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Mozart’s Last Aria

Mozart’s Last Aria
By Matt Rees
Harper Perennial; 300 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

Vienna in December of 1791 was a dangerous place, and not just for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Novelist Matt Rees takes us through the days immediately following Mozart’s untimely death as Nannerl, Mozart’s sister and former prodigy, explores the ancient city for clues of her brother’s death.

You see, she has reason to believe that Herr Mozart had been poisoned.

As the plot of this marvelous whodunit unravels, we meet a host of suspects who, for some reason or another, are not being perfectly frank to our heroine. Was the maestro murdered by a jealous husband? By the minister of police who detected rebellious themes in Mozart’s music? By the Freemasons, with whom Mozart apparently shared a secret and dangerous brotherhood? By the Illuminati, an even more secretive organization which wished to transport the ideals of the French Revolution to Vienna? Or was he done in by the king of Prussia as he plotted to place spies in the court of the Austrian emperor?

As Rees takes us through the inns, alleys, crypts, cathedrals, and libraries of 18th century Vienna (all presented in striking and elegant detail), the story becomes a sort of Byzantine game of Clue where even the innocent reveal things about Mozart with unintended results. Meanwhile, Nannerl has to lie low as she collects evidence and avoids men who want her to meet the same fate as her brother.

Never far from the reader’s mind, is, of course, the recently departed Mozart and his music. With the city still in mourning, Nannerl is engaged to play a number of her brother’s works, including the Piano Concerto in C and the finale to Don Giovanni. Rees treats the reader to respectful and lively descriptions of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, his Requiem Mass, his Sonata for Piano in F, scenes from The Magic Flute, and other works.

Rees does not neglect to develop Nannerl as a character. Her sense of guilt is every bit as sharp as her grief, considering that she allowed her father to cut Mozart off from his inheritance years earlier. Her desire for the truth becomes a mission, but can she keep her wits about her as she sees herself falling for a dashing baron who is at the center of this mystery?

What Rees has done is taken something old and made it new. A murder mystery in the classic whodunit style is transformed into a tense, fanciful, and sometimes dark story about one of the greatest figures in Classical music. When it ends, we miss Mozart as much as the characters do.

This book review appeared in the spring 2012 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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