2 May 2011 0 Comments

Mozart Scene of the Crime

Historical novelists recreate the emotions and events of distant times. It helps if they can use real places that still exist. In the case of MOZART’S LAST ARIA, I was able to set much of the action in streets and buildings where Mozart lived and worked – and where you can still visit.

In my historical thriller, the composer’s sister Nannerl comes to Vienna to investigate her suspicion that Wolfgang was poisoned. One of the men who helps her is Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an important patron of her brother. Swieten was Imperial Librarian, and you can see the majesty and learning of that time arrayed on the shelves of the Prunksaal, the great library attached to the Hofburg, the Emperors’ palace in central Vienna.

The library is open to the public, but you’ll rarely find more than five or six other visitors there at one time – most people are shuffling with the crowds through the Emperor’s rooms down the way. It’s a gem hidden in rather plain site.

The house where Mozart died was destroyed some time ago (though you can visit a museum in the house where he wrote The Marriage of Figaro nearby). There’s a department store there now, on Rauhenstein Lane. But if you stand with your back to the spot, you can look to your left, your right, and in front of you, and you’ll see just what Wolfgang would’ve seen – except there’ll be less horse manure on the streets. Much of central Vienna remains just as it was in Mozart’s time.

Despite its destruction, I was able to describe the interior of Mozart’s home quite fully, however. There have been a number of academic theses written about the furniture and layout of the apartment. Yes, really. (Some years ago, the startling discovery was made that not only did he have two windows on the front of his studio, but he also had another one on the side. You get a Ph.d. for this stuff, you know. But anyway I’m very grateful to those dedicated Mozartians.)

You can look at a photo tour of other Mozart sites and locations from MOZART’S LAST ARIA in Vienna on my website.

When I first visited Vienna, I took a train north to Prague, where I saw a production of Don Giovanni, Mozart’s great opera, in the Estates Theater. It was here in 1785 that the “opera of operas” was premiered. Mozart reputedly wrote the overture at his friends’ house Villa Bertramka on the day of the first performance. You can visit Bertramka, not far from the city center. During the summer, the Estates Theater rotates three of Mozart’s great operas, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutti, and The Marriage of Figaro. The performances are wonderful, and it’s astonishing to see opera in an unchanged, historic theater of such intimacy, where Mozart actually performed and where the concert scenes of the movie Amadeus were filmed.

Naturally Mozart’s birthplace, Salzburg, is filled with places to visit for his fans. But for me the most significant place was an hour’s drive up into the Salzkammergut mountains. There I came across St. Gilgen, the tiny village where Mozart’s mother was born. It also happens to be the place his sister Nannerl was packed off to be married to a boring local functionary. I imagined how it must have been for her after her years as a child piano prodigy, playing in the great palaces of Europe with her brother. It was in this village that I had the idea of transplanting her to the Imperial capital to probe her brother’s death.

From the little house where she lived, I looked out across the lake. As I watched the sun on the glimmering surface of the water, the first intimations of how I would write my novel came to me. I hope you’ll visit the village and see if Nannerl speaks to you too.

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