By Austin Glatthorn
|A group of tourists learn about Regensburg’s imperial past in front of the old city hall. Originally built as a dance hall c.1360, the building hosted the Empire’s Reichstag from 1663 until 1806. Photo Courtesy of Author.|
Encompassing most of Central Europe, the Holy Roman Empire existed from 800 until 1806. It constituted nearly 320 territories which are grouped into three subcategories: electorates, princedoms, and free imperial cities. While the first two groups were ruled by sacred and secular princes, free cities were governed by elected magistrates and were answerable only to the emperor, who was himself elected. Alongside the regional administrations of each territory were national institutions like the Reichstag (legislature), the Reichskammergericht, and Reichshofrat (the imperial supreme courts). Because the Empire did not have a single capital, its institutions were spread across multiple cities, such as Berlin, Bonn, Frankfurt am Main, Mannheim, Mainz, Regensburg, Vienna, and Wetzlar.
The Holy Roman Empire’s unity in diversity made it a rich context for culture. Yet despite enduring for nearly a millennium, the Empire became the subject of historiographic degradation with the rise of Prussian hegemony in the middle of the nineteenth century. This negative view persists today. As a result, cultural historians of the late eighteenth century have little to say about the final years of the Holy Roman Empire. Music historians still less. Indeed, studies of German music around 1800 focus primarily on Vienna and unfold in a Habsburg context. In doing so, scholars have overlooked how the Empire fostered a political and cultural network that connected the musicians, courts, theatres, and musical and cultural debates that their investigations so compellingly examine. I wanted to tell the Holy Roman Empire’s musical story. To do so, I took three leading imperial centres, Regensburg, Mainz, and Frankfurt am Main, as my point of departure in uncovering music’s role during the Empire’s final years (c.1775-1806).
I returned to Regensburg in early 2013 to begin my PhD research, since I was already familiar with its history and its archives. What is now primarily a tourist stop on river cruises down the Danube, was the location of the Reichstag between 1663 and 1806. The same route that carries visitors to the city today then brought foreign diplomats as well as the Empire’s statesmen, intellectuals, artists, and musicians to the city of the Reichstag. The Princes of Thurn und Taxis, the Emperor’s representatives in the Reichstag, were responsible for entertaining these important guests. As I made my way through volumes of archival material, a story began to emerge in which, facing political and cultural opposition, the Prince invested a significant amount of his self-made fortune in musical spectacles that projected to other diplomats his contested position as the Emperor’s agent.
Later that year I was awarded a one-year research grant by the Deutsche Akademischer Austauschdienst. I returned to Germany, but this time I set up shop in Mainz on the other side of the country. Much as Regensburg, Mainz is today a popular stop for tourists making their way through Germany’s wine region along the Rhine river. And like Regensburg, it was among the most important centres in early modern Central Europe. Mainz’s archbishop-elector led the imperial church, presided over Reichstag sessions and, as Archchancellor of Germany, served as the Emperor’s right-hand man. Yet unlike Regensburg, Mainz was heavily bombed during the war—buildings were destroyed and documents lost. This made uncovering its musical story more difficult, but not impossible. As I went about my everyday business, I often passed by locations featured in my research, such as the electoral theatre that operated there between 1788 and 1792, when the French Revolutionary Army overran the city. Passing by, I often imagined what it must have been like to have attended one of the company’s many performances of opera (some 432 that I was able to identify). All I could hear, however, were workers calling out orders interspersed by a symphony of beeping electronics—itself a melodrama of sorts—at the Burger King that currently occupies the spot.
The final location I examined was Frankfurt. I frequently made trips to nearby Frankfurt as a researcher and operagoer when I returned to Mainz as a doctoral fellow of the Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte in 2015. The city has long been an important centre of trade and commerce, but it was especially important in my story because it was where imperial coronations were held since the middle of the sixteenth century. These national celebrations comprised the Empire’s most lavish spectacles of musical theatrics. I was specifically interested in the final two coronations, those of 1790 and 1792, during which Frankfurt momentarily transformed into the centre of imperial music. In addition to three resident opera companies, the city hosted musicians such as Ludwig Fischer, Johann Hässler, W. A. Mozart, Vincenzo Righini, Antonio Salieri, and Georg Vogler among others during these festivities.
I was lucky to have received grants that allowed me to spend considerable time researching and connecting with Regensburg’s, Mainz’s, and Frankfurt’s imperial musical histories. In addition to these significant centres of the Empire, I also examined more generally the ways in which musical theatre articulated imperial identity. But to shift the focus from Vienna and Berlin to other centres of the Empire is not to contest the importance of these larger cities, but rather to build a more holistic picture of music’s place in Central European society around 1800. My dissertation not only reveals that the Holy Roman Empire was a state that expressed itself through music, but it also opens a new vista for understanding a familiar, yet narrowly defined, period of music history.