Mozart’s Sister Nannerl: A Woman Musician & Composer in the Classical Music Period

When studying the history of music it is impossible not to think of names like Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann and Bach. With just a very quick glance at the essential canon of composers, you will notice that almost all the most important classical composers (before very recent history) are men.

Many people don’t know that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a sister, Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart (30 July 1751 – 29 October 1829), nicknamed “Nannerl” who was five years older than her brother. Released in 2011, the movie “Mozart’s Sister” dedicated a spotlight not only on the fact that Mozart had a talented sister, a musical genius and prodigy in her own right, but also to the plight of woman composers in Mozart’s time. For a woman, becoming a composer back in those days wasn’t a matter of having talent or musical knowledge, rather the opportunity – more like permission to compose. In fact, being any type of female musician use to be quite a challenge!

The movie highlights the Mozart Family Grand Tour, from 1763 to 1766, when Leopold Mozart (the father) and his wife Anna traveled thought western Europe, eventually commanding the attention of the Viennese aristocracy.

As a musician, Nannerl started to learn how to play the harpsichord at the age of seven. By the time the Grand Tour starts, she was eleven, an accomplished harpsichordist and singer who helps support the family as part of a brother-sister act. She was described as “virtuosic”, “a prodigy”, “genius”, by reviewers in 1760. Even her father Leopold wrote “What it all amounts to is this, that my little girl, although she is only 12 years old, is one of the most skillful players in Europe”. Nannerl’s own dreams however were not acceptable to her father. What she really wanted was compose music and play violin (an instrument considered to intricate for women).

Taking a look at society at that time, it used to be practically impossible for a woman to become a composer or even to go further with an artistic career. When Nannerl reached her marriageable age around 1769, she was no longer permitted to showcase her artistic talent in travels with her brother. Rather she was expected to stay home while Wolfgang (Mozart) traveled the world performing and presenting his music.

There is some evidence that Nannerl wrote musical compositions through letters from Wolfgang praising her work. None of her compositions appear to be recognized by her father Leopold, and none have survived.

Mozart’s Sister (film)
Directed by René Ferét
Released in August 2011
DVD and Blue-ray: February 14th 2012