She was a moth to his flame.
Chapter One, MY MOZART
“Most painfully affected of all by Mozart’s fatal illness was Fraulein Nanina Gottlieb…”
From Joseph Deiner’s Memoirs, related at Vienna, 1856
“Mozart, Ich liebe dich. I love you. Love you.”
“Come here, Nanina Nightingale. Come and give your poor old Maestro some of your ‘specially sugary sugar.”
My mouth on his‑‑the friction produced warmth and sweetness, with a decided undertone of the expensive brandy he liked, flowing from his tongue to mine. I slid my arms across the brocade of his jacket, none too clean these days, and swayed a slender dancer’s body against him.
Let me assure you that my sophistication was assumed. It really doesn’t matter – then, or now. I was young, foolish, and drowning in love. I was seventeen. He was thirty five.
He had once been boyishly agile, doing handsprings over chairs, turning cartwheels of joy at a prima donna’s kiss or a perfect performance of his own celestial music. He was never tall, and was, like most men of his age, working on a bit of a belly. Still, he kept more or less in shape by a daily regimen which included running from bailiffs, dashing out the back doors of taverns to avoid payment, and climbing in and out of the bedroom windows of adventurous (and talented) musical gentlewomen.
I believed he knew everything–that he could see right through me with those bright blue eyes. He probably could. He’d been my music master–and, more–my deity, ever since I’d met him, in my ninth year.
His jacket, now spotted and stained, must have been fine enough to wear in the presence of the Emperor. Bright blue, it perfectly matched his eyes. I can still feel the fabric sliding under my fingers as my arms passed over his shoulders and around his neck.
I can still see him‑‑a woolly frizz of blonde hair, long, aquiline nose–a ram that had once been an angel. Sometimes, when he was loving me in some exquisitely naughty way and joyfully smiling as he did it, I could almost see horns.
So you will understand exactly how I loved him, so that you will know that it was a real passion, I’ll tell you that I adored the feel of him, the smell of him, the taste of him. They’ve tried to turn him into a tinkling porcelain angel, but I’m here to tell you, here and now–he was not.
Mozart’s eyes were big, slightly protuberant, and as I’ve said, so blue. Alarming, those eyes! Once they’d shone with the pure light of genius, radiant and blissful as a summer noonday. Lately, they were simply wasted. My adored Maestro was mostly either drunk or hung over.
He’d fallen from grace. Everyone knew it. Creditors hounded him. There were too many wild parties, not enough money. His wife had given up coping, had gone back to the Baden spa where she had an on-going romance with a big, handsome Major.
And who could blame her? Pretty Constance, in the last ungainly stages of yet another pregnancy, fleeing Vienna after a winter of freezing and begging for handouts…
Even a seventeen year old idolater could recognize her defection for simple self‑preservation. I didn’t judge her. I didn’t judge myself. I was simply glad to have her out of the way. When she was gone, he was restless, at loose ends, spending most of his time hanging around our theater. Of course, nothing could have suited me better.
Oh, I can still hear my painted Mama lecturing, telling me all about Wolfgang’s debts, his drinking, and his wife. If I must go whoring, why couldn’t I be sensible, make it pay?
Naturally, I knew that the lady who filled his mind was one of his damned piano pupils. She was struggling with a very real fear of her husband and with her own natural chastity. Dear Mozart always imagined that if a lady played his music with “taste and feeling”, she belonged to him in a deeper and more complete sense than she could ever belong to a mere husband. The notion proved in every case disappointing, and, in the final exercise, fatal.
He often held forth upon “acting like a Kapellmeister/ dressing like a Kapellmeister”, long after he’d been ejected both from the court and the wider world of gentlemanly convention. When sufficiently drunk, he used to amuse everyone at The Serpent, clowning with a violin like some impoverished, itinerant musiker.
One night, a pair of Englishmen who’d been dining there dropped a handful of kreutzers and asked in broken German if he knew the way to “the house of Kapellmeister Mozart.” As the regulars roared, Mozart answered with the filthiest English curse he knew and haughtily stalked away, leaving the money on the floor. The waiter, Joseph Deiner, God bless him, scooped it up and applied it to Mozart’s perennial bill.
* * *
It’s hard to tell how you will like a true story, but to my mind, all the best tales grow. Have patience. This, I assure you, is a love story.
* * *
I was born a musiker, a poor, pretty, talented girl who could have become an actress or a singer, a dancer or a prostitute. When I was seventeen, with no parents and working for Emmanual Schikaneder, I’m afraid the latter was the fate most likely.
Today my beauty and voice are gone. Memories are all that remain. Except for my old friend Joseph, it was lonely for a very long time, but lately troops of well meaning Volk have been knocking on my door, bringing little presents and asking questions about the old days.
“Fraulein Gottlieb,” they say, “you were the Magic Flute’s first Pamina. Tell us about the way it was. Tell us about the great genius, Mozart.”
I hardly dare speak. Once well begun, this old woman might ramble straight through from beginning to end. My adored, long dead Maestro has become famous, a kind of Martyr to Art. I have no wish to stain the marble purity of the image that his wife, with so much skill and determination, has spent the last thirty years creating. I understand the theater of life, this proscenium beneath the arching sky. Sometimes–paradoxically–honor requires a lie.
So, to such visitors, I say the obvious, about how poorly his talent served him while he lived. Then they reply, as if this makes up for the pain: “His music survives.”
For a performer like me, it’s the opposite. In that most present of present moments, we are the lark of song, the erotic geometry of dance, the drum beat of declamation. For a performer there’s nothing beyond the flashing now, and when we grow old all that is left for us is the rusty rumination of some aged member of a long ago audience.
This being so, I’ll tell you who I am, or rather who I was: Fraulein Anna Gottlieb, Nanina to my long dead friends. I was a performer once admired, first as a dancer, then as a singer, and last, when I grew older, as a comedienne who had learned all about getting belly laughs from those two great clowns of the Volksoper stage, Barbara Gerl and Emmanuel-The-Devil-In-Human-Form Schikaneder. I was the darling of the fickle Viennese for years.
* * *
My parents performed in Vienna and died there, and I grew up in that city a performer, as close to a free woman as it was possible to be. Papa was a violinist; Mama was a dancer. Their marriage was the kind often made in the “immoral” last century and quintessentially Viennese. It was a marriage of convenience.
Mama had, for a few shining years, been a star of the Court ballet. She said quite frankly that of all the men who had been sleeping with her, Papa had been the only one willing to marry her when she’d discovered she was pregnant. My mother, once a member of the elite Court Figuranti, claimed my birth ruined her career.
“After you have a baby, it’s as if you’ve been anchored to the ground,” she’d complain. “You just can’t do those floating leaps anymore.”
Whenever mother told me this, she’d run her long hands reflectively down her sides. She was not, by any stretch of the imagination, fat, but she was continually in mourning for some lost, youthful perfection.
“Poor child!” She’d stroke my dark curls, so unlike her own. “Of all the rich Papa’s you might have had! Instead, the capricious womb opens for the seed of a poor musiker, a fellow I lay with in pity.” Clearly the Fate in control of my destiny had done right. I loved my Papa and he loved me.
I think he would have loved me no matter who had fathered me, but happily for both of us, I strongly favored him. We were both small, slender, pale brunettes, with thick, curly hair. To Papa, I was always “Princess.” Like all young creatures, I was pretty enough, although I didn’t have the particular flash that Nature gives to blondes.
A woman the world judged beautiful, my lovely Mama could make conditions. She was quick to slap, quick to scream and scold.
If Papa overheard that remark about “the capricious womb,” he’d retort “Fool that I was to think that real devotion could reform a public woman.”
And then I would hide somewhere, for that was always the start of a battle. Mama would scream about Papa’s lack of money while he detailed her infidelities.
* * *
My god, Mozart manifested on a beautiful June day, when the sun blazed in the bluest of skies. Mama hated dancing at garden parties. There were grass stains and insects, but to children summer was the best party time. We could run in gardens and make our own ballets and plays. It was a treat to be out of the hot, smelly streets of the summer city. There were always other children present, theater brats, just like me. Parties were an important part of our education, for this was the way we too would someday earn our bread.
We could run through great halls or hide behind the tapestries. On bright summer days, we could romp through gardens big as city blocks. Unattended food was everywhere. As long as we didn’t get in the way, break or steal, no one cared what we did. The first thing was always to extract a glass or two of wine from the tray of a passing servant and share it out. Then, enjoying the pleasantly giddy sensation that followed, we’d wander out into the garden.
Prince Cobenzl owned the best. There were roses, reds, whites and pinks, so many shades, so many scents, not only bushes, but an entire corridor lined with rose trees, an amazing sight. Next came a topiary. There we gawked at dragons, peacocks and rabbits all cut from thick green hedge.
One day, rounding a corner, we came up short, for we’d stumbled upon one of those unnerving adult activities. There stood an aristocratic lady and a somberly dressed gentleman, embracing across the obstacle of fashionable dress. Their lips and hands were the only parts in busy and ardent contact. The man had to be careful not to touch her white powdered face or he would have caused it to turn blue, a tell‑tale sign of kissing.
Their bodies were distant, for she was in full court dress, the panniers swelling out on each side in a wave of ivory satin and lace. She accepted his tribute like a great white statue, one hand caressing his cheek, the other holding a pink and white parasol over them both.
As young as we were, we understood that here a basic, underlying rule of the world had been violated. It was not simply that the lady was married to someone else. In the Vienna of those days, adultery was the ordinary way of things. The shocking part was that the Lady was titled, a Baroness. The man kissing her was a mere musiker, dressed in the plain white wig and dark livery of a servant.
Kath and I were dumbfounded. We knew that noblemen made love to ladies of any class, but never before had we seen a woman cross the social barrier. Profoundly unsettled, we ran away as if the devil was in pursuit.
Of all the love making I saw at parties, this was unquestionably the most dangerous. The lady had a husband, and the husband, could, with impunity, kill that trespassing servant.
* * *
Later the same day, while the orchestra tuned, we became part of the anticipating throng in an outdoor amphitheater. For ease of passage, we slipped hands and made our way separately among the ladies, who, like ships of silk and brocade, drifted in our way.
The top step of a newly erected summer pavilion seemed a good place for us. In a passion for all things classical, Prince Cobenzl had erected a replica of a little Roman temple. Here we perched, gazing over the white and silver audience to the red-coated orchestra. From among the violins, a bow lifted and waved.
It was Papa. I waved back.
Behind the orchestra, stood an oak tree, absolutely the broadest I’d ever seen. Powerful limbs lifted, it was a leafy, bark-armored Atlas. I could imagine it holding up the sky. One of those large new fortepianos had been set on delicate walnut legs between the violins. An erect little man, seemingly not much more than a boy, sat before it.
This, I thought, must be the new Kapellmeister, the pianist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the one Papa liked so much. He wore the same uniform as the orchestra.
He began to play. The allegro made me smile with pleasure, for it seemed as brilliant as the day. I was not alone in my pleasure, for among the audience there were some who threw back their heads. Some even swayed, as if they wanted to get up and dance.
Champagne and joyful music buzzed in our heads. Notes splashed into the air and fell around in a sparkling cascade. I was carried away, straight into heaven. The fleecy cloud sheep that had dotted the sky earlier wandered off. Now the aching blue suffered no interruption, except for the occasional flash of swallows. His music was a heart, beating inside me.
Suddenly, my imagination aflame with music and wine, I saw the rough bark of the great tree shiver. It was breathing and alive, just like me—and that was when I heard it speak:
I looked around to see a face that would acknowledge the words, but met only the questioning gray eyes of Kath.