Who was Maria Beatrice D’Este? Don’t feel too bad if you don’t know the answer to that question. Not many people today remember who she is. And even in her own day, she may not have been particularly famous.
If you were to google her name, you’d find the only few facts I had regarding her when I began the latest Joseph Haydn Mystery, Death of a Soprano. She was born on April 7, 1750, the daughter of Ercole III, Duke of Modena and Este. From her mother’s side, Maria Beatrice was heiress to the states of Massa and Carrara.
Then—in what is possibly the highlight of her career—on October 15, 1771, she married Empress Maria Theresa’s son, Archduke Karl Ferdinand.
Their wedding was celebrated in Milan, and the festivities included two opera performances. The composer of one of these achieved far greater renown in his own lifetime and after than Maria Beatrice ever would. So if you’ve heard her name at all, it’ll be in connection with the opera the young Mozart composed for the occasion: Ascanio in Alba!
If you watch crime shows, you’ll know that the hardest crimes to solve are those that involve Jane Does. How do you even begin to find out why the victim was killed—much else who did the evil deed—when you don’t even know who the victim is?
Yet even in such cases, there are small clues that help detectives proceed first to an identity and then—if all goes well—to successful closure with justice being served.
The Jane Does of historical fiction and historical mysteries are different. We have a name, important dates, and key genealogical facts. What we don’t have is a personality. And that was the case when I started Death of a Soprano.
Since Maria Beatrice was going to be a key figure in the novel, I knew I needed more.
I started the way all good detectives do with the few facts I had. She and her mother-in-law, Empress Maria Theresa, were particularly close. In fact, next to Isabella of Parma—wife of Emperor Joseph I until she died at a very young age of small pox—Maria Beatrice was the Empress’s most favored daughter-in-law.
The Empress wrote far more letters to Karl Ferdinand and his wife, Maria Beatrice, than she did to any of her other children.
Given this strong affinity between the Empress and this daughter-in-law of hers, I surmised that Maria Beatrice must have been very like her mother-in-law. Like the Empress, she was no doubt very devout. Although the Empress—influenced by her physician Baron Van Swieten—had come to believe that miracles had ceased to exist and were no longer necessary in a mature church, she still enjoined her children to offer up prayers at any shrines—to Mary or other saints—they might pass by on their travels.
In a letter to Karl Ferdinand, she speaks out very strongly against a faith healer who had come to Milan: “I am glad that this priest who heals or cures through faith is not with me here. I recommend that you incarcerate him.”
But she would also urge him to pray for her at a shrine of the Virgin Mary and insist he take seriously the stories of miracles that had been performed there.
In addition to being devout, I figured that Maria Beatrice might—like her mother-in-law—have been a strong-willed, determined woman. Four years older than Archduke Karl Ferdinand, it seemed likely she’d hold the upper hand in their marriage.
The Empress, although nine years younger than Emperor Francis I, had a far stronger personality than her husband. It was thanks to her strong will that the Habsburgs were able to hold on to the hereditary lands in the face of strong opposition from the other German states—Prussia, Bavaria, etc—in the war of succession that followed upon Charles VI’s death.
Had it not been for Maria Theresa, the title of Holy Roman Emperor, too, might have passed out of Habsburg hands.
The Empress—as Frederick of Prussia was to realize shortly after he challenged her—was a formidable enemy.
These impressions of Maria Beatrice—that she must have been devout and strong-willed—were borne out by research that my friend Solveigh Rumpf-Dorner, of the Austrian National Library, was able to dig up for me from the Archives.
I learned that Maria Beatrice was fun-loving—just as her mother-in-law had been—and enjoyed music. That she was a loving mother, albeit rather strict. Again, exactly like her mother-in-law.
Count Rosenberg, who was sent to Milan, to report on how the couple was getting along with each other confirmed that she had the upper hand in the marriage. Rosenberg also made another observation that confirmed a theory I’d formulated—and which finds expression in Death of a Soprano.
But I’ll need to tell you a little bit about Maria Beatrice’s father before I share my theory with you. Ercole III had very reluctantly agreed to marry Maria Teresa Cybo-Malaspina, Maria Beatrice’s mother. The marriage was not happy, not least because Ercole III openly consorted with other women.
By the time my story opens, the two had been living apart for several years and the Duke was openly carrying on with a former opera singer, Chiara Marini.
I knew from reading biographies of Maria Theresa, that her husband’s skirt-chasing had a negative effect on their children—even though Francis I was a fond father. Joseph I, in particular, regarded his father with especial contempt. Obviously, this didn’t surprise me. Such indiscretions never fail to hurt children.
It seemed only natural to me that Maria Beatrice would’ve been deeply affected by her father’s treatment of her mother. I believed that given that traumatic experience she’d be especially averse to a marriage that would cast her in a similar role, and that she’d feel a need to be constantly vigilant to ensure that didn’t happen.
In other words, I felt she would want to make sure any man she took as her husband could be trusted to be faithful; that she’d take a dim view of infidelity; and that the marriage might be marked by jealousy.
Count Rosenberg’s observations about the marriage confirmed my supposition. Maria Beatrice experienced frequent bouts of jealousy, and Rosenberg goes on to say that the Archduke, her husband, had done nothing to deserve them.
In Death of a Soprano, Archduke Karl Ferdinand and Maria Beatrice D’Este are meeting for the first time. Haydn has been charged with seeing that the meeting goes off well and that it leads to both parties agreeing to the marriage. But the rumors persistently swirling around the Archduke and Maria Beatrice’s jealousy and suspicion make that difficult.
And the inexplicable murder of a soprano on the day of Maria Beatrice’s arrival and the discovery of a blackmail note complicate things further, as you can imagine.
I don’t envy Haydn this scenario. But I’m glad to report that he conducts himself with his usual grace and brings every matter to a successful close.