What big ears Wolfie has.
It is not a compliment, merely a fact that follows him like perfume. He flatters himself with it. He is not special. How could he have a bad ear with a family like ours?
Yes, I include myself. I have the right. It was I, after all, who watched him chew on quills and smash his fists into my violin. My father wanted no part in it. It was I who showed Wolfie which end of the flute to blow into, and where to place his fingers. I was so assured of my skills that I became as arrogant as a preening tomcat. My ignorance, I think, was what made my father raise his hand. The first time, I argued. The second time, I begged. We both knew that there would not be a third time.
I was a filial child. Wolfie was not.
What of his ear? I am sure that it was well trained - did not I train him myself? Oh, here, again, lies my wicked pride. But I was there, body, heart and soul. Sister, tutor and dog. I taught him my language. The cobwebs of song that embraced me in my mother’s womb. The keening beauty of Gluck and Handel. The velvet softness of the naked voice. The rasp of catgut on horsehair bows. I knew all of it, and loved it, and gave it to my brother so completely that its languid lyric left my heart forever.
In return, Wolfie gave me babyish babbling and sullen shrieks. The little toad was devoid of sense and speech. He could not even pronounce my name.
“Nannerl.” He burbled, and crowed like a rooster. He was wicked enough to tease me, even at that age. His wit was prodigious. I loved him.
I hated the noise he made.
Oh, it was agonising. He scribbled notes so rapidly that the ink spots muddied every bar. He pressed the sticky pages into my hands before they were even dry. The chords blackened my fingers. Scales smudged onto my skirts. When Wolfie hugged me his face was hot and wet.
“Thank you, Nan.” he would say, and kiss me on the belly, which was the only part he could reach without the aid of a sturdy chair and a great deal of courage.
He was frightened of our father, I think.
We had a ritual of sorts. I would sit at the harpsichord and play. Father fixed his milky eyes on Wolfie and smiled while I turned stains and sneezes into music. There were always fragments of brilliance drowning beneath the staves. I teased them out like a tick from mange-infested fur.
“You play like an oaf,” father would say as I finished, or: “Why did you not move the candle closer to the page, so that you might read it? You do your brother a great disservice.”
Then, turning to Wolfie, vinegar became jam. “The second section was divine, my dear, but be more attentive to your harmonies. The modulation needed a great deal of work.”
That, I admit, was usually my fault. I fumbled the chords shamefully trying to place one note which stood out like a sore thumb. Once, after a particularly gruelling battle, I saw Wolfie grinning at me. The little pig had put it in on purpose to test me. I stuck my tongue out, and of course mother saw me, and that night I had no supper.
I admit that my own scores were uncouth. I had to scrawl them quickly, or else by candlelight. I could not be seen writing music; it was most unladylike. Mother was as prudish with her pen as she was with her ankles. If anyone so much as hinted at their existence she was mortified.
I trailed after my father’s son like a dog. Mother and I drew the curtains across the carriage windows so that we would not have to suffer the slack-mouthed stares of the peasants. When she slept I peeked through the gap. I could never work out where we were. Germans and Austrians look much the same. The French stink as much as the English.
When we reached an inn we would have more clues - the women’s woollen dirndl, or the smell of sausages and ale, or the dull-tart tang of red wine soaked into wooden floorboards. We learned their languages in the same way that we had every other song. Wolfie switched between them so rapidly that only I understood.
“Quella donna ha la barba, Nannerl! Und dieser Mann sieht aus wie ein Hund! Il y aura des puces dans le lit, je le sais.”
“Fleas in the bed? Bien Sûr! And they’re in your stew, too!” I replied. He grinned at me and shoved another spoonful into his mouth. He was such a glutton. My father gave him wine even when the well water was cool and sweet.
One morning we performed a sonata in Schönbrunn. My father produced a roll of paper from beneath his cloak. His showmanship was unseemly. The mannerisms of the French were barely tolerated in Austria. When Princess Carolina unrolled it she crushed the wax seal into nothing.
“What is this?” She asked, smiling.
“It is only a small thing, your highness. A minuet that my son wrote for yourself and Maria Antonia.”
The trick was not new. Father composed insipid tripe to mimic the skills of a talented child. I readied myself to unpick my father’s spindly minims, and gasped when the page was placed before me. I concealed it with a cough, but not quickly enough.
“Forgive my daughter.” father gave me a warning look, “She is ill.”
“Do not worry. I am quite well.” I whispered. I could have played it on my death bed. Had not I written it only days before?
Wolfie recognised my work. He played more beautifully than I had ever heard. Every note made greasy bile rise in my throat. My eyes filled up with tears until I could not see the gilded keys, but the stolen notes still blistered from my fingers and burst into sound. The princesses’ mouths gaped open; they swallowed the rich tones like gluttons, growing soft and fat on the creamy harmonies. I choked back my sobs and finished the piece before I excused myself with a wobbly curtsy and fled.
I told father that I would not play my compositions again. They were not his to give away. I would not expose myself just to make Wolfie look good.
He shouted at me until I covered my face with my shawl and wept, and then he turned on my mother. I was ungrateful, he said. Besides, had not I already shown my craft to men across the nation? I was not exposed by him, but by my own pride! I had flaunted my hands, my voice, so why not my soul? I had never thanked him for the chance. He had risked much and gained nothing by letting me exhibit myself in court.
Father had suffered my flute playing until my swelling body made it obscene; he had torn the violin from my throat and choked the air from my voice. I had other passions to assault. If I did not submit, he would see that I never touched a harpsichord again.
Wolfie crept into my room that night. His eyes were sharp, his tears were soft,
“Did you see their faces, Nan? When’s the last time anyone listened to father’s music like that? After you left they asked to hear it again. Father couldn’t play it! He embarrassed himself!”
The savagery was unbecoming of my brother. I squeezed his hand and realised that he was hurting just as much as I was. Father could have used one of Wolfie’s own pieces, but he had chosen the scribbling of his talentless daughter instead. His precious son was not good enough.
After that day Wolfie changed. He worked late into the night until his hands were calloused and his eyes were red. He worked feverishly. He worked endlessly. Father searched the pages for genius but had not the eye to see it. He despised me for surpassing his son.
Wolfie worked desperately, and I with numb resignation. Between us we transformed the profound into the mundane.
That, then, was my life.
When I met Franz he kissed my hand. I had the fingers of a pianist, he said.
I wonder what he will say when he kisses my lips. The taste of a liar, as sweet as chocolate.
My hands are not my own. My father shaped them, with his scales and the heavy keys of ancient harpsichords. The deceit is his, but the lie is for Wolfie. I keep it gladly. He is my music. He must be my voice. I will be silent.
My dear Franz has no interest in music. It is the best thing about him. He would not care about our scandal even if I did tell him. Who would care that a child prodigy farted in the bath and sulked behind his sister’s pen?
And I? I am already forgotten. It is a relief.
Father calls me to his study. He has not met my eyes in six years.
“You shall not marry Herr d’Ippold.” he raised his chin in the air, “Better you remain with your mother than marry a soldier. You are a Mozart, not a merchant’s daughter.”
My silence is deafening.
“There, little Nannerl. Don’t cry.” he pretends he can see tears. His voice becomes low, confiding, and in that moment I know that he does not see me at all.
He never had.
“What would Wolfgang ever do without you?”