BOOKS: by Chris BrowningNews Weekly
'Constanze, Mozart's Beloved', by Agnes Selby
, December 4, 1999
Turton & Armstrong
Available from News Weekly Books for $49.95Constanze was Mozart's beloved wife. He defied his father to marry her. Their life together was a true marriage. She helped copy his music, read him libretti late at night so he could compose his operas, travelled Europe with him. They had two sons. He said of her, 'She is the most kindhearted, cleverest and best of the Weber women'.
Agnes Selby has given us a picture of Constanze which refutes previous Mozart scholars, who presented her as the cause of his woes. Even the film Amadeus depicted her as a rather silly tart. Agnes Selby has tirelessly sifted files in Europe, and, with her knowledge of Czech and German, has given us a different picture.
This is a wonderful coup for the Australian publishers Turton and Armstrong, as it is international research of the highest order, combined with a fascinating story told with empathy and historical insights. It is a marvellous tale of love and courage, tragedy and success, poverty and entrepreneurship.
Constanze emerges as a loving woman, full of common sense, who gave Mozart the stability, harmony, and affection which he needed to fulfil his genius. He wrote such tender loving letters, that the reader can understand why she spent years organising concerts and publishing his works to keep his music before the public.
Mozart earned huge sums in Vienna and was not the gloomy impoverished artist of the romantic period. He spent a considerable fortune, in spite of Constanze's frugal housekeeping.
Agnes Selby theorises that Mozart's debts may have come from gambling - he became a Freemason, and often the members would stay on after meetings to gamble through the night.
Agnes Selby gives a social history as well as biography. Mozart was composing just prior to the French Revolution, and had to get permission from the Emperor to stage The Marriage of Figaro, as it criticised the aristocracy. After success, his world suddenly changed.
Music had flourished in Vienna, but Leopold II, the new emperor decided on war, not opera. He needed money to combat the invading Turks in Belgrade. Audiences at the opera houses declined immediately. Salieri's court career was over at the age of 41.
Mozart, desperate for money to repay debts, accepted a commission for the Requiem (which appealed to him as he loved high church music) from a mysterious visitor in grey, but then contracted 'military fever'. His joints swelled so much he could not move. Constanze fed and bathed him, tenderly looking after him while he dictated the Requiem score to Sussmayr.
Mozart died after an illness of just 15 days on December 5, 1791, and was buried with a third class funeral arranged by fellow Freemason, Baron Van Swietenat.
The Emperor had decreed there were to be only first, second or third class funerals, or paupers' funerals, followed by burial in plots away from crowded church yards, for health reasons. Second and third class funerals stipulated graves with up to six people in them. Constanze stayed at home, as was the custom. She had his debts, two sons, and faced a future without any income. She was twenty-nine.
Agnes Selby says:
'Constanze was fired by an almost religious zeal to preserve Mozart's music for posterity. She knew instinctively that the excessive interest in Mozart's music after his death was largely due to a sense of regret that he had died so young and so suddenly. She also knew that other talented musicians would appear who would gradually usurp the public's interest in his music ... She decided that the best way to keep Mozart's music alive and at the same time earn a livelihood for herself and her children was to have his music performed as often as possible'.
She turned herself into an entrepreneur, publicist and ticket seller of subscription concerts, and toured in Austria, Germany and Bohemia. The King of Prussia gave her the use of the Opera House in Berlin where Constanze herself sang. She had a long running dispute over ownership of the Requiem, and difficulties with publishers over Mozart's works. Agnes Selby's remarkable tale allows the reader to see someone grow and develop in the most extraordinary way, from a shy young girl to an independent innovator.
Years later she fell in love and lived with the Danish diplomat, Nicholaus Nissen, marrying him in 1809. Constanze and Nissen collected data for Mozart's biography, including letters and recollections from friends and relatives.
The escalating controversy around the mysteries and ownership of the Requiem were only resolved in this century when many of Mozart's little notations on scraps of paper were found in the Sussmayr archives.
Nissen died in 1826, his biography of Mozart finally appearing in 1828. Constanze set about marketing and distributing it. She helped organise a performance of the Requiem to celebrate the 50th anniversary concert of Mozart's death in Salzburg in 1841. It was the last time she heard his work. She died aged 80 in 1842.
This is a wonderful tale of an extraordinary woman.