The Other Mozart Prodigy: The Life of Maria Anna, Mozart's Sister

The less-remembered half of the prodigious pair of siblings

Maria Anna and Wolfgang Mozart at harpsichord with Leopold Mozart looking on
Portrait of Mozart family made in 1780 or 1781 by Johann Nepomuk della Croce.

Wolfgang Mozart was widely hailed as a child prodigy, playing instruments at the age of four and composing music by the age of five. However, he started out not as a solo performer, but as the junior member of a duo, accompanied by his equally prodigious older sister, Maria Anna. A gifted harpsichordist by the age of nine, Maria Anna Mozart received equal acclaim to her brother during their lengthy tours around Europe in the 1760s.

The Firstborn Prodigy

Born in Salzburg, Austria on July 30, 1751, Maria Anna “Marianne” Mozart was the first of Leopold and Anna Mozart’s children to survive more than a few months. Seven children were born to the couple between 1748 and 1756, but only Marianne and Wolfgang reached adulthood.

Leopold Mozart, Maria Anna's father, was a musician, composer, and music teacher, but by the time his daughter was seven, he was devoted to the education of his children. Leopold set Maria Anna down in front of a harpsichord, and before long, four-year-old Wolfgang began picking out notes right beside her.

Both children learned with astonishing speed, and within three years of their first lesson, Maria Anna and Wolfgang were polished enough to perform for the court of Prince-elector Maximilian III of Bavaria in Munich. “The poor little fellow plays marvelously,” said one eyewitness of the event. “He is a child of spirit, lively, charming. His sister’s playing is masterly, and he [the prince] applauded her.”

As they made their way from one venue to the next, both children grew in confidence. “We played a concert on the 18th which was great,” Leopold wrote a friend in Salzburg in 1763. “Everyone was amazed. Thank God, we are healthy and, wherever we go, much admired. As for little Wolfgangerl, he’s astonishingly happy, but also naughty. Little Nannerl [Maria Anna] is no longer in his shadow, and she plays with such skill that the world talks of her and marvels at her.”

The Mozart Siblings' Grand Tour

After the short tour in 1762-63, the Mozarts set out in the summer of 1763 on what would come to be called the Grand Tour, spanning four years and more than 88 performances across Western Europe.

They performed for kings and queens, nobles and commoners, in performances that stretched for three hours or more. Wolfgang’s extraordinary talent, combined with his outsized personality, made him the star of the duo, but Maria Anna's obvious talent also drew applause. While Leopold's focus was primarily on promoting Wolfgang’s career, Maria Anna's skill was a source of enormous pride for her father, who considered her one of the most skilled musicians in all of Europe by the time she was 12 years old.

The Mozart family became accustomed to fine food and clothing, servants, and the gifts of admiring nobles during their long journey. However, travel was not without its dangers. Both Maria Anna and Wolfgang were frail, and their progress was frequently halted by illness.  In September 1765, Maria Anna came down with what first appeared to be a cold, but was, in fact, a severe case of typhoid.

As she grew weaker, Leopold decided that she must take time to recover rather than continue on the long and tiring tour. Wolfgang fell ill at the same time, and the children spent four months recuperating. Ultimately, Leopold decided the tour would continue. The children returned home to Salzburg in November 1766.

"Next to God Comes Papa"

Now in her late teens, Maria Anna was no longer as marketable as a child prodigy. As a result, after 1768, Wolfgang and Leopold toured alone. It was a difficult adjustment for the family. "I only wish that my sister were in Rome, for this town would certainly please her," Wolfgang wrote in one of his many letters home.

Maria Anna did not, however, give up music entirely. Leopold and Wolfgang sent her sheet music from their journeys so that the siblings could play together when Wolfgang was at home, and she even appears to have tried her own hand at composing. In 1770, Wolfgang wrote to thank her for a composition she had penned. However, the piece did not survive, and no other compositions in her hand have ever been discovered.

When her mother died in 1778, Maria Anna, now 27, took over her mother’s role as Leopold’s housekeeper and companion. Leopold and his needs always sat at the center of the family’s emotional life—"Next to God comes Papa," Wolfgang once wrote—and Maria Anna's obedience to her father’s wishes was absolute. She was so obedient, in fact, that when Wolfgang disobeyed Leopold and went out on his own around 1781, Maria Anna took her father’s side. Even after Leopold’s death, the breach between the once-close siblings never fully healed.

Marriage and Motherhood

In 1783, Maria Anna married Johann Baptist Franz von Berchtold zu Sonnenburg, a twice-widowed magistrate from St. Gilgen, a village about 20 miles east of Salzburg.

She returned to Salzburg in 1785 to give birth to her first child, but when she returned to St. Gilgen, baby “Leopold” stayed with his aged grandfather. With his children grown and gone, Leopold Mozart may have seen his grandson as his last opportunity to cultivate a child prodigy. Whatever the long-term plan may have been, Leopold died in 1787, and the baby was returned to his parents.

Maria Anna was widowed in 1801 and moved her three children back to Salzburg, where she would spend the final decades of her long life. Music remained an important part of her life, and she helped support the family by giving music lessons.

Final Years

Brother and sister were still estranged at the time of Wolfgang’s death in 1791, at the age of just 35. As the years passed, Maria Anna's views softened, and she played an active role as the guardian of family memories, including a treasure-trove of family correspondence that memorialized how close they had all once been.

Her health declined in the early 1820s, and by 1825 she was blind, mostly deaf, and bedridden. That year, her nephew Franz Mozart brought some admirers to visit her in her little room, filled with family mementos. The visitor marveled that this woman, who had once been applauded by the kings and queens of Europe, was now so alone.

Maria Anna died on October 29, 1829 and was buried at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Salzburg. Although her compositions did not survive, her musical genius is now remembered an equal to her brother's.

Maria Anna Mozart Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart
  • Also Known as: Marianne, Nannerl
  • Known for: A musician and child prodigy, as well as the sister of Wolfgang Mozart
  • Born: July 30, 1751 in Salzburg, Austria
  • Died: October 29, 1829 in Salzburg, Austria
  • Education: Educated at home by her father, Leopold Mozart
  • Key Accomplishments: A gifted harpsichordist from the age of 8, Marianne won acclaim as she accompanied her brother, Wolfgang Mozart, on his earliest tours of Europe.
  • Spouse's Name: Johann Baptist Franz von Berchtold zu Sonnenburg
  • Children's Names: Leopold Alois Pantaleon, Jeanette, Maria Babette

Sources