Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Other Mozart

March 22 - Post provided by Elizabeth Rusch

The Other Mozart: With the right education could Maria Anna Mozart have rivaled her brother Wolfgang?

          "Virtuosic.” “A prodigy.” “Genius.” These words were written in the 1760s about a child musician who astounded the courts of Europe with artful performances. The name: Mozart.
Maria Anna Mozart.

Most people have heard of classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and have listened to his music. But most don’t know that Wolfgang had a sister who was also a child prodigy. Fewer realize that she was a talented musician who toured internationally with her little brother for more than three years, performing for thousands of people in 88 cities. And almost no one knows these stunning facts:
* Maria Anna Mozart was thought to be a better pianist than Wolfgang.  “My little girl plays the most difficult works we have …with incredible precision and so excellently…” her father wrote in 1764. “What it all amounts to is this, that my little girl…is one of the most skillful players in Europe.”

* Maria Anna had a hand in some of Wolfgang’s compositions, literally. While on tour in the summer of 1764, Maria Anna sat down with Wolfgang, a quill pen, and paper and wrote a symphony. Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major is in Maria’s handwriting but is attributed to Wolfgang. 

* Maria Anna composed music of her own. At least one noted musician thought her compositions were brilliant.

Rome, July 7, 1770
My dear sister!
I am amazed to find how well you can compose. In a word, the song is beautiful…             
Wolfgang Mozart

Why would Wolfgang be amazed that his musically talented sister could compose so well?
Because she was never taught to compose music.
In honor of this year’s Women’s History Month theme of Women’s Education/Women’s Empowerment, I thought I would dig back into the research I did for my nonfiction picture book biography For the Love of Music: The Remarkable Story of Maria Anna Mozart (Random House/Tricycle, 2011) and explore what Wolfgang’s sister was taught and what she wasn’t taught and how that might have affected her place in history.
Maria Anna’s father Leopold Mozart was a court musician, so music filled her childhood home in Salzburg.  Leopold began teaching Maria Anna to play piano when she was 8 years old. She practiced for hours and progressed quickly, with 3-year-old Wolfgang often at her side.  Soon their father began teaching the two children together, but unlike Wolfgang, Maria Anna was never taught to play violin, organ, or to compose or improvise music. At the time, the education of a “Kapellmeister,” a court composer and musician, was thought inappropriate for a young woman. (Organ-playing, for instance, was considered unsuitable for women, because you had to move your legs around to push the pedals.)
Maria Anna was no doubt exposed to a rich musical world during the three years of the European tours. But in 1769, Maria was sidelined. Father and son departed for another tour, this time to Italy, the musical center of Europe, leaving Maria behind.
Why would this be? Some scholars guess that the family didn’t have enough money to tour both children. (Musicians had to take whatever payment was offered. Leopold once complained of having seven or eight gold watches and no money.) More likely, it was that Maria was at a marriageable age, while Wolfgang still had the cute factor as a child prodigy
From 1769 through 1771, while Wolfgang soaked up Italian operas, learned new instruments, and studied composition, Maria was stuck in Salzburg doing the shopping, making medicines, and sewing clothes. But she continued her musical development on her own, practicing, attending local concerts, and giving private performances. 
As Wolfgang later continued his grand European tours, Maria continued her work, accompanying her father each night by candlelight as he played violin. “To my amazement, [Maria Anna] has made such progress that she plays off at sight everything I bring back from the Cathedral however difficult…” Leopold reported to Wolfgang in 1778. “…she has acquired such perfect insight into harmony and modulations that not only can she move from one key to another, but she extemporizes so successfully that you would be astounded.”
If that’s what Maria Anna could accomplish on her own, imagine if she had been formally taught violin, organ playing, improvisation and composition and if she had been exposed to the rich musical worlds of Italy and Vienna. Could her genius have rivaled Wolfgang’s?
Many Wolfgang Mozart scholars would find even this question an abomination.  (Believe me, I know. I got quite a lot of push back when conducting interviews for an article for Smithsonian magazine on the question of how Maria Anna may have influenced Wolfgang musically. You can read the article here:
But given the evidence of Maria Anna’s talent and the severe limits of her education, the question is relevant. What did the world lose because Maria Anna Mozart’s education was limited by her gender? What masterpieces will we never hear? And what does the world lose today when the education of any young person is limited because of their gender? What do you think?

Elizabeth Rusch as Maria Anna Mozart

For further information:  A YouTube video of Elizabeth Rusch’s performance of Maria Mozart's life story can be viewed at:  Elizabeth Rusch offers a free curriculum guide for For the Love of Music, which includes creative art projects, hands-on musical games, and engaging history lessons for elementary and middle school students.  It features lessons on mapping the Mozart's musical tour of Europe, explorations of how Maria Anna Mozart's life would be different if she had been alive today, an exercise where students link primary source letters written by the Mozart family and friends to scenes in For the Love of Music, and more. You can find it at:   You can book Elizabeth Rusch for a performance or for school visits through her website at

Editor's Note:  Elizabeth Rusch is an award-winning magazine writer and children's book author. She writes both fiction and nonfiction in the areas of science, art, sports, waves, jokes, crayons, and mud — anything that catches her fancy.  

If you'd like to win a copy of this book, along with an assortment of other books on women's history, please leave a comment below.  Each comment that you submit this month on this blog will give you an entry to win this prize pack of seven women's history picture books for your library, classroom, or personal collection!


  1. Rather than imagine the potential that's been lost over the ages, I take your message as a challenge that we, collectively, work towards a future where no opportunities are lost due to gender inequality. May that time be sooner, rather than later. Thanks so much for your thoughts, Lisa.

  2. Fascinating post! If we could travel back in time, I would love to hear Maria Anna play.

    This sentence caught my eye: "Organ-playing, for instance, was considered unsuitable for women, because you had to move your legs around to push the pedals." We forget all the rules and taboos that limited women's choices so severely.

    I would enjoy reading your book about Ms. Mozart!

  3. I've had the pleasure of reading this book, and I'd recommend it for a wide range of readers. Liz's research is amazing! The true story of Maria Mozart is far more poignant than that portrayed in the recent "bio-flick" of her life. This book also reminds me of those daughters whose talents have rarely been recognized or encouraged.

  4. Thank you for sharing this information. I now have the book on hold at the library.

    I see so many limitations placed on both boys and girls today...especially in the schools. In our system, value is placed on reading and math, which isn't bad it's just not the only thing. The arts are undervalued and unless the parents figure out other options for their artistic children, those children may continue to see what they do as useless. Teens are taught that the only way to get ahead is to go to college, but if you're one of those teens who can't stand getting educated that way, you may believe your only choice is to work in the fast food world forever more. But I know entrepreneurs who never attended college. I think options need to be spouted off more than limitations; we need more excitement for what a person can do and not what he or she can't do. Yay, Maria Anna for doing what you could do within the walls built around you!

  5. So interesting! I didn't realize that his sister was also musical!

  6. Sylvia Milo has written a play, The Other Mozart, about Mozart's sister: equal-in-talent, but unequal in patriarchal HIS-story. Check it out. So glad to know about this book and the Women's History picture books.