Marrying Mozart - By Stephanie Cowell


Mannheim and the Webers, 1777

Up five flights of cracking wood steps of a modest town house in the city of Mannheim, Fridolin Weber stood peering over his candle, which cast a dim light down the rounded banister below. “Mind the broken step,” he called convivially to his visitors. “Come this way, come this way.”

Of middle years, he was a lean man but for a small round stomach under his vest, and he wore a long coat to his knees and mended white cotton hose to his breech buckles. His lank graying hair was caught with a frayed black ribbon at his neck and hung limply down his back. He craned his long neck to see down the stairs.

Behind him, the front parlor of the cramped apartment had been dusted, polished, and abundantly lit with eight candles. There, near the clavier, his four daughters, age eleven to nineteen, stood dressed in their best ordinary gowns, hair glistening with curls that one hour before had been tightly wrapped in rags. It was Thursday. Things somehow always turned out well on Thursday evenings when friends came.

The rest of the rooms were dark, except for the fire in the kitchen, for all the candles were in here. The parlor had been tidied, and a shawl draped over the clavier; all the music had been sorted in neat heaps on the floor. Weber’s corpulent wife, Maria Caecilia, emerged from the kitchen as if she had not been baking there for hours, and stood by his side, murmuring the words he knew she would speak. “There won’t be enough wine. Your cousin Alfonso drinks like a fish.”

“Pour small glasses,” he said, squeezing her arm, and then, turning to the dark stair again, called down happily, “Yes, come up, come up, dear friends—I’ve been waiting for you.”

From the darkness of the stair emerged Heinemann, a violinist from court, extending his always damp hands, and balding Cousin Alfonso, who wore his wig only for his cello performances. The four girls stood nudging one another, whispering, curtseying. Their hands were a little worn and pricked from washing and sewing. There was about them the scent of youth, youth that, with a little soap and a clean petticoat, was as fresh as flowers.

Wine was poured in small glasses, and two more musicians arrived. Every now and then Fridolin Weber peered through the window down to the street. He knew everybody, everything. He knew the world of music especially, because he copied it page after page for a small fee. In addition, he was a versatile musician. For what occasion had he not played his half-dozen instruments at which he was adequately proficient, or poured forth his meager, congenial, slightly hoarse singing voice? But he was modest, his narrow shoulders rounded.

“Who else do you expect this Thursday, Weber?” asked Alfonso, already enjoying his third glass of wine. “You seem to be waiting. Is it Grossmeyer, the choirmaster? He had rehearsal this night, I thought.”

“Some new friends, recommended to me—a matron from Salzburg and her twenty-one-year-old son, who has composed a great deal already.” He leaned against the window frame to look down, and then drew in his breath with pleasure. “Perhaps that ... yes, that must be them. They’re making their way to the door below.” Negotiating among chairs, music stands, and guests, he crossed the room and opened the door to the landing once again. The cold breeze whisked into the room, and the candles fluttered. “Come up, come up,” he cried.

An ample-busted woman with a long mournful face under her piled hair appeared panting on the top step. Behind her, trying to slow his climb in consideration, was her son, a pale young man with large eyes and a large nose, somewhat below middle height but neatly made with supple hands beneath his lace cuffs.

“Frau Mozart, a pleasure, and Herr Mozart, I presume?”

“You’re most gracious to invite us,” replied Frau Mozart.

In a flurry of consultation the four girls disappeared into another room and returned with two more chairs that they offered, and Weber himself brought more wine. Introductions were made, and bows exchanged. Frau Mozart balanced her wine cautiously on her knee. She wore no rouge, and she gathered her dark skirts closely, as if wanting to leave as little of them as possible flowing about her; her mouth was compressed like a tightly drawn purse. She looked into every corner of the room, taking in the piles of music and the few sconces without candles.

Weber rubbed his hands