It might seem a long way from a machine-gun rattling in Ramallah to my new novel about the death of the great composer Mozart, but in my mind it’s a straight line. I’ve been based in Jerusalem, mostly as a foreign correspondent, for 15 years. During the Palestinian intifada of the last decade, I soothed my traumatized mind with Mozart’s compositions. (Scientific studies have shown that it’s good for many other ailments, including attention deficit disorder and epilepsy.) I took a break from the violence to travel to Austria and the Czech Republic with my wife. I wanted to experience the mountains, beautiful cities, and lovely music. I also stumbled across something that brought me to life creatively. We happened to pass through the tiny village in the mountains near Salzburg where Mozart’s sister Nannerl lived as the wife of a boring local functionary (and where by chance his mother had been born). I started to think about Nannerl Mozart, who had been almost as talented as her brother, cooped up in the mountains while he grew famous in Vienna. As a fan of crime fiction, of course, I also started to think about her response to his sudden death. Later, I was having dinner with Maestro Zubin Mehta, formerly the musical director of the New York Philharmonic. I asked him which of all the great composers he valued most highly. “I’d find it hard to live without Mozart,” he said. That started me thinking about those people who had lived with Mozart. After his death at only 35, what had it been like to live without him. To have lost one of the greatest geniuses in the history of the world. Of course, I felt sure those people, having lost the man, turned to the music. Over the course of many research trips to Vienna, I came up with the idea of posing Maestro Mehta’s question through Mozart’s sister and Mozart’s music. Nannerl is forgotten to history except as a footnote in stories about her famous brother, yet she knew him better than anyone. And in the music of his last great opera The Magic Flute I detected clues about dangerous ideas Mozart held in reality, which might have made him unpopular with the Imperial Secret Police and the Freemasons. The music showed me the risks the great composer took. His sister gave me a character to uncover them.
MOZART’S LAST ARIA by Matt Rees, 2011, published by Corvus