Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mozart’s Last Aria by Matt Rees

Source of book: Recommended by and borrowed from my long-time stand partner, Donna Fraser

As Donna accurately promised, this book was a light, quick read; and took a few historical liberties while spinning a mostly plausible yarn about a Masonic conspiracy. It is also Chick-Lit, so potential male readers should be forewarned.

The subject of Mozart’s death has fascinated historians, musicians, and music lovers alike in the more than two hundred years since his death. Conspiracy theories have abounded, as his symptoms were ambiguous, and the state of medicine at the time primitive at best. The general modern consensus is that he died of Scarlet Fever, but it is possible that mercury poisoning from misguided medical treatment was a factor.

It has always been a popular conspiracy theory, however, that Mozart was poisoned. This book explores the most popular version of that theory, taking a few historical liberties along the way, but also drawing some reasonable conclusions from historical fact.

The heart of this theory is the historical fact that Mozart was a Mason, during an era in which the Masons were involved in often revolutionary – and dangerous – politics. The basic theory (plot spoiler warning) runs as follows: Mozart took a trip to Berlin soon before his death, ostensibly to apply for a job, but apparently involving a meeting with high ranking Masons in Prussia. This meeting had a connection with international politics between Prussia and Austria which made the Austrian monarch nervous, and led to Mozart being poisoned.

Some of the facts are solidly historical. Mozart was an active and rather passionate Mason. Several of his last works contained blatant Masonic symbolism, and seemed to stand for revolutionary ideas, at least for the time. The Magic Flute, in particular, is laced with Masonic symbols, both hidden (such as the numbers 3, 7, 9, 11, 13, 33, and 39); and barely disguised, such as the references to brotherhood and the Masonic ordeals of initiation found in the story itself. Mozart’s trip to Berlin was an historical fact, as was the bizarre suicide of another mason, whose story features prominently in the book. 

 Stage design for Mozart's opera The Magic Flute by German architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, c. 1815, 
with Masonic symbols.

A few things occurred to me while reading this book. First, the choice of narrator was good. Rees has Mozart’s older sister, Nannerl travel to Vienna in the wake of Mozart’s death to investigate the circumstances. While this visit is pure fiction, Nannerl is an intriguing character. She was also considered a child prodigy, and toured with her younger brother, performing as a sort of a circus show put on by their father, Leopold. Wolfgang himself ended up stealing Nannerl’s thunder, as he was clearly a rare genius, rather than a merely extraordinary young musician like Nannerl. She eventually married a wealthy minor nobleman – no small feat for the lower class Mozarts – but faded from public view. From the modern point of view, Rees exploration of her possible disappointment seems plausible. Other women of the era did continue to perform as adults. Later on, such luminaries as Clara Schumann were world famous, despite their eventual marriages.

Second, notwithstanding the poisoning rumors, Mozart’s young death, at age 33, was hardly unusual for the era. Fevers of various sorts claimed many at what we consider to be young ages.

I also noted that we take for granted in the modern United States that we can speak out against authority without ending up dying under suspicious circumstances. This was not the case in eighteenth century Europe. Indeed, it was not the case throughout most of human history, and even today is largely confined to Western democracies. When our founding fathers pledged their “lives, their fortunes, and [their] sacred honor”, they were not using flowery language for the fun of it. They really were at risk, as were many in Europe at the time who stood for the ideals of self government and equality.

Again, this book was a nice diversion. It was a light and quick read, with a basically well written, albeit thin, plot. It would be best enjoyed, as the cover states, with a mug of something warm, in front of a crackling fire.  

Note on Chick-Lit: Here is my chauvinist version of the Chick-Lit checklist.
  1. Female Narrator, who
  2. Has married an oppressive or insensitive, or boring man, who
  3. Goes on some sort of quest, wherein she
  4. Has catty interactions with other females, and
  5. Meets a man who is everything her husband is not, but
  6. Comes to realize in the end that she should not betray her family.
  7. If the book is historical fiction, it will also contain a proto-feminist point of view which is a bit out of place for the setting, but sells better than period sexism.
  8. The book will also contain excessive emoting and emotional self-analysis. Feelings will play a huge role in the narrative.
This book had to check the boxes, but managed to be an interesting story anyway.

Note on the Masons: Most of the Founding Fathers of the United States were also Masons, and left hidden Masonic symbols behind them. Our currency, for example, has several obvious uses of the numbers, and of the imagery of Freemasonry. This has given conspiracy theorists ample fodder over the years. I could write several posts on the nuances of Illuminati conspiracy theories, if such a thing really interested me. What is more interesting from an historical perspective is the connection of the Masons to Enlightenment thought. The primary reason that the monarchists feared the Masons was that they espoused a rather radical view of the equality and brotherhood of man, and even went so far in some cases as to hint at the equality of women. For the 1700s, these were dangerous and subversive ideas, to be sure.

Note on the music: Regular readers of this blog will already know that I love Mozart’s Requiem. Several of Mozart’s other last works are dear to my heart. Symphony #40 has always been one of my favorites.

The Magic Flute speaks for itself. It remains one of Mozart’s most popular operas, both for the music, and for it’s fantastical and anachronistically modern story. Rees does not stretch when he posits that Mozart was advocating for the equality of men and women – and for women’s admission to the Masonic brotherhood. The heroine is forced to take on a challenge of her own in order to save her beloved – a rather modern notion in many ways. Beethoven, of course, took the idea farther in Fidelio, but the influential idea is present in Mozart’s earlier work.

When I was a teen, I attended a concert by the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra at the Getty Villa. My then music teacher was a violinist in that august ensemble, and snuck me in for free. I remember that one of the pieces performed was the Masonic Cantata. 

While that work has its charms, the highlight of the evening was the performance of the B flat Piano Concerto. This is my favorite Mozart piano work, for reasons that will be obvious to those who know me well. On its surface, it is a light and happy tune; but it has a melancholy that belies the bubbly surface. Like the 40th Symphony, the music is achingly bittersweet. It is this quality which has resonated with me since my early childhood, and inspired my love of music more than any other quality.

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