Is this how Mozart really died? A musical thriller landed on my desk the other week. In Mozart's Last Aria, by Matt Rees, the sleuth is Nannerl Mozart; the death she's investigating is that of her beloved brother. It's a cracking read. Matt, based in Jerusalem, is a well-established crime fiction author and a former foreign correspondent who covered, amongst other things, the second Intifada on location. Why, then, did he want to write a detective story on ground that had already been so powerfully claimed by Peter Shaffer? I asked him for an e-interview... First, here's the trailer:
JD: Matt, what made you want to write a detective story about Mozart's death? Especially after 'Amadeus' has had the market cornered for so many years?
MR: Peter Schaffer’s great play was written in the late Seventies. Milos Forman filmed it in the early Eighties. Which is getting to be rather a long time ago (though as I prepare to turn 44, I’d rather not admit that…) In turn, Schaffer’s play was a reworking of an old piece by Pushkin, which Mussorgsky later used as the basis for an opera. Yet there’s a great deal of new historical research on Mozart which gives tantalizing hints about his possible death and the reasons behind it – including the secret police infiltration of the Masons, of which Wolfgang was a leading member, and even his involvement in espionage. The Pushkin-Schaffer idea is based on a single confession of murder Salieri made – and later recanted – in a madhouse. I wanted to use this new historical research to come up with a new story about Mozart’s death. I certainly think readers have a deep fascination with Mozart which will make them open to a reexamination of the story of his demise. Most of all, I wanted to put his relationship with his sister Nannerl – the narrator of my novel – at the heart of the story. It was she who gave me the idea for the book, when I visited St. Gilgen, her little village in the Salzkammergut, the mountains near Salzburg. I saw an image of her in which she looked exactly like her brother. Naturally, that got my crime fiction juices bubbling…
JD: Do you think this really is what happened to Mozart?
MR: I do. When I put together all the latest historical research, I found it pointed toward the very thing that happens in my novel. Even research which at first contravenes my theory – such as the medical evidence that Mozart died of progressive kidney failure – turns out to be consistent with the effects of the way I have him dying. Certainly my reading of The Magic Flute adds, for me, another element of evidence which, when you put it together with the philosophy Mozart espoused in his letters, is very compelling. Of course, my novel is fiction and it’s my theory – not my absolute contention – that Mozart died this way. I hope that readers will find the novel generates their own ideas about what might truly have happened and that it’ll also make them look again at the music Mozart wrote in the shadow of sudden death. I heard all that great music – The Magic Flute, the Requiem, etc. – as if for the first time once I looked into the new historical research. I hope readers will have that experience too.
JD: How do you feel about taking liberties with real historical figures - eg (without giving the plot away) one character who is dramatically murdered in the course of the story, but in reality lived a long and distinguished life?
MR: I made sure that all the major characters – figures like Nannerl, Wolfgang’s wife Constanze, Baron Swieten, Police Minister Pergen – conformed to historical fact in the way the novel plays out. But I decided I could play with some of the minor characters, given that this is a novel. In the case of the fellow to which you refer, he did end up with a distinguished position, but as far as I can tell he remained a perpetual rogue (for which I rather admire him) and would entirely have approved of my misusing him.
JD: You decided to base the book's structure on the Mozart Piano Sonata in A minor - can you tell us a little more about why and how you did this? How problematic was it? Did it bother you that it might interfere with the genre's structural demands? How well do you feel it works?
MR: The A minor sonata is a response to a death. Mozart was in Paris on tour with his mother when she died. He wrote the sonata there. It has the disturbance of loss in its opening movement, then it examines that loss in the second, contemplative movement, and it resolves the loss in the final movement. That very much mirrors the structure of a crime novel. The “murder” followed by the investigation, and finally the revelation of what truly lay behind the killing. The primary function of using this sonata for the book, in terms of the writing, was that I was able to create a mood in my head as a I wrote. When I was writing the early part of the book, the jarring first movement was running in my head. The same with the other movements as the book progressed. It gave an energy to the writing with which I believe I was able to imbue the story. I got the idea from a concert pianist friend who said she visualizes a particular colour when she plays a particular piece of music, thus bringing herself to an emotional state matching the music. She isn’t just tapping on the right keys. So I tried it and I found it gave me a strong emotional connection to what I was writing – and maintaining that connection is much of the battle for a novelist, who has to write every day for months. It can’t just be inspiration; you need a repeatable technique you can tap into every day.
JD: Please tell us something about how you researched the book? And did you encounter resistance/skepticism/snobbery towards the idea from any quarters while so doing?
MR: As a writer of four previous crime novels, I’m accustomed to the snobbery of people who think (without ever reading any crime novels) that this isn’t literature. But I did wonder if there’d be an additional element here, in that classical musicians might doubt the project’s ability to represent the complexity of the music. However, the musicians I approached to help me write about the music allowed me to examine their performance process and to discuss performance during Mozart’s period. Now I like to think that’s because I’m such a winning, intelligent fellow, but I also expect that it’s because Mozart is such an absorbing subject for anyone with an interest in music or history that any doubts about the book’s supposed genre were immediately overcome.
My research also included learning the piano, which helped me get inside the structure of Wolfgang’s music, and listening to Mozart, Mozart, Mozart. Neither of these things was a hardship. Nor was repeated visits to Vienna, Salzburg, and the mountains nearby, where Mozart’s sister lived her married life.
As for potential resistance: researching my Palestinian novels was much more troublesome. People used to threaten me and hold guns on me in Nablus and Gaza. Classical music historians are softies in comparison.
JD: Do you have a musical background yourself? And do you think you'll return to the world of music for future novels?
MR: I play very little classical music, though I did re-learn piano to write this novel. I had lessons as a child, but I gave up the piano in favour of guitar as a teenager. I’ve played in a number of rock and alternative bands. When I lived in New York, I was a regular at CBGB’s, where I trod the same boards as The Police, Blondie and Elvis Costello. This has proved to me that I’m rather a mediocre musician, which only makes me more fascinated with Mozart who….wasn’t. The book I just delivered to my publisher is about the mysterious end of the great Italian artist Caravaggio, so I’m staying with the idea of historical mysteries about artists. I do think there’ll be more music in my forthcoming novels and I have a couple of mysterious stories concerning great composers in mind. They were fairly unpredictable types, and that makes them just right for crime fiction.
JD: Last, just one little thing that confused me: the title! I kept waiting for there to be a 'last aria', but the crucial piece is a piano sonata...did someone change your title for you?
MR: Aha, but the Mozart of the book’s title isn’t Wolfgang! It’s Nannerl, his sister – although we don’t know that at first. And so, without giving away the ending, I’ll say that the aria that’s heard in the Epilogue is the one to which the book’s title refers. You’re right that publishers do like to change titles and several of my books have been published under titles I didn’t initially choose. But in this case Mozart’s Last Aria is the title I used almost from the start.