The best reason I have for writing a novel about Mozart must surely be that I love his music. Other elements contribute, including my fascination with his neglected sister and the growing historical research which I believe points toward his murder. But the music must be at the center of the novel itself.
I’ve played music all my life. But after my initial music lessons I eschewed the playing of classical music – no more Etudes by Heller for me. I’ve been a guitarist and bassist in various rock bands. Less sexily, I played glockenspiel in my high school band.
So for MOZART’S LAST ARIA, my new historical thriller in which Wolfgang’s sister Nannerl investigates his death in Vienna, 1791, I decided to learn to play piano. This showed me two things: first that I’m not much good on the piano; and second a way to see inside Wolfgang’s music, because the piano study made me think more deeply about musical theory than rock guitar. (Surely THAT doesn’t surprise anyone, but it was worth demonstrating anyhow.)
My guide in this was my dear friend Orit Wolf, a fabulous concert pianist who lives in Jaffa (You can see her dressed up as Nannerl and hear her version of Mozart’s Fantasia in D on this video). Orit’s probably best known for her heartfelt interpretations of romantic composers. When she plays Chopin or Schubert, I challenge you to stay on your feet, so emotional and breathtaking is it. But her insights into Mozart are stupendous. Our discussion of Wolfgang’s piano sonata in A minor I remember in particular. It gave me the idea of building the entire novel around the mood and structure of that piece.
Orit also introduced me to some of the techniques great musicians use when they prepare for a performance. For example, she told me that when she first looks at a piece for a performance she decides what color the music makes her think of. Before each performance, she’ll visualize that color and it will create a mood in her, and in turn that mood will be reflected in the music as she plays it. It isn’t just about hitting the right keys.
I had a similar talk with the great conductor Zubin Mehta (in which he was very frank about the lack of worth of certain composers who’ll remain nameless). He was very clear about who the greatest of them all is. “I’d find it very hard to live without Mozart,” he told me.
During my research I’ve seen some astonishingly great performances of Mozart’s music in many different cities. I saw Don Giovanni performed in the Estates Theater, Prague, where it had its premier in 1785. I listened to The Magic Flute in a spectacular production where it all began, in Vienna. It was an elegant night at the Staatsoper (though that building wasn’t around in Mozart’s day). What could be better than a perfect Mozart production and, during the intervals, svelte young usherettes wandering the balconies with trays of delicious petit fours?
Perhaps the most fun was this: a group of singers from a South African township put on a wonderful version of The Magic Flute, backed by an orchestra of marimbas. I’m sure Wolfgang would’ve approved.
More posts and video on MOZART'S LAST ARIA and writing.