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Rosalie’s Dance: Social Mobility in the Eighteenth Century

When I first began writing the Haydn novels, one completely fictitious character, Rosalie, took such strong hold of my mind that I was compelled to give her more space in the novel than I had originally planned. Once Rosalie got her own point-of-view in the novel, it was impossible to ignore her buxom blond friend, Greta.

I’ve often wondered why my imagination seized upon Rosalie the way it did.Was it because she’s the ideal type of woman: young and pretty with brown hair and blue eyes so dark they appear violet, yet sensible and responsible? Was it because as a woman, I also needed to write from a female perspective? Or was it because deep down I wanted to write a cozy, albeit a historical one?

The two palace maids would be quite at home in a cozy. Greta thrives on gossip, and can’t help listening in at doors as she goes about her chores as a palace maid. And Rosalie is too observant to miss anything out of the ordinary. So, both women are quick to cotton on to any shady business that might be going on. They can, and do, provide Haydn with gossip and news that help him in his investigation.

But the truth is more complex than that. In alternating between Haydn’s perspective and Rosalie’s, the Haydn mysteries get a strong downstairs dynamic that enables me to portray the complexity of eighteenth-century society.

Commonplace notions about the degree of social mobility possible in the eighteenth century tend to be, as most such notions, somewhat erroneous. We tend to think moving up or down the social ladder in centuries prior to our own must have been virtually impossible. That, however, wasn’t quite the case.

In Austria, music often provided a means for children from the peasantry to rise up in society. Charles Burney, when he visited the country, was quite impressed to find “children of both sexes, from six to ten or eleven years old. . .reading, writing, playing violins, hautbois, bassoons, and other instruments.”

A talented child could use the music training provided at school to find employment with the nobility. We know of at least two others besides Haydn who were able to use their talents to such advantage: Karl Ditters and Christoph Willibald Gluck. Haydn’s contemporary and friend Karl Ditters was the son of a tailor. An exceptionally talented violinist, he found employment at the young age of eleven with the Prince Joseph von Sachsen-Hildburghausen.

In 1770, Ditters was created a Knight of the Golden Spur, and in 1772, he received a certificate of nobility from the Empress Maria Theresa. From then on, he added the title “von Dittersdorf” to his surname.

Christoph Willibald Gluck is largely forgotten now, but he was well-known throughout Europe in his own time as a composer of operas. Gluck’s ancestors were foresters and gamekeepers, and Gluck but for his musical talent would have been expected to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Even Reutter, the man who was young Haydn’s choir-master at St. Stephen’s, was ennobled by the Empress. Generous patrons of the arts, the nobility were often the means by which people of ordinary means rose to amass a great deal of wealth.

But it was not just in the realm of music that the nobility sought and promoted talented individuals. Gerard van Swieten, a Dutch physician, was appointed the Empress Maria Theresa’s personal physician, and given the title of Baron. His son, Gottfried, is mentioned in Leopold Mozart’s letters. The younger van Swieten championed the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Things were slightly different in Hungary. The Golden Bull, a charter signed in 1222, affirmed that the nobility were not obliged to pay taxes to either the Crown or the Church. Later, when most of Hungary came under the Habsburgs, the Hungarian nobility continued to insist on this privilege.

Patents of nobility could be purchased, and provided exemption from taxation. These are the patents of nobility that Bartó, Haydn’s missing violinist, buys for his family. The nobility thus created might still have to join the retinue of a wealthy baron or magnate to support themselves, and might, in some cases, be poorer than their peasant neighbors. But they were, at least, free from the crippling burden of taxes.

So Rosalie, whose status is unlikely to change very greatly in her own lifetime, represents for me the possibility of such a change. I even imagined Haydn composing a piece for her—a short, lively dance reflecting the cheerful, energetic manner in which she and Greta go about their chores. It’s called the Merry Maiden’s Dance, and you can listen to it by clicking on the link: Merry Maiden’s Dance.  

If you’d like to know more about the baroque influences of the Merry Maiden’s Dance, and hear some breathtakingly sumptuous music, do sign up for my newsletter. The next issue goes out in a few days. And, if you like playing the piano and would like the score for the piece, it’s available here: Merry Maiden’s Dance Piano Score.


Charles Burney, Greta, Haydn mystery, Merry Maiden's Dance, minor characters, Rosalie, social mobility

  1. Kate Collier says:

    This post brings back memories of a trip last December to Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Thanks for making sense of the history and for bringing Rosalie and Greta to life for me! I enjoyed the music and can picture it being used in children’s piano lessons! Rosalie and Greta will live on 🙂

    1. Nupur Tustin says:

      Oh yes, Kate, I recall your mentioning your trip. What wonderful memories you must have of it! I’m glad you enjoyed the post and the music.

  2. Nupur, this is a fascinating post. Thank you. I love that you bring the century to life with your characters. The disparate class details provide insight to a complex time. Not only do you get to enjoy the beauty of the tapestry, but as a reader, you learn how the threads of society are woven.

    1. Nupur Tustin says:

      Thanks Micki. It really is a fascinating time period. I just love reading and researching it.

  3. Kaye George says:

    Thanks for this! I’ve always loved the name Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, and now I know the origin. I love living this history through these posts.

    1. Nupur Tustin says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Kaye. Ditters and Haydn were great friends, and what’s truly fascinating is that Ditters’ autobiography is still available. Both men interacted with the greatest musical minds of their times. Ditters unfortunately died in poverty, and is probably largely forgotten now. Haydn, fortunately, fared much better.

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