Although there’s a brief frame supposedly narrated by Mozart’s youngest son, Franz Xaver, this novel takes the form of a memoir written by Mozart’s elder sister, Nannerl.
Having forsaken her own musical ambitions in order to care for her father, Leopold, and having been married off by him to a stuffy Salzburg bureaucrat whom she doesn’t love, Nannerl has become estranged these past three years from her wildly talented younger brother, now married and living in Vienna, where the imperial court and the rich potential patrons are. One day she receives a letter from Wolfgang’s wife, Constanze, telling her that Wolfgang is dead. Moreover, he believed in his final months that he was being poisoned, so his death may have been murder.
Nannerl travels to Vienna to try to establish what’s actually happened. Her investigations eventually uncover a plot — really, more than one plot — involving Freemasonry (Mozart was a dedicated Mason), jealousy and imperial politics. Even when she successfully identifies the person responsible for her brother’s death, there are further knots of deviousness to unravel.
She also, for the first time in her life, finds herself stirred by passionate love for something other than music. Despite her marriage, despite her religious convictions, she becomes drawn into a relationship with one of the most powerful men in the empire, and even toys with the notion of abandoning her husband and children for him. I found this love story to be a really quite moving counterpoint to the novel’s main plot: Nannerl, who tasted the glories of the concert stage before being denied further musical fulfillment by her domineering father, is now given a taste of the other thing he denied her when he arranged her “safe” marriage back in stuffy Salzburg.
Much of the novel is based on historical fact (and there are useful notes at the back to tell us which bits are real and which invented). Mozart really was a Freemason, and his opera The Magic Flute really was intended as a two-and-a-half-hour commercial for the ideals of Freemasonry. There was indeed a crackdown on Freemasonry going on at the time, and there’s been longstanding speculation that Mozart’s death might have been related to this . . . assuming he actually was poisoned and wasn’t simply being paranoid.
I found this a really quite absorbing read in a low-key way. I grew very fond of Nannerl — she proves to be a most enjoyable companion — and also of Constanze, a widow facing disaster because her husband’s genius didn’t extend to finances. Towards the end there’s a charade (devised to coax a confession out of one of the guilty parties) that I’m not sure would have convinced anyone, but everything else was pleasingly restrained and plausible.
Which is not what you might be led to believe by one of the review quotes on the cover: “The Da Vinci Code, but this time with Masons and musical manuscripts.” Someone at NPR must have been smoking a forbidden substance when they came out with that, because this novel, to its credit, bears no resemblance whatsoever to The Da Vinci Code.