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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1200 Years of Women Com­posers: A Free 78-Hour Music Playlist That Takes You From Medieval Times to Now

Hear the Pieces Mozart Com­posed When He Was Only Five Years Old

Read an 18th-Cen­tu­ry Eye­wit­ness Account of 8‑Year-Old Mozart’s Extra­or­di­nary Musi­cal Skills

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

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Comments (15)
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  • Smith Jones says:

    If she was “erased from his­to­ry” (accord­ing to your title, Josh Jones), where did the arti­cles and paint­ing come from? While fic­tion­al recre­ations of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures can be enter­tain­ing, such as Sylvia Milo’s one-woman play, and the 1980’s movie “Amadeus” (con­tain­ing a very con­tem­po­rary sound­track, and con­sid­er­able lib­er­ties tak­en with Amadeus’ rela­tion­ship with Salieri), nei­ther should be seen as his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences. They cer­tain­ly do not sup­port sweep­ing gen­er­al­iza­tions about gen­der pol­i­tics in his­tor­i­cal con­texts, how­ev­er much an inter­net blog­ger from 2017 may wish them to.

  • Jones Smith says:

    Agreed, and the last part of the arti­cle where there are veiled claims that Mozart was only as tal­ent­ed as he was because of his old­er sis­ter’s influ­ence is just anoth­er attempt at re-writ­ing his­to­ry using bias to suit the minds of those that can­not live with the idea that genius­es male exist­ed either with­out female coun­ter­parts or female inter­ven­tion.

  • Josh Jones says:

    That’s a total mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the claim, which isn’t “veiled” and isn’t mine but from an aca­d­e­m­ic researcher who is quot­ed in the Smith­son­ian arti­cle I linked to. He argues that Nan­nerl prob­a­bly had some influ­ence on Mozart’s play­ing, not that he “was only as tal­ent­ed as he was” because of her. No one is argu­ing that. You’re straw-man­ning the arti­cle because you seem to think there’s some kind of bias at work in writ­ing about Mozart’s sis­ter. I think there’s bias in not writ­ing about her. Near­ly every pro­file of Mozart includes sig­nif­i­cant dis­cus­sion of his father’s influ­ence. We rarely if ever hear about his old­er sis­ter, even though she was also prodi­gious­ly tal­ent­ed and a major part of his young life. It seems to me total­ly uncon­tro­ver­sial to say that two sib­ling musi­cians who grew up play­ing and tour­ing togeth­er would have influ­enced each oth­er. I clear­ly state in the post that fic­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions take his­tor­i­cal liberties–everyone knows that, so there’s no need for you to point that out as though you’re the first to dis­cov­er it. The por­trait is con­tem­po­rary, and every­one at the time knew about her, as I also clear­ly state in the post. She was pre­vent­ed from con­tin­u­ing her musi­cal career, and in sub­se­quent schol­ar­ship and pop­u­lar rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Mozart, she dis­ap­peared. It’s not that com­pli­cat­ed.

  • Howard says:

    Any biog­ra­phy of Mozart is going to talk about his moth­er, who died while on tour with Wolf­gang in Paris, and his father who was a com­pos­er in his own right as well as a musi­cal patri­arch, and Nan­nerl for whom the still-pop­u­lar Con­cer­to for Two Pianos, K.365 was com­posed (by and also for her broth­er, Wolf­gang). The pro­gram notes for any per­for­mance of the piece will always dis­cuss the sis­ter who no longer toured but who was still part of her broth­er’s musi­cal life. The played togeth­er at the same key­board and had the same teacher (“Papa!”). “Air­brushed from his­to­ry” is an exag­ger­a­tion; I mean, I knew about her… But the arti­cle does a ser­vice in bring her to our atten­tion, and remind­ing us of what is lost when we sti­fle indi­vid­u­als for what­ev­er rea­son.

  • Deborah S says:

    Same. I also knew of Nan­nerl before. Of course, I am a music student…twice graduated…but, I think that it is not too dif­fi­cult to find at least some his­tor­i­cal cred­it for genius giv­en to Nan­nerl. “Erased from his­to­ry” is a bit of a stretch. How­ev­er, I must say that I do think it’s neat to look at his­to­ry from dif­fer­ent angles. Anoth­er look at the first Mozart genius is not a bad idea.

  • Jonathan Lloyd says:

    By only know­ing Nan­nerl by descrip­tions of the duo’s tour­ing, and not hav­ing any exam­ples of her greater work (her com­po­si­tions, her tech­nique, per­son­al his­to­ries), oh, and a por­trai­ture, is about as “air­bushed from his­to­ry” as you can get. Just because some­one can name her does­n’t make this an exag­ger­a­tion. The infor­ma­tion that we have is the small­est detail com­pared to what we may well have come to know…if she was a male. How many oth­er Nan­ner­l’s would there have been, had not only males been allowed to play in the artis­tic play­ground?

  • Miguel Baptista says:

    Why is J.S. Bach the only Bach to get cred­it, when his own sons were even more famous than he was back in the day?
    Is there a con­tem­po­rary agen­da some­where mak­ing this so, or is it just because of some small coin­ci­dences, like Mendelssohn’s con­tri­bu­tion to res­cue what is now one of the most famous names in clas­si­cal music?

    Where are all the famous girl bands in rock music ? Which girl band was pushed to the side in order for the Floyds, Bea­t­les, Zep­pelin, Stones to come through ? Why is there no gen­der equal­i­ty in rock music?!!!

    Jeal­ousy, and Igno­rance leads to igno­rant con­clu­sions, igno­rant ques­tions, and igno­rant inqui­si­tions.

  • Kit Porter says:

    Dear Smith Jones,
    thank you for prov­ing the point made in the arti­cle: selec­tive vision. It’s not about con­scious edit­ing, it’s about omis­sion and lack of inter­est and peo­ple like you per­pet­u­ate it because they are either unable to assume anoth­er point of view (which is a psy­cho­log­i­ca prob­lem, real­ly, lack of empathy)or respect one that does­n’t cor­re­spond to their own expe­ri­ence, or claim bet­ter exper­tise on any­thing in prin­ci­ple (“mansplain­ing”). It’s such stan­dard prac­tice, that I won­der how any semi-reflect­ing per­son of aver­age intel­li­gence can fail to notice
    I don’t know who you are but if you are white, I am sure you spend a lot of time explain­ing racism to peo­ple of colour, too, don’t you?

  • Shirley Kathan-Sayess says:

    As a pro­fes­sion­al artist, I had no idea there were women painters befor Mary Cas­satt until I was 28!

  • Steve Ballard says:

    All,I have a very clear mem­o­ry of a sto­ry in a school read­er about the Mozart Wunderkinder…1962 it was.
    So much for Anna-Maria being ignored by his­to­ry.
    At that time, we had not yet had the onslaught of var­i­ous fem­i­nist groups.
    They all lat­er came to have a point.
    But the facts remain even now, to sup­port con­tentions that wom­ens work worth, exploits,value and achieve­ments have been stu­dious­ly deval­ued, and that con­tin­ues to this day.
    Yet anoth­er ver­sion of the “his­to­ry is writ­ten by the win­ners” par­a­digm.

    Not all win­ners have been fair or wor­thy.

  • J.H. Pfaffenstein says:

    What I object to is the slo­gan that she was as great a musi­cian as her broth­er — a claim Nan­nerl would nev­er have made but ten­den­tious schol­ars and writ­ers love. That she was a prodi­gy as a per­former is uni­ver­sal­ly accept­ed and not erased. But Wolfi’s being a child prodi­gy is the least impor­tant thing about him. He was com­pos­ing from the age of 4. His com­po­si­tions were extra­or­di­nary by the time he was 17, rev­o­lu­tion­ary by the time he was 25 — and he was still the most extra­or­di­nary pianist in Vien­na. Nan­nerl com­posed very lit­tle and retired from per­form­ing. She was no way in a class with Mozart — nei­ther was any­one else at the time, so why is that seen as a dis­grace?

  • Timber says:

    She was main­ly a per­former in an era long before record­ing became avail­able, so her work, like Wofli’s per­for­mances (as sep­a­rate from his com­po­si­tions), becomes anec­do­tal only. What’s a shame is that her com­po­si­tions are lost. Hope­ful­ly some­day they’ll be found in someone’s library some­where. Do we know whether any of her com­po­si­tions were pub­licly per­formed in her life­time?

  • Harry Millon says:

    Is it not true to a cer­tain extent that Mozart, like Shake­speare would today be more obscure if they had not had their works pub­lished in col­lec­tions, after their deaths by their wives?

  • Norm Farris says:

    What I object to is the atti­tudes revealed in many of the neg­a­tive post­ings which seems to amount to “His­to­ry is done and man is on top” or “you arerig­ger

  • Norm Farris says:

    I object to is the atti­tudes revealed in many of the neg­a­tive post­ings which seems to amount to “His­to­ry is done and man is on top” or “you are trig­ger­ing my cul­tur­al anx­i­eties by bring­ing a wom­an’s his­to­ry into a field that has only acknowl­edged men.” We should real­ize that his­to­ry is elas­tic and has lots of room for sto­ries that have not been told in the past. Besides, why does men­tion­ing a for­got­ten female his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ter equate to a war on men or PC dis­tor­tion of his­to­ry. Actu­al­ly, leav­ing these new char­ac­ters out is the real dis­tor­tion. Final­ly, hav­ing a tal­ent­ed sis­ter does­n’t dimin­ish HIS genius.

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