Composers on Camera: Mozart’s Sister

Photographies de plateau / "NŠnnerl Mozart" de RenŽ FŽretThis film is like a very very expensive home movie: directed by actor-turned director René Féret, and inhabited by his many children, including his daughter Marie in the title role. The focus is not on the prodigy of Wolfgang Mozart, whose music and personality appears as a mere side issue to the thrust of the film’s message. Rather, the film delivers exactly what the title says: a movie about Maria Anna Ignatia Walburga Mozart, nick-named “Nannerl” to her family. The sets and costumes are period-perfect, and some of the mannerisms of the age are in evidence, such as formality, social pecking order, and strict attention to protocol.

The plot is rather thin and unbelievable, pasted onto Nannerl’s life story and circumstances (as if there wasn’t enough there to make a movie out of already!). While traveling through France during the Mozart family’s first Grand Tour, their coach breaks a wheel, forcing the Mozarts to stay at a nunnery. There, a 14-year-old Nannerl makes the acquaintance of the boy-crazy granddaughters of Louis the 14th. She becomes particularly close with the princess Louise, who asks her to convey a love letter to a certain music master at court with whom she’s infatuated. Once at Versailles, Nannerl befriends Louise’s brother the Dauphin, sneaking into his presence dressed in male costume. Her playing comforts the prince, who has recently lost a wife to childbirth. He challenges her to compose him a violin concerto he can play with his orchestra, thinking Nannerl to be a bright young male composer at the start of a career.

These reviews aren’t intended to be synopses, nor spoilers, so I won’t give away the rest of the film. But as we know from history, the real Nannerl was discouraged from a professional career, and not allowed to perform once she reached marriageable age at the end of the first tour. So the film’s completely fictional plot conforms to those guidelines, with a huge amount of toying with the timeline and events of the first tour.

There are some fine actors here: Marc Barbé and Delphine Chuillot as Mama and Papa Mozart are superb, and evince a wonderful, warm affection to their miracle children that rings true from all the we know of the real family. The Dauphin is also played by the first-rate Clovis Fouin, balanced nicely by the performance of Lisa Féret as his cloistered sister. Sadly, however, the lead actress Marie Féret is not quite up to the role. Another reviewer called the actors’ performances “restrained.” Restraint is good when an actor shows that there is something under the surface – but while Féret is a decent ensemble actress, she doesn’t seem to lead the cast through her story with any real conviction.

Another annoying deficiency was the lack of a period soundtrack. While the actors did a great job of faking their way through various bits of Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart, the actual music cues are composed in a neo-romantic hodgepodge that veers almost into new age in places. There’s no sign of any of the music of the day, which would have made for superb listening – J.C. and C.P.E. Bach, Handel (whose works were then gaining much posthumous attention), Rameau, Couperin, and Glück, to name only a very few out of a period of really fascinating repertoire.

A third, somewhat disturbing fault is the fiction that Papa Mozart sternly withheld all training in composition from Nannerl, then lavished it upon Wolfgang. This shows a complete lack of knowledge of the way music was taught in that era. In fact, Nannerl did compose music, and she was expected to compose music, because that was the only way that her father could tell that she really understood what she was supposed to be doing. The basic rules of counterpoint and harmony would have been essential to the training of one of Europe’s most accomplished improvisationalists. From what we understand, though, it was indeed her father’s wish that she not pursue composing as a career. The movie gets this right, if little else. Therefore, none of Nannerl’s music survives, and indeed she had little confidence in her own creative capacity.

The biggest load of malarkey occurs at the inevitable end of the picture where we are informed that “Nannerl never composed again.” (Actually, we don’t really know, and certainly a fictional story shouldn’t be seen as the source of a factual event, right?) “She died at 78, poor and blind…” (Poppycock. She was a baroness, and left an estate worth almost 8,000 gulden). “…having devoted her life to gathering her brother’s works for posterity.” (Serious horseshit. Constanze was the one who was most centrally involved with collecting and publishing Wolfgang Mozart’s scores. Nannerl’s involvement was tangential at best.)

I came away from this film feeling that the real story of Nannerl Mozart had yet to be told, and that this fantasy actually removed the viewer from understanding who she really was, and how her own individual life story played out. She was a professional child musician, one of the best who ever lived. That is a story worth telling – instead, we get a manufactured eulogy. Yes, the real Nannerl Mozart must have felt disappointed at seeing her brother go on to a career, leaving her behind in boring old Salzburg. And yes, she was completely under Papa Mozart’s thumb, so much so that the events in this film, a lot of which involve Nannerl playing hookey, would be impossible.

There are so many great woman musicians and composers of the past three centuries whose stories have yet to be filmed – the orphan girls of the Ospedale in Venice; Florence Price, Amy Beach, Cécile Chaminade, and sisters Lili and Nadia Boulanger; and many others in the past whom we are beginning to discover, or who are leaping to the front of our attention today as living artists. They deserve our attention, and like Nannerl, our honesty in telling their compelling stories.

Historical accuracy: **

This would get a score of zero, if not for the wonderful family scenes and the period costumes and sets.

Educational value about its subject: º

Yes, we know Nannerl was a disappointed victim of discrimination. But her real story is not in this film, and is so much more revealing and worthy of contemplation.

Narrative: **

As a story on its own, without any connection to a historical figure, it’s so-so.

Direction: ***

Pretty good for a home movie.

Acting: ***

Great support acting; distant, impenetrable lead actress

Music: **

Excellent music in performance scenes, regrettable off-period cues elsewhere.

Final tally: ** stars – watchable, but in need of much improvement

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

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