04 Nov 2004

RICE: Empress Marie Therese and Music at the Viennese Court, 1792-1807

John A. Rice's detailed account of the musical life of the Empress Marie Therese portrays a flourishing world of imperial patronage in its final years. The second wife of Emperor Franz II and namesake of her more famous grandmother Empress Maria Theresa, Marie Therese lived just long enough to see the collapse of the Empire before Napoleon's troops.

There were certainly more egregious losses for the Austrians, but Napoleon's ability to poach Marie Therese's favourite musicians for his own pleasures in Paris was particularly humiliating. It was typical of the rivalries that pitted powerful patrons against one another in the eighteenth century. Those musicians and performers whose livelihood could collapse with a single false step were caught in the middle. When the composer Ferdinando Paer thoughtlessly asked his librettist Giacomo Cinta to return a work in progress commissioned by the Empress to him at the estate of Prince Joseph Lobkowitz, Paer's residence at the time, the Prince confiscated it and claimed ownership. "I beg my sole and adored Patroness", Paer wrote gingerly to Marie Therese, "to deign to inquire after the libretto through some third party, without Your Majesty's making an appearance, but making it understood that the libretto belongs to Your Majesty."

Empress Marie Therese and Music at the Viennese Court, 1792-1807 is a comprehensive survey of the music commissioned, collected and performed by this formidable supporter of the arts. Marie Therese was a singer and pianist who performed frequently in court concerts. Her music library, the contents of which Rice has reconstructed after its wide dispersion in the nineteenth century, was immense, with more than eighty operas in full score, some 500 excerpts from Italian operas, and more than 200 pieces of sacred music. She also owned fifteen symphonies and eight masses by Haydn and a manuscript copy of Bach's St Matthew Passion. Raised in Italy as a member of the Bourbon royal family, Marie Therese preferred Paisiello, Cimarosa and Cherubini to the Austrian school, although Rice underscores the political importance she attached, once in Vienna, to sponsoring German-language works.

Rice makes a good case for considering the works she collected and commissioned as reflections of her own personality. This was nowhere more striking than in her taste for pranks, embodied in the folly she had built in a vast park in Laxenburg that bore a bizarre mixture of architectural styles and was adorned with a monstrous birdcage, grotesque faces, and a balustrade consisting of cats perched on their hind legs. The musical caprices she commissioned included toy symphonies, variations for violino piccolo, zither, xylophone and bassoon, and vocal works filled with nonce words or sung in four different languages simultaneously. In Medea, ein travestiertes Melodrama, composed for her by Paul Wranitsky, Medea approaches an inn of fond memory. "Oh beloved Golden Ninepin! How often did I eat fried chicken here with my Jason. Oh unfortunate Medea!". At the same time, the subject of death fascinated the Empress, and Rice remarks on the many Requiems and Judgement settings she sponsored.

Rice's approach is more documentary than analytical, but he offers musical discussion where appropriate. Among the more creative musical analyses is his assessment of Marie Therese's skills as an amateur singer based on the simplifying revisions composers made to works that they knew she intended to perform. Rice writes that Michael Haydn in particular, the composer with whom Marie Therese had the warmest relationship, perfected the art of taking her "to the limits of her abilities, but not beyond them". (There was also the fact that she hired male professional singers whenever she performed, but never female professionals.) Rice discusses at length the Missa S. Theresiae and the Missa S.

Francisci, both written on commission by Michael Haydn, arguing that they represent an important departure for the Mass in their scope and grandeur; he finds the works unjustly neglected by scholars and performers.

The observation draws attention to the fact that the composers Marie Therese supported most devotedly have not generally endured to enter the canon. In the copious musical diaries the Empress kept, recording court performances, Joseph Eybler, Giovanni Mayr, Thaddaus Weigl and Paul Wranitsky all appear far more often than either Mozart or Beethoven. One explanation lies in the narrowing of modern repertories prompted by the exceptional quality of such masters - and there is surely much to be regretted in this. Another is in the shifting nature of patronage that the paths of Mozart, Beethoven and their successors described, a story that emerges in these pages. With Joseph Haydn advanced in years and secure at Esterhaza and the boldest talents willing to address a growing musical public directly, patrons' choices were limited in the late eighteenth century. Rice suggests that the ambiguous status of Beethoven's dedication to the Empress on the title page of his Septet (Op 20) reveals a composer reluctant to cede full control of performances to his patrons, however distinguished. Yet Rice makes a convincing case that Beethoven was attuned to the tastes of the Empress, and he shows that her well- publicized fondness for Paer's opera Leonora may well have been decisive in persuading Austrian censors to reverse their decision forbidding the performance of another opera derived from the same libretto - Beethoven's Fidelio.

Some of the book's most poignant passages concern those many musicians who could not depend on an eager public for support and lived at the mercy of their patrons.

Their worshipful appeals did not always succeed in masking an undertone of anguish. "With pleasure I received the command of Y(our) C(aesarean) M(ajesty), but, finding myself ill for the last four months and sapped of my strength, it is not possible for me to carry it out for the time being, nor indeed to write anything, unless Y. C. M. grants me some aid so that I may be able to provide myself with adequate food and a decent living", wrote the librettist Giovanni De Gamerra. Those whom Marie Therese favoured, by contrast, received gifts and cash, which the Empress was careful to record: a blue enamelled snuffbox and fifty ducats for a cantata by Antonio Salieri; a gold watch and 300 gulden for a libretto by Luigi Prividali; a diamond- studded watch, pearls on a gold chain, and 600 gulden for a Requiem by Eybler; two silver candlesticks for verses by Joseph von Seyfried. The prestige of a request, which often came with detailed musical-or production-related instructions, also counted for much. The Mass to celebrate Franz II's name day, she wrote to Michael Haydn, should contain short solos, the four voices of its "Et incarnatus est" should be accompanied by cello and double bass, its Offertory should be a four-part canon, and the work should have two fugues. "Oh what princely grace!", Haydn responded to a friend. "I would like to shout with pleasure."

Rice's method is to stay close to the documents that chronicle Marie Therese's musical universe. These include copyists' bills, signed receipts, concert programmes and posters, inventories, catalogues of collections, letters and diaries. He writes with a bibliographer's precision and tenacity, choosing to begin the book with a rather forbidding discussion of the present locations and call numbers of works from Marie Therese's vast collections. The book's 100 pages of appendices include Marie Therese's musical diary listing the works performed at court, 1801-03, her correspondence with Paer and Paisiello, and a catalogue of the church music she owned. All items have extensive annotation. This kind of exhaustive research makes the book a definitive guide not only to the music Marie Therese owned but to the performances and performers she sponsored.

But the documentary approach occasionally raises significant questions without providing the wider cultural context in which to consider them. Rice wonders, for example, if the strained relations between Viennese nobles and the imperial couple might have influenced Marie Therese's musical tastes by causing her to keep a distance from the styles popular in aristocratic circles, but after planting the possibility he moves briskly on. What biographical details we learn about the Empress and other members of her family come largely through dedications and commissions; this casts the many musical celebrations of her husband the Emperor in something of a void. Rice's general reluctance to provide historical context is understandable given his aims, but the effect is at times limiting and even startling, as when we learn in the book's final sentences that Marie Therese died after having delivered her twelfth child at the age of thirty-four. Her energy and single-mindedness in mounting concerts and collecting scores seem all the more remarkable given that knowledge. Empress Marie Therese and Music at the Viennese Court is an admiring and in places quietly moving account of the efforts of Marie Therese to surround herself and her court with music even as the system she helped to sustain was collapsing around her.

"Both masses at Schonbrunn were strange and silent", reads a letter to the exiled Empress sent shortly before her death. "A silent mass was read, and during it only graduals and offertories were done pianissimo with sordini all the way through, without responses; the French emperor cannot stand strong, loud music."

James H. Johnson
[The Times Literary Supplement, 03 September 2004]

This review is reprinted with the kind permission of The Times Literary Supplement (TLS). TLS is a weekly publication that provides book reviews and literary analysis. More information on TLS may be obtained at its website at http://www.the-tls.co.uk/.