Matt Rees writes about the research conducted for his latest novel, Mozart's Last Aria:
By Matt Rees
Historical novelists recreate the emotions and events of distant times. For some novelists, this is a matter of supreme imagination and invention, because they write about periods on which historical research is sketchy at best.
Writing about Mozart for my new novel MOZART’S LAST ARIA (https://www.mattrees.net/mozart.html) required considerable imagination. Yet I was able to tie the fiction to existing clues about the world in which the great composer lived. In turn, I hope that makes the book closer to the real emotional and physical life of its characters.
The first of these anchors to reality is Mozart’s music. No doubt in our agnostic times my hearing of the Requiem is different to that of Nannerl Mozart, the composer’s sister and the narrator of my novel. Still, I believe there are underlying connections between the way she heard and I hear Mozart, so that I feel at least some hint of her long-gone emotions when I experience his compositions.
I also found I could recreate the speech of the time from letters Wolfgang exchanged with his father Leopold, his sister, and his Viennese friends. This took me beyond the scatological buffoonery of “Amadeus” (By the way, Leopold was rather more potty-mouthed in his letters than Wolfgang, even if the latter did describe his wife’s behind as a “kissable arse.”) I melded the playfulness of the Mozarts’ letters with the relative formality of the time to create a voice which represents something both modern and of the period.
Almost as important to my research as the music or the voice was the finding of locations which had touched Wolfgang’s life. After all, it was my visits to Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and the Salzkammergut mountains which transformed me from a bit of a Mozart music buff to someone prepared to devote years of his life to writing a novel about the great man’s last days. (In MOZART’S LAST ARIA, the composer’s estranged sister, Nannerl, goes to Vienna to uncover the truth about his premature death. She discovers a story of intrigue, espionage and secrets hidden in The Magic Flute – as well as a new perspective on the love between her and her brother.)
Many of the places where Wolfgang played his music still exist. In many cases the décor – as well as the basic structure – remains the same as in his day. I was able to set much of the action of MOZART’S LAST ARIA in existing streets and buildings where Mozart lived and worked.
In MOZART’S LAST ARIA, Nannerl investigates her suspicion that Wolfgang was poisoned. She’s aided by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an important patron of her brother. Swieten was Imperial Librarian, and you can see the majesty and learning of that time arrayed on the shelves of the Prunksaal, the great library attached to the Hofburg, the Emperors’ palace in central Vienna. The library is open to the public, but you’ll rarely find more than five or six other visitors there at one time – most people are shuffling with the crowds through the Emperor’s rooms down the way. It’s a gem hidden in rather plain site.
The house where Mozart died was destroyed some time ago (though you can visit an excellent museum in the house where he wrote The Marriage of Figaro nearby on Domgasse). There’s a plaque on the wall of a department store there now, on Rauhensteingasse. But if you stand with your back to the spot, you can look to your left, your right, and in front of you, and you’ll see just what Wolfgang would’ve seen – except there’ll be less horse manure on the streets.
Even when the buildings of Mozart’s time have gone, there are traces I was able to use. The interior of Mozart’s last home has been the subject of a number of academic theses about the furniture and layout of the apartment. (Some years ago, the startling discovery was made that not only did he have two windows on the front of his studio, but he also had another one on the side. It sounds like a triviality – well, it IS a triviality -- but I’m very grateful to those dedicated Mozartians.)
You can look at a photo tour (https://www.mattrees.net/tour/vienna1.html) of other Mozart sites in Vienna on my website.
But it isn’t only in the city where he died that Mozart’s presence can be felt. When I first visited Vienna, I took a train north to Prague, where I saw a production of Don Giovanni in the Estates Theatre. It was here in 1785 that the “opera of operas” was premiered. During the summer, the theatre rotates Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte, and The Marriage of Figaro. The performances are quite good, but most of all it’s astonishing to see opera in an unchanged, historic theatre of such intimacy -- where Mozart actually performed and where the concert scenes of the film Amadeus were shot.
Mozart reputedly wrote the overture to Don Giovanni at his friends’ house Villa Bertramka on the day of the first performance. You can visit Bertramka, which is not far from the city center. It was a country retreat in Mozart’s time, though now it’s ringed around by shiny new office towers and shopping centres. It’s one of the more intimate spaces in which one can try to feel the lingering sense that Mozart was there.
Naturally Mozart’s birthplace, Salzburg, is filled with places to visit for his fans. But for me the most significant place was an hour’s drive up into the Salzkammergut mountains. There I came across St. Gilgen, the tiny village where Mozart’s mother was born. It also happens to be the spot where his sister Nannerl was packed off to be married to a boring local functionary. I imagined how it must have been for her after her years as a child piano prodigy, playing in the great palaces of Europe with her brother. It was in this village that I had the idea of transplanting her to the Imperial capital to probe her brother’s death.
From the little house where she lived, I looked out across the lake. As I watched the sun on the glimmering surface of the water, the first intimations of how I would write my novel came to me. I hope you’ll visit the village and see if Nannerl speaks to you too.
Matt Rees is the author of five crime novels, the latest of which is MOZART’S LAST ARIA. For more about his books, go to https://www.mattrees.net/. For his podcast and blog, go to https://www.themanoftwistsandturns.com/.