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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Enlightenment, education and song

In the Styrian town of Leoben on a cold Christmas night in the year 1773, the believers in the town’s church beheld an uncanny sight: a man, dressed from head to foot in white, came into the church. The white clothing was inside out, exposing the seams. The man knelt at the altar and during the whole service seemed to be engaged in intense prayer. At the end of mass, he left with such haste that he forgot one of his white canvas shoes. Being shoeless, he was easily caught, and being caught, he was brought to the attention of the authorities. The name of the man was Jacob Kirschmueller, and he confessed that he was attempting a supernatural experiment. He’d heard that on Christmas day, the witches were out. If you went clothed all in white and knelt at the altar, you would see the devil, who would also be kneeling at the altar with his witches. At the changes in the mass, the devil would take off his cap. That was the moment to act – if you grabbed the cap, the devil would have to deal with you. Kirschmueller testified that in spite of the white, and in spite of freezing, he did not see the devil. He was very upset about this. The authorities, according to my authority, Fritz Byloff, were no longer the superstitious judges of yore. They’d been enlightened, or replaced, by Joseph II. Instead of burning him at stake, they condemned him to three days arrest, a fast, and a course of lessons from the vicar. His crime, they said, was being frivolous and stupid. Byloff uses this as an example of enlightenment – from belief in the devil to belief in the dumbness of the belief in the devil. “Reason triumphed.” (Byloff, 84)

Thirty years before, reason wasn’t so triumphant. Leoben was surely one of the towns in which, in 1734, the Jesuit college at Graz determined to make an evangelical effort. Peasants had been striking, coming into Graz and demanding less coerced labor and relief from the poaching laws, which was upsetting the establishment. A detachment of soldiers had dispersed the peasants. There were rumors of crypto-protestantism in the hill villages around.

In response, this would happen:

Jesuit organizers… customarily entered a town or village, erected a stage in the square, and proceeded to preach to their audience for a period lasting from eight to fourteen days. The via purgativa and the via illuminata et unitiva constituted the two phases of the mission. In a typical example of the former, a Jesuit, tied and bound with rope, appeared on a stage strewn with bones or pictures of hell. To illustrate the tortures of hellfire, he laid his hand on a red-hot coal or displayed a skulll while preaching to his audience. If the via purgativa was a lesson in damnation, the via illuminata et unitiva illustrated redemption through the Eucharist. Here the Jesuits administered general communion to adults or first communion to children. (James Van Horn Melton, 1986)

Van Horn Melton’s theory is that in the 18th century, Austria experienced a shift from an image to a literary society. But the intermediary to this shift (beyond the politics of secularization) was a certain combination of theatricality and music. In 1774, Empress Maria Theresia became the first monarch in Europe to make schooling mandatory for children. Although the school system was spotty, by the 1790s, in Bohemia, there was a system in which 2/3rds of all school age children were actually attending school – Melton says that this might have been the best system in Europe. At the same time, what was taught and who was qualified to teach it was unclear. At first, the qualification looked for in a schoolteacher was singing. “A major part of the school day was often taken up by the singing of hymns. The parish school in the Silesian town of Ratibor, where two hours a day were devoted to singing in 1740, was far from atypical. The English musicologist Charles Burney, a traveler through Bohemia in 1772, was struck by the dominant role of music instruction in Bohemian parish schools.”

That the great figures of the Austrian enlightenment are the composers, Haydn and Mozart, is perhaps not so surprising.

In the next couple of posts, I’m going to look at the Austrian enlightenment – how it got out in the fields – a bit. The connection between the enlightenment, the metaphor of human time (childhood/adulthood) that became very popular as a model for describing it, the two degrees of separation between Kant and Mozart, and the closing of the most powerful Masonic lodge in Europe in 1792.

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