Beethoven and the Law

     Beethoven was a litigious fellow. It was one of his eccentricities. So litigious that when three noble sponsors agreed to support him for life, under the far from onerous conditions that he live in Vienna and write whatever he liked, Beethoven sued one of them – after the count became bankrupt – for missing a payment.
     Today (Friday) is Beethoven’s 241st birthday. Beethoven was, for my money, not only the greatest artist, but the most interesting human being who ever lived.
     He was a freelance musician in Vienna, the most music-crazy city of his time. Yet except for a few rare moments, he lived and died in poverty.
     The only other composer who had tried to live in Vienna as a freelancer – without the support of a court or the church – was a fellow named Mozart. Mozart also died poor.
     That Mozart and Beethoven suffered want and penury indicates that the deck was stacked against freelance musicians.
     And it was. For centuries, it was just about illegal to be a freelance musician.
     Here are some of the laws, and lawsuits, involving long-dead musicians. They may help explain some of Beethoven’s rancor and eccentricities.
     Throughout the middle ages, freelance musicians had fewer legal rights than farm animals. In many places it was not illegal to kill a freelance musician, though it was illegal to kill a cow or a goat.
     A freelance musician could not testify in court, or inherit money or property – but he could inherit debt.
     In 1343, the German town of Wismar, on the Baltic Sea, set an upper limit – but no lower limit – on how much freelance musicians could be paid.
     Luneberg enacted a similar law in 1430, and decreed that only town musicians – but not freelancers – could play at weddings. Weddings were the main freelance gig back then.
     “Trade guilds required a so-called proof of lineage in which one had to prove non-descent from a musician,” the musicologist Walter Salmen wrote.
     In 1674 the shoemakers guild in Hildesheim filed a lawsuit to kick out one of its members because his father-in-law had been “a fieldpiper playing before the regiment.” So the stain of being a musician passed not only unto the sons and daughters, but unto the poor guy the daughter of a musician married.
     In Flensburg in 1646, the wife of town musician Heinsen was “denounced,” because she had “draped her bed with taffeta curtains, which were above her status.”
     Flensburg had it in for musicians. In 1685, a businessman’s wife sued musician Lorentz Schwensen, claiming that his wife had entered the church before her, and so “laid claim to superior status.”
     Of course, people in all the towns loved music, in fact they demanded it – in many places, weddings could not be solemnized without music. But in hiring a composer, towns demanded that their musician marry the widow of his predecessor, so the town could duck its obligation to pay the contractual “widow’s year” of salary to the poor dead guy’s wife.
     George Friedrich Händel refused a town musician job in 1704 because he didn’t want to marry the widow.
     Johann Sebastian Bach, who made a famous 200-mile walk to Lubeck in 1706 to hear the great Dietrich Buxtehude play the organ, probably did it to see Buxtehude’s wife, whom Bach would have to marry if he took the gig. Buxtehude died the next year at 69 – his wife was 30. Bach, who was 21, decided against it.
     Later, when Bach quit his job in Weimar to take a gig in CQthen, the duke threw him into prison for a month for his effrontery, “to drive home to Bach … that he was nothing more than a rebellious lackey.”
     When Mozart quit his job with Archbishop Colloredo in 1781, the archbishop’s secretary dismissed him “with a kick on the arse,” Mozart wrote to his father.
     And let’s not even get into castratos.
     So if Beethoven acted churlishly at times – and he did – I think we should forgive him. He and Mozart were perhaps the first two freelancers who demanded to be treated with respect. Not much thanks they got for it. But the modern concert system was created, in great part, so we could listen to their music.
     It was too late for those guys. By the time Europe created a system of paid concerts, which anyone could enter, Mozart and Beethoven were long dead.
     Another freelancer, Franz Liszt, summed up the way the world has always treated freelance musicians. It’s as true now as it was when Liszt wrote it in 1854, in an article about Beethoven: “We have not yet ceased viewing musicians as rare, curious phenomena, half angels, half donkeys, who bring heavenly songs to mortals, but who, at the same time, in their day-to-day life, are to be treated in the most ambiguous manner or with the most unambiguous scorn.”

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