Friday, August 28, 2009

Being German in the Early 1800s


The country you're born in, the heritage you inherit, the events that surround you as you grow up all affect you in some way. They may affect someone else differently since there are many variables to consider – your own personality and how you deal with these influences.

Deep down, as people might say, we're all the same and have the same opportunities. How well we realize them may depend on any number of factors and how we handle them.

The things all people have in common – call it potential or “raw material” – are what define us as “human beings.” What and who we become may be what most people see on the surface – which, I suspect, is why some people have problems getting past the color of our skin, our physical features, the way we talk or dress or behave, even our gender.

So let's see a few facts about the “surface” of Felix Mendelssohn and then explore what the attitudes where that defined the culture he grew up in.

Mendelssohn (commemorated here - right - on a German stamp) was born into a middle-class family. His father was a successful banker. By comparison to most composers' lives, Felix Mendelssohn had it easy. He didn't have to struggle to survive much less study to become a musician, as a child. His father “gave” him an orchestra when he turned 12, agreeing to hire the handful of players that would form this small orchestra so if Felix started composing something for them, they could perform it at one of the family's Sunday musicales. He ended up writing a dozen small symphonies for this orchestra as well as concertos written for his violin teacher, his sister and himself to be the soloists.

Now, granted, it wasn't a 100-piece orchestra: we're talking maybe a dozen or so string players. But that's still a pretty nice gift for a 12-year-old would-be composer! Most composers at that age, the families were usually struggling to put food on the table with the parents having to scrimp so their son can even take music lessons.

He hardly had to worry about anything financial during his life. Lucky him!

The common image of a creative artist is one of struggle, poverty, suffering – Franz Schubert (pronounced SHOO-b'rt) was 12 years older than Mendelssohn and he may be typical of this image: always living in poverty, never recognized in his lifetime, dying at the age of 31 after creating all this incredible music (almost 1,000 pieces of music in his catalogue).

This is a stereotype like any other stereotype: there are those who fit it and those who don't. In fact, it's really a product of the mid-1800s.

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GERMAN FAMILY VALUES around the 1800s

In Germany (and by that I mean “German-speaking lands” which would also include what is now Austria), the family was the center of society, no matter what economic level it lived at. With the growing middle class – merchants, mostly – the family reflected their faith. At the center of each church was a parish minister or priest whose led a congregation or flock: in the family, the father is the center and leads the wife and children. Youth was supposed to be obedient to the elders and the father's word was law. The mother educated the children, teaching the daughters the “domestic arts” (which included music) and she was to be dedicated to her husband.

The German man might be good-humored in public (at least in the tavern) but stern at home and serious among his competitors and employees. In business, the hierarchy was very similar to the family's. He was expected to work hard and expected the same in return from those under him.

It was basically a conservative world. Faith and old customs helped him maintain his authority – as if he were a king with his court (“a man's home is his castle”). Religion was a sacred heritage and useful in training the younger generation what was right and wrong, thereby not only continuing the family line but the principles on which it was based. He rejected the hot-headedness of youth with its “revolutionary” ideas (just those opposed to his own). He looked to keep his wife and children “in subordination” but would not stand for any “insubordination.”

The wife, accepting this without resistance, was the family's guiding authority (she would interpret or enforce what her husband said). Her role was to be the contented mother of her children.

All this was meant to perpetuate the family line from father to son, mother to daughter and, in the larger sense of things, provide a stable grounding for society and, working upwards through the church and state, the continuity of the country or its culture as a whole.

At least, that was the ideal. It didn't always work out that way.

As early as 1774, a German philosopher named Theodore von Hippel published an essay “On Marriage” which was essentially a call for “women's liberation.” He objected to the bride's vow of obedience, felt that marriage was an equal partnership, demanding the full emancipation of women with not only the right to vote but also to be eligible for any office (there had been several great queens in an age dominated historically by kings - like the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, left, who ruled from 1740-1780).

If the word “Man” referred to “mankind” presumably including both men and women, he argued the “Rights of Man” should more honestly be called the “Rights of Men.”

If our own Declaration of Independence talks of unalienable rights (Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness), the general assumption of the era was the the role of women was “to darn Man's socks and cook Man's dinner,” tasks Man thought “women were Endowed by their Creator with the unalienable obligation to perform.” [*]

Needless to say, Hippel was ignored. (Except by a few women.)

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Still, after the French Revolution's ideas began to spread through the rest of Europe, ideas like this became more popular if not generally accepted. Intellectual women could hold forth at salons – where people gathered to discuss the latest news and ideas – and women sometimes took the prerogative in divorce which before would have been scandalous if not impossible.

Then, too, morals in general became a little looser at the same time. Once the old King of Prussia died and with him his very conservative ideas, his son was like a pendulum clock swinging back to the opposite side: he kept mistresses and was fairly open about it and so other noblemen followed his example. People married for love rather than economic and social stability. People now decided it was time to party, to dress with a taste for fashion, to visit the “in-”places. All of this was already setting 1800 in motion.

This is not very different from what happened in England at the end of the 19th Century when Queen Victoria became the symbol of stodgy morality. The next generation took the pendulum back. The 1950s in America, the “Eisenhower Years,” where years of conservative family values (if you were white and middle-class - it was a different world if you were poor and black) but then along came the rebellion of the '60s and the Sexual Revolution through the '70s, swinging back again to the Reagan Years and now opening up again to another cycle of looser, more encompassing possibilities.

That doesn't mean “everybody changes.” As in politics, one party's in and the other party's out: eventually, their turn will come to be back in and then the in-party is out.

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What happened next – this next swing of the pendulum – affected Mendelssohn's life directly.

The flexibility of the 1800s was the beginning of the “Romantic Era.” By that, I don't mean the “I love you” sense of Romance but a more emotional way of living and expressing yourself, paying less attention to rules and regulations. It's the opposite of “Classical Era” or an attitude which was more structured and traditional, more rule-bound, more intellectual in its concepts. This is a division that applies to music, to literature and architecture and painting – as well as lifestyles in general.

In Central Europe, this period is usually referred to as “The Biedermeier Age” (pronounced BEE-d'r-my'r). Unlike the “Victorian Age” at the end of the century, focusing around the guiding life of Queen Victoria in England, Biedermeier was not a person. In fact, the name wasn't given to it until 50 years after the pendulum had swung back again. It was taken from humorous characters in poems that were popular at the time (named Biedermann and Bummelmaier) – it's sort of like having someone today calling the 1950's “The Bumstead Age” after the comic strip character Dagwood Bumstead whose family life reflected the values popular in that generation (even though the comic strip originated in 1933 and still runs today with only slight modifications).

Basically, the decades following the upheavals of the Napoleonic Era and the advent of the Romantic Era around 1848 (when there were more political and social upheavals across Europe), the Biedermeier Age was an era of comfort rather than the emotional ups-and-downs people had been experiencing. The political instability of all those years of warfare gave way to a desire for things – everything – to be calmer, more comfortable and, above all, stable.

Biedermeier middle-class families attempted to imitate, on their own scale, the lives of the nobility. The furniture was detailed and decorative but inexpensively made even though the idea was to LOOK expensive. Rooms were full of small “art objects.” Everything pointed to comfort and success. (see photo, left, a comfortable room in the Biedermeier style, 1840s)

These Biedermeier details were visible in the architecture of the day: for instance, houses were built back from the street rather than right up to the sidewalk or curb, hinting at something a little more private from the world outside.

In Vienna, the Austrian Prime Minister Prince Klemens von Metternich (see right), a powerful man and no friend of democratic ideas, was also the President of Vienna's Academy of Fine Art. Only works that gave a positive impression of Viennese life and culture were permitted. As a result, paintings were mostly portraits and beautiful landscapes or still-lifes with domestic items arranged on a table. Paintings like this may also be found in earlier periods but periods that also had a similar life-view. Gone are the Greek gods, paintings with warfare and violent themes and certainly no one sitting around naked.

In order to keep his view in power, Metternich knew the politics needed to be more “controlled.” This was an era when the secret police went from tracking down spies and gathering military secrets to keeping society in line. If the family unit was secure and well-behaved, then all should be well.

In 1819, political unrest in Austria (wanting to speed up the humanistic changes idealized by the French Revolution) led to Metternich's oppressive governmental decrees which resulted in very strong censorship of the newspapers and of students in universities. People were afraid to talk about government policies they disagreed with because you never knew who was listening – the guy sitting behind you in the tavern, the neighbor under whose window you were walking by, a servant working in the kitchen - they could all overhear something, report it to the police and be paid for the information.


In the 1820s, composer Franz Schubert (see left) had a circle of friends that included poets, novelists and painters. They would gather at a friend's house to discuss the latest books they'd read, the poems they were writing – Schubert might play a song he had just written – and then the discussion would eventually break down into some drinking. But at one point, even though they never thought they were discussing politically sensitive issues, one by one, they found themselves being taken in for questioning, some of them arrested without explanation only to be released without explanation. Some other friends were not released: it turned out they were writing pamphlets that advocated dissenting opinions from the government. And so Schubert and his friends, apparently guilty by association, decided to abandon their “reading club.”

This may not be very different from issues today when, following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, the government took a more watchful eye on society's communications, not just tracking down people plotting further attacks but through other surveillance aspects covered by the Patriot Act.

We are, of course, at war – even though the war may be a little more vague than the traditional sense of warfare, like it had been in Napoleon's day or even in this century when armies of one government fight an army of another government.

In Schubert's day, the surveillance by the Austrian Government may have been more like the “McCarthy Era” during the Cold War – another kind of vague 'war' – when Washington was looking for anyone who might have been a Communist sympathizer.

It might be something to ask your parents and grandparents what they might remember of both these topics from the 1950s.

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During the uncertainties of the Napoleonic Wars, one disturbing symptom was an increase in suicides among young people. In Germany, this was a serious problem. Many poets wrote about lost love and broken hearts, how young people died of love. But eventually, many of the poems begin to reflect how young people with broken hearts would go out and drown themselves or shoot themselves. Schubert set many of these poems to music.

One of the most popular novels of the day was by the great German poet, Goethe (pronounced GER-teh). “The Sorrows of Young Werther” told the story of a young man who falls in love with a married woman. When she refuses to leave her husband to run off with him on Christmas Eve, he asks her husband to borrow his pistols – and then commits suicide with them.

One of the great works of this age, the songs by Franz Schubert called “The Beautiful Miller's Daughter” (Die schöne Müllerin – dee SHER-neh MYÜ-leh-rinn), tells the story of a young apprentice miller who's walking along a wooded stream and comes to another miller's mill. He sees the beautiful daughter of the family and falls in love with her (Romantic!). He envisions only peace and tranquility in this domestic happiness (Biedermeier!). But he finds out she's in love with (or at least he's courting her) a hunter and a hunter represents something less stable than a miller would – always moving about, his income dependent on how good (or bad) the hunting is and of course, the violence of hunting. He thinks if she marries the hunter, she's letting herself in to be unhappy. In the end, this would-be love-story ends without the young miller ever knowing whether she even knows he exists – it's all in his mind – and he confides his thoughts to the stream burbling past him. In the end, unhappily moving on, we realize it is the stream singing a lullaby and that the young man has drowned himself.

Schubert was writing for amateurs to perform these songs and listen to them in their homes, around the parlor piano in front of a fireplace after dinner (also very Biedermeier). But like a lot of TV today, whether it's actions stories or romances we watch on TV or in the movies, it was a kind of escapist experience: this is not how WE live, but we experience how an imaginary characters lives and relate to it. Women may have sighed at the poor man's plight, men may have felt “I know what unrequited love is all about” -- but would the men go to the extreme of committing suicide over a romantic break-up? Probably not. But some did.

There was concern that perhaps “glorifying” this kind of violence was leading to an increase in suicides or merely reflecting its existence in society – “life imitating art” or “art imitating life.”

This is an argument very much at the heart of a lot of pop music today.

While Schubert's music is specifically German for the 1820s, the basic emotions of its story are more universal than that: this story could be told in almost any era with several different possible “surfaces.” Isn't it the stuff of blues? Couldn't a rapper write a series of songs about the girl who, for whatever reason, got away? Substitute city streets for a wooded stream, reverse the roles of miller and hunter – (she loves an accountant?) - or even have the guy thinking “it'd be great to give up this street life and settle down and have kids.” Believe it or not, that's a kind of “Biedermeier” thinking.

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Mendelssohn grew up in a close family - so close to his sister that her unexpected death destroyed his own health - and family life was always important to him. Though he traveled a lot as a performing musician and conductor, he was never happier than in domestic surroundings. His was definitely a “Biedermeier” world.

- Dr. Dick

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[*] I love this quote: it was used in Liane Ellison Norman's novel Stitches in Air, a novel about Mozart's mother.