Mozart’s Last Aria
In the square outside the cathedral, a constable drove a line of prostitutes to sweep the cobbles. A raw wind rustled their thin skirts. Their heads had been shaved in punishment for their lewd trade. They brushed the manure and vegetable leaves across the ground with their brooms, shaking in the cold, their scalps bloodied by the careless shearing at the police barracks.
One of the pleasures of reading mysteries is the mix of the familiar with the unfamiliar. There will be a murder. There will be intrigue and false leads. There will be a romantic subplot. In the end, the mystery will be solved by the heroine. All very familiar (and therefore comforting), and all elements of Matt Rees‘ Mozart’s Last Aria.
Rees imagines: what if? What if Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart actually died of poisoning? What if Mozart’s estranged older sister, Maria Anna “Nannerl” Berchtold von Sonnenburg, came to Vienna after his death to find out what had happened? What if Mozart’s involvement with the Freemasons and the ideals of the French Revolution had something to do with his death? What if Mozart’s music contained clues about the last days of his life—and thus, about who murdered him? What if by performing her brother’s music Nannerl could solve the mystery of his death?
In doing so, Rees transports us to Vienna in December of 1791—an unfamiliar world. We spend time with Mozart’s widow, Constanze, and her household. We enter into Vienna’s musical and theatrical world through Mozart’s friends and associates—his pupil Magdalena Hofdemel, his friend and fellow musician Anton Stadler, actors like Karl Gieseke and Emanuel Schikaneder. And there’s much palace intrigue: the sinister and dangerous Count Pergen (minister of police), the dashing and intriguing Baron van Swieten (head of the Imperial Library), Baron von Jacobi (the Prussian ambassador), even Emperor Leopold II himself.
And we get glimpses of daily life in Vienna—like the prostitutes forced to clean the public squares and marketplaces at the dawn of a new day, part of the “punishment for their lewd trade”, along with their shaved and bloodied heads— as seen and described by the narrator, Nannerl. So different from today…when we have prisoners in day-glo orange jumpsuits picking up trash alongside our parkways and highways.
Not so different from today.