Haydn and the Elections: A Lesson from the Eighteenth Century

The election is over, but, no matter which side you’re on, the results will linger on for some time. Some of you may be deeply disheartened, while others are quietly joyful. No matter what your feelings, I hope a trip with me into the eighteenth century will not only distract you, but serve to put things in perspective.

There were no such things as elections in Haydn’s day, of course. The Holy Roman Emperor was, to be sure, elected, but he was chosen by the Princes and Dukes, electors of the various German states along with the Habsburg lands, that comprised this loose federation.

Even so, there was something else that drove people apart just as surely as party affiliations do today. And that was religion.

These days when religion has largely ceased to matter, we’re inclined to think that three or four hundred years ago, the Christian world was simply divided into Catholics and Protestants; the latter comprised of people who tended to be against pomp and show in worship, against indulgences that apparently scrubbed the soul clean of sin. They also often held a deep skepticism of the kind of miracles that promoted ordinary folk to sainthood or that suggested, as did Johann Joseph Gassner, that the devil was the cause of most illnesses, and could be driven out along with the illness itself via prayer and exorcism.

The truth of the matter was quite different. Lutherans considered themselves quite different from Calvinists. Anabaptists were deeply disapproving of both, and then there were the Pietists. Today the differences between these sects seem too slight to be worthy of consideration, and yet emotions ran high on the smallest theological differences.

Such things as God’s Grace, the place of good deeds in one’s life, and whether good works were instrumental in earning salvation or whether it was presumptuous to even think one’s deeds had any influence on God were hotly contested ideas. Among theologians, priests, and pastors, that is to say, rather than among the common people.

But just as our emotions run high on certain issues no matter how well we understand them, the common people, too, tended to strongly identify with one side or the other in these matters. While some issues tended to be largely intellectual, and were of little consequence to daily life, others such as whether the dead should be buried within the city or outside, during the day or at night, with or without a great show of mourning affected every individual.

What has surprised me, however, is how remarkably democratic musicians and composers of the time seem to have been, despite their religiosity.  Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and every composer you can think of, in fact, were all profoundly religious. A deep love of God infused their works, prompting them to continue in their efforts even when they were disheartened or felt discouraged.

We largely remember Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven for their instrumental music—symphonies, quartets, and sonatas for various instruments—quite forgetting their equally enormous output for voice and for the church.

Bach’s works were dedicated to the “Glory of God,” and for the composers who followed him, this would have been deeply, profoundly true as well. Their belief in God united rather than divided them, and the language of music which they all spoke so fluently bound their hearts and minds together.

The Mozarts were Lutheran as was Bach and the one son to whom Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven attributed all their musical knowledge, C.P.E. Bach. Haydn and his family, of course, were Catholic. Haydn’s middle brother, Michael, was in the employ of the Archbishop of Salzburg just like Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s father.

Yet these composers, no matter what their religious affiliations, had the deepest respect for each other. What did your religion matter, if you played and sang with feeling, displayed the kind of technical prowess that dazzled listeners, and wrote works of such great power that even inanimate objects must be moved?

Haydn, twenty-four years Mozart’s senior, counted the younger man as a dear friend, and was deeply affected by his death. He was so much older than Mozart that when the latter, on Haydn’s departure for London, predicted they would never see each other again, Haydn was convinced he himself would likely die in London. It never occurred to him that he would return to find Mozart gone.

He traveled through Hamburg, hoping to meet C.P.E. Bach, the man he counted his mentor, but Bach, too, had died.

Every year in the month of October, Daniel Pearl Music Days, an initiative created by the parents of a journalist brutally killed by terrorists in 2002, celebrates the power of music to unite. I remember attending one such concert some years back, but much as I enjoyed the music, I wondered if it was indeed powerful enough to eradicate deep-seated differences and hatreds.

History shows us that it can.

The language of creative endeavor truly is universal. The eighteenth-century individual dealt with wars and famine, rulers changed, territories were annexed, but none of this disrupted the fabric of life. Music was made, poems were written, and stories shared, children attended school, marriages and births were celebrated. Life went on, and so must we.  

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8 Responses to Haydn and the Elections: A Lesson from the Eighteenth Century

  1. Kaye George says:

    Thanks for this much-needed diversion today, Nupur.

  2. Nupur Tustin says:

    You’re welcome, Kaye! I think we all need to be diverted today.

  3. Lourdes Venard says:

    Very interesting column, Nupur. Thanks for writing it!

  4. Nupur says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, Lourdes.

  5. Kate Collier says:

    I vote for music! Thanks, Nupur, for a good read this morning.

  6. Nupur says:

    You’re welcome, Kate!

  7. Donnell says:

    Lovely, Nupur. Thank you for the lesson in history. May we all find common ground in creative endeavors.

  8. Nupur says:

    Thanks Donnell. Glad you liked the post. I do hope we can all set our differences aside.

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