The last time someone shot a machine-gun at me, I remember listening to the ricochets off the nearby rocks and thinking: Mozart sounds a lot better than this. I was crouching behind a concrete block on the edge of the West Bank town of Ramallah and I still don’t know if the bullets zinging past were Palestinian or Israeli. I was covering the intifada for Time Magazine and I had taken to soothing my traumatized mind with Mozart’s compositions. (Scientific studies have shown that it’s good for many other ailments, including attention deficit disorder and epilepsy.)
As I drove home that day, I played his final Jupiter symphony extra-loud on my car stereo to counter the jitters. I suggested to my wife that we take a break to travel to Austria. I wanted the mountains, beautiful cities, and lovely music.
But I stumbled across something that brought me to life creatively in the tiny village in the mountains near Salzburg where Mozart’s sister Nannerl lived as the wife of a boring functionary. Nannerl had been almost as talented as her brother, but was cooped up in the mountains while he grew famous in Vienna. As a crime fiction writer, I started to think about her response to his sudden death.
Later, I was dining with Maestro Zubin Mehta, formerly the musical director of the New York Philharmonic. I asked him which of all the great composers he valued most highly. “I’d find it hard to live without Mozart,” he said. That started me thinking about those people who had lived with Mozart. After his death at only 35, what had it been like to live without him. To have lost one of the greatest geniuses in the history of the world.
In MOZART’S LAST ARIA I answer Maestro Mehta’s question through Nannerl and the music of his last great opera The Magic Flute. The music showed me the great composer’s dangerous ideals and the risks he took for them. His sister gave me a character who might uncover them.
Matt Rees is the award-winning author of five crime novels, including MOZART’S LAST ARIA, published Nov. 1 by HarperCollins. A former foreign correspondent, he lives in Jerusalem.