th century, Maria Anna Mozart’s musical progress was limited by her gender from a young age, hence why she did not earn a reputation as a musical genius in the way that her brother did as he was allowed to pursue a career in music.
This painting (dated 1780-81) of the Mozart family shows siblings Maria Anna and Wolfgang playing the keyboard together, with their father, Leopold, holding a violin to the right. Between them on the wall is a portrait of their mother, Anna Maria, who had died two years before the painting was done.
The children’s mother, Anna Maria, always supported them both in their music, but she herself had had a difficult childhood and was often ill. In her marriage to Leopold, she was very submissive and essentially allowed him to do whatever he wanted and always obeyed him. Having watched this dynamic between her parents throughout her childhood, Nannerl became very good at doing what she was told, so when her father decided that her performing career was over at the age of 18, she did not argue and simply accepted that she would stay at home with her mother. If Maria Anna had been allowed to continue performing and developing her musical talents, perhaps she would have surpassed her younger brother and become the Mozart sibling with a reputation as a musical genius that we know today.
Coffey, H. (2019) ‘Mozart’, in Jones, R. (ed.) Reputations. Milton Keynes: The Open University, pp. 159–215.