The Pianist in the Dark
Maria Theresa von Paradis was the musically talented daughter and only child of the secretary of the Empress of Austria. She was taught by and worked with master musicians, including Mozart and Salieri, and she was renowned for her beauty as well as her concerts. She was also blind, and that condition is at the crux of Halberstadt’s compelling novella.
Joseph Anton von Paradis refused to accept that his daughter’s blindness, which came upon her suddenly as a small child, was permanent, and he had her subjected to many “treatments,” provided by the top physicians of 18th-century Europe; in today’s world, these would be more likely classified as torture. When Maria Theresa was seventeen, Joseph Anton enlisted the aid of Franz Anton Mesmer, a philosopher, musician, and most importantly, a healer. Dr. Mesmer’s medical methods were nontraditional: his theories of animal magnetism and early work with hypnosis alternately thrilled and repulsed the moneyed upper class at whom his treatments were aimed.
Halberstadt’s fictionalized account of the purported relationship between Mesmer and Maria Theresa depicts a young woman shedding both her innocence as well as her blindness, only to realize that with sight – visual and psychological – much of what she thought she knew of the world was painfully wrong. Scandalous gossip about the prodigy and the older man led Joseph Anton to retrieve his daughter from the healer’s home, and Maria Theresa retreated into the much safer world of music and blindness. The descriptions of how a blind musician sees and hears her surroundings, and how her emerging feelings affect her other abilities, add depth and insight to the many layers of this lustrous story. The larger story of late 18th-century Viennese society, medicine, and psychological sabotage enrich it even further.