In A Minor Deception, I’ve portrayed Haydn’s wife, Maria Anna, as a shrew. It’s true, of course, that they didn’t get along very well. Partly, this was because Maria Anna had absolutely no interest in music. You can imagine what this must have meant to a man like Haydn.
There were other reasons, too. But what could Haydn do? As a Catholic, he was tied to her for the rest of their earthly lives.
In Protestant Germany to the north, matters were rather different. Men could, and sometimes did, divorce their wives. When Frederick the Great ascended the Prussian throne in 1740, he was widely expected to divorce his wife, a woman he had married only to appease his abusive father.
It came as a shock to his friends when Frederick did no such thing. He gave his wife a palace of her own, and had nothing more to do with her. And that, of course, was that.
Other men dealt a little more harshly with their wives. In Weimar, Duke Wilhelm Ernst, not content with divorcing his wife Charlotte, also locked her up in one of his castles.
But the story I like the most comes from France. A composer by the name of Louis Marchand approached the problem of his recalcitrant spouse in a rather unique manner.
Marchand, if he is remembered at all, is best known for avoiding an encounter with Johann Sebastian Bach in Dresden. Both men were known for their organ playing, and when Bach visited Dresden at the same time that Marchand was in the city, it seemed only natural to organize a contest of sorts between the two men.
Now, Marchand had until quite recently been court organist and harpsichordist at Versailles. His expulsion from the court, and subsequent removal to Dresden had to do with his wife.
He had divorced her apparently for neglect. Klaus Eidam, who recounts the story in his True Life of Bach, doesn’t specify in what regard she neglected Marchand. Suffice it to say, the composer felt neglected.
But that was not the end of the matter. Marchand’s wife, like many a modern-day divorced woman, sued for maintenance. The king determined she had just cause, and awarded her half of Marchand’s salary.
Eighteenth-century men were no more well disposed toward maintaining ex-wives than their twenty-first century counterparts. And Marchand’s fury at this state of affairs can be readily imagined.
Had Marchand been alive today, he might have disposed of his wife in the violent fashion that has provided so many of us mystery writers with fodder for our fiction.
But Marchand was an eighteenth-century individual, so he did something a little more clever. He didn’t win the argument, but he made a rather telling point.
At the next concert, Marchand stopped playing halfway through. Why should he play the entire concert when he was only receiving half his salary? Thanks to the King, the other half was being paid to his former wife. Let her, then, play the rest of the concert.
For this impudent behavior, he was expelled from the court. Who could have expected otherwise? Perhaps, Marchand himself had expected no less. If he were dismissed, he would receive no salary. And half of nothing was. . . well, exactly nothing.
Even if he hadn’t thought things through in quite such a Machiavellian fashion, it was a good solution. It was not only rather witty, it forces us to view the question of alimony in a new light. Does the mere fact of marriage entitle a woman to half her former husband’s earnings? Women today have considerably more opportunities than Marchand’s wife did. We are not barred from entering the workforce, or indeed remaining in it after marriage or after childbirth.
An argument might be made for some type of support when there are children involved. But where there are no children, should women—or men, for that matter—be entitled to any type of support. Is alimony an outdated concept, at best; another motive for murder, at worst?
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