Maria Anna Mozart: The Family’s First Prodigy

She was considered to be one of the finest pianists in Europe, until her younger brother Wolfgang came along

Leopold Mozart, right, boasted how well his daughter played the piano in a letter in 1764. She was quickly overshadowed by her brother Wolfgang. (The Art Archive / Corbis)

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Being paired with a skilled musician on stage can be an intense and transforming experience. “Whether Wolfgang wanted to please his older sister or outshine her, her musical accomplishments may have driven him harder than perhaps he would have on his own,” Jackson says.

Maria and Wolfgang toured for more than three years, covering several thousand miles by horse-drawn carriage, stopping in 88 cities and performing for many thousands of people. “This might be conjecture, but I have to think that Nannerl had an enormous influence on Wolfgang during the tours, especially the early tours,” says Zahler. “Touring intensifies the performing relationship. At a certain point, the music becomes second nature and musicians begin to concentrate almost entirely on deepening the interpretation. Being older, Nannerl would have had deep insights to share.”

While on tour outside London in 1764, Leopold fell ill. Their mother told Wolfgang and his sister that they must be quiet; they couldn’t even play their instruments. Maria Anna gathered some parchment and a quill pen and wrote down Wolfgang’s first symphony (K. 16). Decades later she recalled the incident, remembering that he had said: “Remind me to give something good to the horns!”

Only a fly on the wall would be able to tell for sure whether Maria Anna merely took dictation or collaborated on the piece. Composing a symphony is certainly a challenging and complex undertaking. As a trusted friend, family member and intimate music-making partner, Nannerl could have been exactly what Wolfgang needed to make the leap from sonatas to symphonies, Zahler says. “They probably had lots of discussion about what he was doing,” he says. “I’ll bet she not only reminded him about the horns but also suggested some things for the horns and for other parts of the composition as well.”

Just how far Maria Anna could have gone as a musician, we’ll never know. In 1769, when she was 18 years old and eligible to marry, her father ended her days on the road. While he and Wolfgang toured Italy, Maria stayed behind in Salzburg. She did not marry until 1784; in the meantime, she composed music. Wolfgang wrote from Rome in 1770: “My dear sister! I am in awe that you can compose so well, in a word, the song you wrote is beautiful.”

But we’ll never know what her composition sounds like, for it has been lost.

Elizabeth Rusch is the author of the children’s book For the Love of Music: The Remarkable Story of Maria Anna Mozart (Random House), the first nonfiction book about Maria Anna published in English.

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