In the late 18th Century, the only places where a singer could become truly famous were in Italy and Vienna. So that’s where the British child prodigy Anna Storace went to show off her amazing voice. Her rise to fame was legendary, as was her friendship with none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. For her, he wrote the part of Suzanna in his opera “The Marriage of Figaro” and a rondo for soprano and piano that is considered one of his finest pieces. In her debut novel “Vienna Nocturne,” Vivian Shotwell investigates the woman behind the voice and her relationship with music, its patrons and its creators.
Anyone who is a lover of classical music, and opera in particular, would jump at the chance to read a historical fiction novel that has even the scent of Mozart about it. So it was no surprise that when I heard that the novel “Vienna Nocturne” by Vivian Shotwell was about one of Mozart’s muses – the soprano Anna Storace – I practically pounced upon it (and literally squealed with delight when I was approved to get the ARC). The problem with this is that there’s a whole lot of hype built into the subject matter. And that means the author had a whole lot to live up to. So to begin with, Ms. Shotwell deserves no small amount of kudos for even thinking about writing this story.
Keeping that in mind, it was not surprising that I felt slightly let down by the opening pages of this book. But I soon realized that I was probably being unduly critical, and so I read on. Well, thank goodness I did, because despite the slow start, the story slowly drew me in. in fact, it sort of reminded me of this scene from the movie Amadeus where Salieri describes his first encounter with Mozart’s music:
On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse – bassoons and basset horns – like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly – high above it – an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the very voice of God. (Source: IMDb)
But let’s not get carried away here; as good as this book is, it isn’t “the very voice of God”. I didn’t tremble as I read it, nor did I feel it was something the likes of which I’d never read before. But it did fill me with no small amount of longing. And that longing was for a time machine that would take me back to Mozart and Storace’s Vienna. In short, what Shotwell has done here is actually something that is essential to good historical fiction. That is, she has devised a compellingly life-like parallel universe of fictional events on the backdrop of known historical facts. What’s more, she’s developed this story almost (but not exactly) like a well constructed symphony.
By that I mean that a symphony usually begins with an allegro movement, followed by an adagio one; in other words, a movement of a moderately fast tempo followed by a slower one. Shotwell, on the other hand, started us off with the adagio and then moved onto the allegro in her story. Then she increased the tempo for the scherzo of the story, until we reached her swift-paced rondo finale. In this case (and I don’t believe I’m giving any spoilers away here), the finale literally is a rondo. By this I mean “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” which Mozart wrote for Storace and whose debut performance concluded her last concert in Vienna. Not being a singer myself, I wasn’t all that familiar with this piece. However, when I found this YouTube of Miah Persson’s version, I was immediately certain that Storace had the exact same type of voice as Persson’s.
As I was reading this book, it also struck me how much of the film Amadeus came to mind. It probably isn’t fair to compare a debut novel to a multi-Oscar winning film, but the voice of F. Murray Abraham was behind every word that Salieri said, and the impish rendition of Tom Hulce as Mozart colored every passage he appeared in, and the blindly innocent Constanze fit perfectly with Elizabeth Berridge’s screen image. If this film did influence Shotwell’s writing, she certainly used it to its best advantage, and she should take it as a compliment that her book invoked those exact images and voices – even if it was wholly unintentional.
In short, I found this novel to be utterly charming. It is a “must read” for opera buffs and fans of Mozart or simply for lovers of fiction that focus on the lives of historical women. And despite the slow start, it seemed to come into its own, as if the author was finding her voice as Anna grew both as a person and as a singer. For all this, I think Shotwell is going to be an author to watch out for, and I’m recommending her debut novel “Vienna Nocturne” with a solid four out of five stars.
“Vienna Nocturne” by Vivian Shotwell was published on February 25, 2014 by Random House Publishing Group, Ballantine Books. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance reader’s copy of this book via NetGalley.