Vienna Nocturne by Vivien Shotwell

vienna nocturneWhen Anna met Wolfgang…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

This is the partly true, partly fictional story of Anna Storace, an English-born soprano who became the prima buffa in the Italian opera company at the Viennese court of Emperor Joseph II. The book is steeped in the world of 18th century opera, written very convincingly by an author who has apparently formally studied and sung opera herself. She paints a believable picture of this small group of singers and musicians, somewhat cut off from the reality of the world outside and living intensely through their art, relying on patronage to give them the freedom to pursue their professions.

Anna was the daughter of an Italian violinist and an English mother and showed her talent from an early age. After training in London with the famous castrato, Venanzio Rauzzini, she and her family moved to Italy so that she could pursue her career. Shotwell chooses to concentrate largely on Anna’s personal life, and this is the aspect of the book that strays a bit from historical fact. Following a failed love affair with a member of the buffa company, Anna makes a disastrous marriage to a man who is viciously cruel to her, beating her so badly that it becomes common knowledge despite Anna’s attempts to hide it. But it is when she meets Mozart that Anna finally falls passionately in love, and the bulk of the book is the story of their affair.

Anna had seen many virtuosi play. Wolfgang Mozart surpassed them all. He exhaled, and so many breathing notes unfurled from his unhesitating hands. He played as she had always wished to sing – how she imagined she might sing if she were not so excitable and striving, but selfless and assured, bound to music alone.

Anna Storace
Anna Storace

The book is very well written and I found the depiction of the lives of the musicians both credible and fascinating. Shotwell has clearly researched the period thoroughly and her knowledge of the technicalities of singing opera adds a great deal to her characterisation of Anna. The other main characters are just as well drawn – her brother, struggling to be accepted as a composer while being outshone by those around him, her fellow members of the buffa company jostling for position and advancement, and of course Mozart. Much of the fascination of the book comes from Shotwell’s descriptions of Mozart’s skill as both composer and pianist and the struggle for him to be accepted at a time when Italian composers were seen as the pinnacle of the profession. We also see him as a man who truly loves his wife and family and yet has become obsessed with the beautiful Anna and her voice – in real life, she was apparently the woman for whom he wrote the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro.

Wolfgang Mozart
Wolfgang Mozart

I have a couple of caveats that prevent me from giving the book the full five stars. The first is a matter of personal taste only – the book was too much focussed on Anna’s love life for my preference. The second is a little more serious – Shotwell has chosen to deviate from the historical facts at a couple of points. It appears that there is no evidence that Anna and Mozart ever had an affair, though it has been suggested on occasion. But the inaccuracy that really grated with me was the suggestion that Anna’s first child was conceived before her marriage and that she had trapped her husband into marrying her while concealing that she was pregnant to another man. It appears that this is entirely untrue, and somehow it left me with the feeling that the Anna I had got to know, while believable in terms of the book, was more fictional than factual; and I found myself wondering, as I often do, why an author would choose to use real-life characters and then skew their stories, rather than just creating entirely fictional characters. And I came to the same cynical conclusion that I always do – the names of Storace and Mozart will undoubtedly sell more copies than two fictional names would.

She needn’t live if she couldn’t sing. Without singing she was nothing, had nothing, no personhood, no purpose, no knowledge, no mastery, nothing with which to make anyone happy. She was without use. And the longer she was without use, the longer she did nothing, the more pitiable she became.

Caveats aside, this is well worth reading for the richly detailed picture it paints of the musical world of its time. While it might perhaps appeal most to people with a love for opera, the strength of the setting and characterisation will make it an interesting and pleasurable read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Ballantine.

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30 thoughts on “Vienna Nocturne by Vivien Shotwell

  1. Oh dear. Now the magic words, Opera, Mozart Opera, Soprano, written by someone who studied opera singing had me racing instantly to netgalley (alas, gorn from there) so i came here sulkily thinking oh well I shall no doubt have to BUY this, – and read your review, and you know what I’m like about false biography…………..I’d love to read it for the musical insights but knowing WHY you withheld the final star would no doubt have me very crossly grinding my teeth. I agree, better make up fictional characters, and, like you, I would read it because of the music, (you can tell I’m finding all sorts of valid reasons for saying I don’t REALLY care its gone from ‘for free’ . The cavils prohibit buying. Oh well, library at some point, or i could just have a quick blast of Marriage of Figaro …..

    • Yes, I was trying to decide whether this is one for you. It’s a bit too romancy and the inaccuracies would probably have the same effect on you as on me. On the other hand, I think you might love all the stuff about the opera – the picture feels very believable to me. And it’s well-written – not totally great literature, but enjoyable and well described enough to hold my interest and I’m not an opera enthusiast…

  2. FictionFan – That’s the thing about fictionalised stories. It’s off-putting when the author goes in a different direction to what the evidence suggests. I don’t like that either. And yet, I find the times and the people really interesting and it’s good to hear that it’s well-written and with an eye to the era.

    • It was very well-written and I enjoyed it a lot. It was a shame she changed the bit about the baby – I could probably have forgiven her for the Mozart bit, but that seemed a fictionalisation too far…

  3. Now this does seem like an interest. But the professor is quite happy that you hated the love parts too. See? You’re coming along nicely.

    Great review, btw. I love how you review books. And I usually know after reading your review if I want to read the book or not. I think I’d skip this one.

    • Haha! Glad you’re happy! The Professor will soon have me so brainwashed I’ll only be able to read heroic adventures!

      Thanks, C-W-W! That’s a lovely compliment, since the point of reviewing (if there is one) must be to let people know whether a book would appeal to them rather than to the reviewer. And I agree – this one is NOT for the Prof’s TBR…

  4. I agree with Lady F on this one: I’d rather listen to “”Figaro”. Historical fiction doesn’t work too well for me and “faction” drives me crazy. Interesting review though – that’s the answer, read more reviews and fewer books!

    • Yes, I’d imagine you’d hate this. Too much focus on the romance, apart from anything else. But I must admit I enjoyed the book far more than I’d enjoy listening to the opera… 😉

  5. Great review as always but as I have a problem with inaccuracies in historical fiction although I have to confess to being a bit of a philistine as far as opera goes anyway so this isn’t going on my TBR however much your review fascinated me!

    • I’m a philistine too, and I must admit the book didn’t make me want to go and listen to the operas. But her description of the world of the opera company was probably the best thing about the book. Shame she veered away from history – I didn’t see how it added much to what was already a very interesting story to be honest.

        • I think you’re right, certainly in this case. If they’re going to write about real people in a fictional way I always feel they shouldn’t invent major stuff – stick to the true story as much as possible.

  6. I have to agree with cleopatra that some authors over-egg the pudding and turn a great book into a a moderately good one. Opera is not my favourite type of music but I do like some of those written by Mozart but in particular I do like Wagner’s operas. However, if I listen to Wagner for more than a couple of hours I have this sudden urge to invade Poland.

    • Haha! Not a good sign! No, I can’t even put my dislike of opera down to politics – it’s the screechy sopranos I can’t stand. I wish they would sing just a little bit higher – then their voices might become inaudible to human ears…

  7. It’s similar to when movies are made of books, but the movies are NOTHING LIKE the book – but the title of a well-known book translates into a successful movie. But I’m always left wondering – why? Why couldn’t you just follow the book? Why did you steal the title and the names of the characters and then make something completely different? (!?!??!!??!?!) Historical fiction that’s heavy on the fiction makes me feel the same way.

    • I know – I’m always very reluctant to watch the film of the book, at least until I’ve forgotten the book. It’s just a way of cashing in on someone else’s success a lot of the time, but what I think annoyed me about this one was that Storace’s life was fascinating without the need to invent extra stuff. Even her love-life was complicated enough to not require embellishment. Oh well! I feel I’m doing this book a bit of a disservice though, because it was actually well-written and enjoyable…

  8. That’s a well written and balanced review. I might look at it if I didn’t have anything else to read, but really, Mozart is quite enough drama in his real life bio. I do like historical fiction – it opened my mind to understanding history much better than those musty old textbook. After I learned to love history, then I began to match up the historical fiction to sort it out. I do agree that if one writes about an historical person, it should not exceed the realm of the possible.

    • Thanks, Susan! I enjoy both history and historical fiction and don’t mind a bit of embroidery round the edges. But something that seems to fundamentally change who the person was always leaves me wondering why bother? Why not just go straight to all-out fiction? And deciding that it all comes down to selling more books in the end…

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