Maria Anna Mozart Was a Musical Prodigy Like Her Brother Wolfgang, So Why Did She Get Erased from History?

When people ask why we have specifically black histories, or queer histories, or women’s histories, it can be hard for many who do historical research to take the question seriously. But in fairness, such questions point to the very reason that alternative or “revisionist” histories exist. We cannot know what we are not told about history—at least not without doing the kind of digging professional scholars can do. Virginia Woolf’s tragic, but fictional, history of Shakespeare’s sister notwithstanding, the claims made by cultural critics about marginalization and oppression aren’t based on speculation, but on case after case of individuals who were ignored by, or shut out of, the wider culture, and subsequently disappeared from historical memory.

One such extraordinary case involves the real sister of another towering European figure whose life we know much more about than Shakespeare’s. Before Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began writing his first compositions, his older sister Maria Anna Mozart, nicknamed Nannerl, had already proven herself a prodigy.




The two toured Europe together as children—she was with her brother during his 18-month stay in London. “There are contemporaneous reviews praising Nannerl,” writes Sylvia Milo, “and she was even billed first.” A 1763 review, for example, sounds indistinguishable from those written about young Wolfgang.

Imagine an eleven-year-old girl, performing the most difficult sonatas and concertos of the greatest composers, on the harpsichord or fortepiano, with precision, with incredible lightness, with impeccable taste. It was a source of wonder to many.

18th century classical audiences first came to know Wolfgang as part of a brother-sister duo of “wunderkinder.” But the sister half has been airbrushed out of the picture. She does not appear in the definitive Hollywood treatment, Milos Forman’s Amadeus. And, moreover, she only recently began to emerge in the academic and classical worlds. “I grew up studying to be a violinist,” writes Sylvia Milo. “Neither my music history nor my repertoire included any female composers.”

With my braided hair I was called “little Mozart” by my violin teacher, but he meant Wolfi. I never heard that Amadeus had a sister. I never heard of Nannerl Mozart until I saw that family portrait.

In the portrait (top), Nannerl and Wolfgang sit together at the harpsichord while their father Leopold stands nearby. Nannerl, in the foreground, has an enormous pompadour crowning her small oval face. Of the hairdo, she wrote to her brother, in their typically playful rapport, “I am writing to you with an erection on my head and I am very much afraid of burning my hair.”

After discovering Nanerl, Milo poured through the historical archives, reading contemporary accounts and personal letters. The research gave birth to a one-woman play, The Other Mozart, which has toured for the last four years to critical acclaim. (See a trailer video above). In her Guardian essay, Milo describes Nannerl’s fate: “left behind in Salzberg” when she turned 18. “A little girl could perform and tour, but a woman doing so risked her reputation…. Her father only took Wolfgang on their next journeys around the courts of Europe. Nannerl never toured again.” We do know that she wrote music. Wolfgang praised one composition as “beautiful” in a letter to her. But none of her music has survived. “Maybe we will find it one day,” Milo writes. Indeed, an Australian researcher claims to have found Nannerl’s “musical handwriting” in the compositions Wolfgang used for practice.

Other scholars have speculated that Mozart’s sister, five years his senior, certainly would have had some influence on his playing. “No musicians develop their art in a vacuum,” says musical sociologist Stevan Jackson. “Musicians learn by watching other musicians, by being an apprentice, formally or informally.” The question may remain an academic one, but the life of Nannerl has recently become a matter of popular interest as well, not only in Milo’s play but in several novels, many titled Mozart’s Sister, and a 2011 film, also titled Mozart’s Sister, written and directed by René Féret and starring his daughter in the titular role. The trailer above promises a richly emotional period drama, which—as all entertainments must do—takes some liberties with the facts as we know, or don't know, them, but which also, like Milo's play, gives flesh to a significant, and significantly frustrated, historical figure who had, for a couple hundred years, at least, been rendered invisible.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hallelujah!: You Can Stream Every Leonard Cohen Album in a 22-Hour Chronological Playlist (1967-2016)

Everybody knows the war is over. Everybody knows the good guys lost.

Perhaps no one since Thomas Hardy has matched Leonard Cohen in the dogged persistence of literary bleakness. Cohen’s entry into a Zen monastery in 1996 was a “response to a sense of despair that I’ve always had,” he said in an interview that year. Ten years later, Cohen told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, “I had a great sense of disorder in my life of chaos, of depression, of distress. And I had no idea where this came from. And the prevailing psychoanalytic explanations at the time didn’t seem to address the things I felt.”

Only a handful of people on the planet have experienced the “life of chaos” Leonard Cohen lived as an acclaimed poet, novelist, singer, and one of the most beloved songwriters of the last several decades. But millions identify with his emotional turmoil. Cohen’s expressions of despair—and of reverence, defiance, love, hatred, and lust—speak across generations, telling truths few of us confess but, just maybe, everybody knows. Cohen's death last year brought his career back into focus. And despite the mournful occasion for revisiting his work, he may be just the songwriter many of us need right now.




The great themes in Cohen’s work come together in his most famous song, “Hallelujah,” which has, since he first recorded it in 1984 to little notice, become “everybody’s ‘Hallelujah,’” writes Ashley Fetters at The Atlantic, in a succession of covers and interpretations from Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright to Shrek and The X Factor. It is here that the depths of despair and heights of transcendence meet, the sexual and the spiritual reach an accord: “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled,” Cohen has said of the song. “But there are moments when we can… reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’”

Everybody knows it’s a mess. But it often takes a Leonard Cohen to convince us that—at least sometimes—it’s a beautiful one. If you feel you need more Leonard Cohen in your life, we bring you the playlist above, a complete chronological discography available on Spotify—from the sparse, haunting folk melodies of Cohen’s first album, 1967’s The Songs of Leonard Cohen to last year’s gripping swan song, You Want It Darker. In-between the legendary debut and masterful summation are several live albums, the classics Songs from a Room, Songs of Love and Hate, and others, as well as that odd 1988 album I’m Your Man, in which Cohen set his grim ironies and universal truths to the sounds of eighties synth-pop, intoning over slap bass and drum machine the indelible, gently mocking lyrics he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Sharon Robinson:

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
Everybody talking to their pockets
Everybody wants a box of chocolates
And a long-stem rose
Everybody knows

Related Content:

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A-ha Performs a Beautiful Acoustic Version of Their 1980s Hit, “Take on Me”: Recorded Live in Norway

When the Norwegian synthpop band A-ha recorded "Take on Me" in 1984, the song didn't meet instant success. It took recording two different versions of the track, and releasing it three separate times, before the song managed to climb the charts, peaking at #1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and #2 on the UK Singles Chart.

Since then, the song has enjoyed a pretty fine afterlife. It has clocked nearly 500 million plays on YouTube. You'll find it on countless 1980s anthologies and playlists. And now you can watch an entirely new performance of the song, which has already gone viral on YouTube. Recorded this past June in Norway, as part of an unplugged concert for MTV, this version is more subtle and melancholy than the original. And, as many Youtube commenters readily note, it's rather beautiful.

Find more details about the performance on A-ha's website.

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The Boston Public Library Will Digitize & Put Online 200,000+ Vintage Records

It may be a great irony that our age of cultural destruction and—many would argue—decline also happens to be a golden age of preservation, thanks to the very new media and big data forces credited with dumbing things down. We spend ample time contemplating the losses; archival initiatives like The Great 78 Project, like so many others we regularly feature here, should give us reasons to celebrate.

In a post this past August, we outlined the goals and methods of the project. Centralized at the Internet Archive—that magnanimous citizens’ repository of digitized texts, recordings, films, etc.—the project contains several thousand carefully preserved 78rpm recordings, which document the distinctive sounds of the early 20th century from 1898 to the late-1950s.




Thanks to partners like preservation company George Blood, L.P. and the ARChive of Contemporary Music, we can hear many thousands of records from artists both famous and obscure in the original sound of the first mass-produced consumer audio format.

Just a few days ago, the Internet Archive announced that they would be joined in the endeavor by the Boston Public Library, who, writes Wendy Hanamura, “will digitize, preserve” and make available to the public “hundreds of thousands of audio recordings in a variety of historical formats,” including not only 78s, but also LP’s and Thomas Edison’s first recording medium, the wax cylinder. “These recordings have never been circulated and were in storage for several decades, uncatalogued and inaccessible to the public.”

The process, notes WBUR, “could take a few years,” given the sizable bulk of the collection and the meticulous methods of the Internet Archive’s technicians, who labor to preserve the condition of the often fragile materials, and to produce a number of different versions, “from remastered to raw.” The object, says Boston Public Library president David Leonard, is to “produce recordings in a way that’s interesting to the casual listener as well as to the hard-core music listener in the research business.”

Thus far, only two recordings from BPL’s extensive collections have become available—a 1938 recording called “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy (I Like Mountain Music)” by W. Lee O’Daniel and His Hillbilly Boys and Edvard Grieg’s only piano concerto, recorded by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra in 1947. Even in this tiny sampling, you can see the range of material the archive will feature, consistent with the tremendous variety the Great 78 Project already contains.

While we can count it as a great gain to have free and open access to this historic vault of recorded audio, it is also the case that digital archiving has become an urgent bulwark against total loss. Current recording formats instantly spawn innumerable copies of themselves. The physical media of the past existed in finite numbers and are subject to total erasure with time. “The simple fact of the matter,” archivist George Blood tells the BPL, “is most audiovisual recordings will be lost. These 78s are disappearing left and right. It is important that we do a good job preserving what we can get to, because there won’t be a second chance.”

via WBUR

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25,000+ 78RPM Records Now Professionally Digitized & Streaming Online: A Treasure Trove of Early 20th Century Music

The British Library’s “Sounds” Archive Presents 80,000 Free Audio Recordings: World & Classical Music, Interviews, Nature Sounds & More

BBC Launches World Music Archive

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear Florence Welch’s Radio Documentary About the Making of David Bowie’s Heroes (Free for a Limited Time)

Image by AVRO and Becky Sullivan, via Wikimedia Commons

As of this moment, you have 22 days left to stream a one-hour radio documentary hosted by Florence Welch (of Florence + The Machine). It takes a close look at the making of David Bowie's landmark album Heroes, released 40 years ago. The documentary (streamable here) explores "the personal and musical factors that influenced the album’s writing and recording in Berlin in 1977." It also covers,  according to the BBC, the following ground:

Florence will feature [archival material] of the late David Bowie explaining why he chose to live and work in Berlin and the impact the city’s history had on the masterpiece he created. She’ll also meet the album’s producer Tony Visconti to get an insight to the unique recording techniques he employed to interpret Bowie’s creative vision and how the characteristics of the famous Hansa Studios, which are situated in a huge former chamber music concert hall, contributed to the album’s influential sounds. Iggy Pop, who was living with Bowie in Berlin during the recording of the album, recalls how a battle with drug addition, bankruptcy and a legal dispute with his ex wife for access to his son all provided inspiration for the album’s lyrics and Brian Eno, who collaborated with David throughout the LP’s recording, explains the unique musical structures he and David employed to compose the innovative songs.

Berlin’s radical cultural diversity had always fascinated Bowie and Florence will explain how the opportunity to live and work in the city during the turbulent political period prior to the fall of `the Wall’ provided the perfect austere environment for David and his collaborators to experiment with music inspired by several German techno bands of the 70’s, including Neu!, Kraftwerk and Can.

When you're done listening, we'd strongly recommend watching this wonderful video where Tony Visconti, the producer of David Bowie's 1977 album, takes you inside the LP's making. Don't miss it. It's a gem.

via NME

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Hear 1,500+ Genres of Music, All Mapped Out on an Insanely Thorough Interactive Graph

If you are ready for a time-suck internet experience that will also make you feel slightly old and out of step with the culture, feel free to dive into Every Noise at Once. A scatter-plot of over 1,530 musical genres sourced from Spotify’s lists and based on 35 million songs,  Every Noise at Once is a bold attempt at musical taxonomy. The Every Noise at Once website was created by Glenn McDonald, and is an offshoot of his work at Echo Nest (acquired by Spotify in 2014).

McDonald explains his graph thus:

This is an ongoing attempt at an algorithmically-generated, readability-adjusted scatter-plot of the musical genre-space, based on data tracked and analyzed for 1,536 genres by Spotify. The calibration is fuzzy, but in general down is more organic, up is more mechanical and electric; left is denser and more atmospheric, right is spikier and bouncier.

It’s also egalitarian, with world dominating “rock-and-roll” given the same space and size as its neighbors choro (instrumental Brazilian popular music), cowboy-western (Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, et. al.), and Indian folk (Asha Bhosle, for example). It also makes for some strange bedfellows: what factor does musique concrete share with “Christian relaxitive” other than “reasons my college roommate and I never got along.” Now you can find out!




Click on any of the genres and you’ll hear a sample of that music. Double click and you’ll be taken to a similar scatter-plot graph of its most popular artists, this time with font size denoting popularity and a similar sample of their music.

I’ve been spending most of my time exploring up in the top right corner where all sorts of electronic dance subgenres hang out. I’m not too sure what differentiates “deep tech house” from “deep deep house” or “deep minimal techno” or “tech house” or even “deep melodic euro house” but I now know where to come for a refresher course.

Spotify and other services depend on algorithms and taxonomies like this to deliver consistent listening experiences to its users, and they were attracted to Echo Nest for its work with genres. Echo Nest was originally based on the dissertation work of Tristan Jehan and Brian Whitman at the MIT Media Lab, who over a decade ago were trying to understand the “fingerprints” of recorded music. Now when you listen to Spotify’s personalized playlists, Echo Nest’s research is the engine working in the background.

McDonald says in this 2014 Daily Dot article this isn’t about a machine guessing our taste.

“No, the machines don’t know us better than we do. But they can very easily know more than we do. My job is not to tell you what to listen to, or to pass judgment on things or ‘make taste.’ It’s to help you explore and discover. Your taste is your business. Understanding your taste and situating it in some intelligible context is my business.”

If you’d like a more passive journey through the ever expanding music genre universe, there's a Spotify playlist of one song from each genre (all 1,500+) above. See you in the deep, deep house!

via Kottke.org

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

John Coltrane Draws a Mysterious Diagram Illustrating the Mathematical & Mystical Qualities of Music

In a post earlier this year, we wrote about a drawing John Coltrane gave his friend and mentor Yusef Lateef, who reproduced it in his book Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns. The strange diagram contains the easily recognizable circle of fifths (or circle of fourths), but it illustrates a much more sophisticated scheme than basic major scale theory. Just exactly what that is, however, remains a mystery. Like every mystical explorer, the work Coltrane left behind asks us to expand our consciousness beyond its narrow boundaries. The diagram may well show a series of  “multiplicities,” as saxophonist Ed Jones writes. From the way Coltrane has “grouped certain pitches,” writes vibes player Corey Mwamba, “it’s easy to infer that Coltrane is displaying a form of chromatic modulation.” These observations, however, fail to explain why he would need such a chart. “The diagram,” writes Mwamba, “may have a theoretical basis beyond that.” But does anyone know what that is?

Perhaps Coltrane cleared certain things up with his “corrected” version of the tone circle, above, which Lateef also reprinted. From this—as pianist Matt Ratcliffe found—one can derive Giant Steps, as well as “the Star of David or the Seal of Solomon, very powerful symbolism especially to ancient knowledge and the Afrocentric and eventually cosmic consciousness direction in which Coltrane would ultimately lead on to with A Love Supreme.”




Sound too far out? On the other side of the epistemological spectrum, we have physicist and sax player Stephon Alexander, who writes in his book The Jazz of Physics that “the same geometric principle that motivated Einstein’s theory was reflected in Coltrane’s diagram.” Likewise, saxophonist Roel Hollander sees in the tone circle a number of mathematical principles. But, remaining true to Coltrane’s synthesis of spirituality and science, he also reads its geometry according to sacred symbolism.

In a detailed exploration of the math in Coltrane’s music, Hollander writes, “all tonics of the chords used in ‘Giant Steps’ can be found back at the Circle of Fifths/Fourths within 2 of the 4 augmented triads within the octave.” Examining these interlocking shapes shows us a hexagram, or Star of David, with the third triad suggesting a three-dimensional figure, a “star tetrahedron,” adds Hollander, “also known as ‘Merkaba,” which means “light-spirit-body” and represents “the innermost law of the physical world.” Do we actually find such heavy mystical architecture in the Coltrane Circle?—a “’divine light vehicle’ allegedly used by ascended masters to connect with and reach those in tune with the higher realms, the spirit/body surrounded by counter-rotating fields of light (wheels within wheels)”?

As the occult/magical/Kabbalist associations within the circle increase—the numerology, divine geometry, etc.—we can begin to feel like Tarot readers, joining a collection of random symbolic systems together to produce the results we like best. “That the diagram has to do with something,” writes Mwamba, “is not in doubt: what it has to do with a particular song is unclear.” After four posts in which he dissects both versions of the circle and ponders over the pieces, Mwanda still cannot definitively decide. “To ‘have an answer,’” he writes, “is to directly interpret the diagram from your own viewpoint: there’s a chance that what you think is what John Coltrane thought, but there’s every chance that it is not what he thought.” There’s also the possibility no one can think what Coltrane thought.

The circle contains Coltrane’s musical experiments, yet cannot be explained by them; it hints at theoretical physics and the geometry of musical composition, while also making heavy allusion to mystical and religious symbolism. The musical relationships it constructs seem evident to those with a firm grasp of theory; yet its strange intricacies may be puzzled over forever. “Coltrane’s circle,” writes Faena Aleph, is a “mandala,” expressing “precisely what is, at once, both paradoxical and obvious.” Ultimately, Mwamba concludes in his series on the diagram, "it isn't possible to say that Coltrane used the diagram at all; but exploring it in relation to what he was saying at the time has led to more understanding and appreciation of his music and life."

The circle, that is, works like a key with which we might unlock some of the mysteries of Coltrane's later compositions. But we may never fully grasp its true nature and purpose. Whatever they were, Coltrane never said. But he did believe, as he tells Frank Kofsky in the 1966 interview above, in music's ability to contain all things, spiritual, physical, and otherwise. "Music," he says, "being an expression of the human heart, or of the human being itself, does express just what is happening. The whole of human experience at that particular time is being expressed."

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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