In a box made of rich oak, carved with arcane symbols and scuffed from the times it has been hidden away hurriedly, billows and folds of antique burgundy silk make a nest for a Venetian mask.
When new, the full-face mask was painted purest matt white in the manner of a pierrot’s face, with a black teardrop hanging from one of the gilded eye-spaces, a small crimson heart highlighting the right cheek and ruby cupid’s-bow lips that are forever sealed.
However, the centuries have taken their toll and the mask is now heavily foxed and flecked with the brown spots of aged oils and blood from the skin and wounds of the generations of hands through which it has passed.
The mask was presented to Mozart on a visit to Venice in 1771, and from then until his death he was never parted from it. It was said that he wore it when he needed inspiration, comfort and solace, and he would wear it when he wanted to be left alone. Should anyone else approach the mask, he would place himself as a physical barrier in their path. In his final agonies, the only thing that would quieten his turbulent soul was to have his beloved mask placed on his face, the sweat from his fever seeping into its structure.
How do I know this?
If I lift the mask from the box, underneath it is a small rolled parchment, the testament of one of the physicians who attended him; a testament in which the good doctor attributes some form of magical power to the mask, such was its hold over the composer – a hold which prompted the doctor to take the mask in lieu of fees after Mozart’s death.
Fascinated by the mask – and convinced that anything which could be verified as belonging to Mozart would someday be valuable – the doctor commissioned a glass case to be made to hold it. He placed the mask in its case high up on one of the cabinets in his study, and there it remained for many years.
One fine spring morning the housekeeper heard what she later called ‘singing screams’ emanating from the doctor’s office. Knocking on the door she could get no response; whilst she searched for the correct key to open the door, the screams ceased abruptly. When she finally gained entry, the room looked as if it had been ransacked: furniture was turned upside down, the glass case was broken and the mask covered the face of the doctor, who lay dead on the floor.
The doctor’s distant heirs did nothing to discourage rumours of the mask’s reputation when they came to sell his possessions; indeed it was they who gave it the carved wooden case lined with burgundy silk to increase its appeal to the buyers.
A bookseller from Germany bought the mask, no doubt in the expectation that people would flock to his establishment to see it, and if they came in his door, he would make sure they did not leave until they had made a purchase.
The bookseller was Friedrich Schumann, whose son Robert had from an early age studied music. No doubt Friedrich imagined that his son would be as prodigious as Mozart, but when Robert was sixteen his father died and Robert was forced to abandon his potential career as a concert pianist and study law. However the mask he inherited from his father was a constant visual reminder of that which he was suppressing and at the age of twenty he was once again immersed in music, but an injury to his hand ended any hope of attaining concert standard in his playing and so he devoted himself to composing.
Within three years he was in the grip of a depression, bouts of which were to recur frequently during the rest of his life. His diaries tell of being plagued by hearing a single musical note constantly – he identified it as A – but at times he endured what were termed ‘musical hallucinations’, complex in nature and formed by ‘angelic choirs’ in his head.
Had he ever held the mask to his face to look through those eye-spaces as Mozart had done? Did he want to feel what Mozart felt? Know what Mozart knew? We can never be certain.
What is on record is that at the age of forty-four Schumann threw himself into a river. On being rescued he asked to be taken to an insane asylum where he died two years later.
Is it too fanciful to assume that the mask had some malign influence on him?
That is for you to judge, as I have judged, but you have not held the mask in your hand as I do now…
Clara, Schumann’s widow, ordered the mask and its case to be thrown out but it was saved from destruction by a maidservant, for whom the beauty of the items was worth more than money.
Handed down through her family – who succumbed to many things, but not the temptation to sell – the mask is now in my possession.
The house is dark and silent. My own family are out for the evening, and I do not know what they will find when they return, for tonight I intend to place the mask on my own face and see what can be seen through those gilded eye-spaces.
Am I prepared for what I might see?
No – for if I were, what would be the point?
Am I prepared for what the cost might be?
What cost could there be?
For all I shall do is hold up an ancient Venetian mask once worn by Mozart, after which I shall return it to its case and revel in the knowledge that in some small way the oils from my skin shall mingle with those from the sublime composer.
I turn the mask over and the mustiness of ages assails me.
Undaunted, I close my eyes and place the craftsman-fashioned face over my own. I open my eyes and see…
The darkness lightens and fades as the melodies and harmonies swell in my head. Musical notation swims before my eyes and I am dancing around the room, conducting the most glorious unknown symphony. The music flows like lifeblood through my veins and I am filled with the pure joy of exquisite creation and as I become one with the divine sound – I am the music – I sense the demons at the edge of the pleasure. The music goes faster and faster and my heart with it. The demons chase me relentlessly. I wrench at the mask but it will not come free and I fall… fall… fall…
… and hit the floor, still clawing at the false face.
I cannot remove it, and all that is left is my breathing and the madness and the music of Mozart.
Carol Carman’s splendid new novel – Gingerbread Children – is out now, published by McCaw Press.
Some Amazon reviewers have said:
“What a delightful read”
“Such an amazing book from start to finish”
“J. K. Rowling on speed…”
Picture source: Metropolitan Museum of Art