When Mozart died, he was 35. Poor and underappreciated, he was buried in an unmarked grave in Vienna's St. Marx Cemetery. The last piece he was working on was his famous Requiem. He never finished it.
Franz Schubert was 31 when he died. Poor and underappreciated, he was buried next to Beethoven, whom he idolized but had been too shy to approach. People aren't always good at writing epitaphs, but one of Schubert's friends got it right. "Music buried riches here," he wrote, "but still fairer hopes."
Their time on Earth was cut tragically short. But these days, Schubert and Mozart are both making up for lost time.
They are the subjects of two intensely personal new novels. One, written by historical novelist Stephanie Cowell, is called "Marrying Mozart." The other is the splashy "Sleeping with Schubert," by Bonnie Marson, a University at Buffalo alumna and first-time novelist.
Certainly Schubert and Mozart share a certain allure. They are the two supreme melodists of all time -- think of Schubert's "Ave Maria" or Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik." And they were able to turn out sublime music under great duress, without any apparent effort.
In some ways, though, the two are very different. While Schubert was shy, Mozart was a celebrity. Schubert was shy, dumpy and dateless. Mozart was a little guy, too -- but, contemporaries recalled, he "had a way" with the ladies, and rumors swirled around him.
Mozart has always enjoyed a certain sex appeal and has captivated writers for years -- from the Russian poet Pushkin, who wrote "Mozart and Salieri," to Peter Shaffer, who turned out the wildly popular "Amadeus."
Schubert is relatively new to the literary limelight. But he's off to a running start. Marson's novel, written with nervy, irreverent humor, has a companion CD on Sony Classical. The movie rights have been sold to Paramount.
It's hard to imagine two more enjoyable, or different, books.
"Sleeping With Schubert" is an outrageous yarn, about a Brooklyn lawyer named Liza Durbin who finds herself suddenly inhabited by the spirit of Franz Schubert. One day, shopping at Nordstrom's, she has the weird urge to play the piano.
It was a lovely piece I played, one I'm sure I never heard before but which felt like an old friend. The melody started slowly and I marveled at the grace in my hands. My manicured fingertips roamed the keyboard at will . . . Then came a light and lilting part pulling on strands of melody remembered from the beginning. The ending left me tear-drenched.
Over the next months, Liza wrestles with Schubert's presence ("I had a disgusting craving for schnitzel") and copes humorously as the world exploits her, even booking her to perform in Carnegie Hall. She also tries to deal with an on-again, off-again boyfriend, a brother-in-law who used to date her before dumping her for her sister, and a love-struck composer from Juilliard.
"Sleeping with Schubert" isn't perfect. Schubert was no virtuoso, so it's hard to imagine Liza's technique taking the world by storm. The composer's memories are brief and vague.
But the book is a ton of fun, and could have interesting effects.
"One of the screenwriters said, 'You know, if the book's a huge hit, you could be more responsible for more people listening to Schubert,' " Marson says. "I was blown away by the thought."
If Liza's life was turned upside down, Marson's was, too.
She never imagined herself as a writer. She grew up on Long Island, and graduated from UB in 1973 with a degree in speech communication. Until "Sleeping With Schubert," she was known as a visual artist.
"It was a matter of chance," she says. "I started it as a short story. I'd written only one story before that. There are a couple of reasons I was drawn to Schubert. One was the title, the 'Unfinished' Symphony."
Marson sings the theme. "It stuck in my head all these years," she says.
"Of course, once I realized it was going to be a book, I learned so much more about Schubert. That turned out to be an amazing gift, something I didn't anticipate."
Listening to Schubert, Marson was overwhelmed. "What I love about a lot of his pieces is how quickly he switches between the most morose and painful kind of experience to the most uplifting," she says. "It's the yin/yang. It's just amazing.
"People almost relegate classical music to background music," she adds. "If you're going to listen to Schubert's 'Great' Symphony, it's called the 'Great' for a reason. You should pump up the volume, let it shake the walls. It's meant to be a full-bodied experience."
In his early 20s, Mozart roomed with an impoverished family called the Webers. Four girls were in the family, all talented. Spurred on by their mother, Maria Caecilia, Mozart eventually married Constanze Weber. Initially, though, he fell in love with her older sister Aloysia, who grew to be one of the great prima donnas of the day, as did the eldest Weber, Josefa. The youngest, Sophie, was with Mozart when he died.
Stephanie Cowell, who has written well-received novels set in Elizabethan England, was fascinated by this unusual situation. Her beautiful book is almost like "Little Women," only more grown-up and sensual.
The book delightfully displays the author's knowledge of 18th century southern Germany.
Standing by the hearth with a large pewter spoon in her hand, Maria Caecilia could see her daughters some few years from now living in gracious houses with maids and serving men at the call of a bell. Upon rising each morning, they would slip on dressing gowns trimmed with Venetian lace. The hairdresser would arrive, gossiping shrilly in French. Then, when the morning was half done and the rooms smelled of lavender hair powder, Maria Caecilia would come to call. Each girl would float toward her, kiss her warmly, and welcome her to hot chocolate drunk from porcelain cups painted with flowers.
A classical soprano, Cowell has long been fascinated by Mozart.
"I think he's the most incredibly spiritual writer," she says. "I think he found things on a higher plane. But he's utterly, totally human. You get that in his music. This fooling around joy, and then this depth, as if heaven has opened. You're watching 'Figaro,' you're laughing, and then you're crying."
In the four months it took her to write "Marrying Mozart," Cowell thought of "Figaro." "That's the way it formed," she says, "with people coming in and out of doors, and all these secrets and letters."
She was determined to portray Mozart realistically.
"I think 'Amadeus' was good in that it brought Mozart to so many people," she says. "But I'm sorry they had to make him such a buffoon in public. He was very natty. Upwardly mobile. If he thought his dignity was offended, he'd go crazy.
Which isn't to say that he was socially perfect.
"Mozart really did have a habit of putting down other people," Cowell says. She defends him, though. "It's really hard for people who know how good they are to see second-rate people above them. They can't pay their bills, and they get angry."
Cowell, who lives in Manhattan, got the idea for "Marrying Mozart" one afternoon in an Upper West Side Viennese cafe.
"At first, I imagined it as kind of a sad book," she says. "After Mozart and Constanze married, they didn't have any money. But a couple of things happened in my life. One was 9/1 1, and then I had real illness in my family. When the illness went away and everything was fine, I took out the book again and thought, I want to write a book like a Mozart opera, happy but with bittersweet moments. They come together singing at the end."