Frederick the Great and Maria Theresa


VOLTAIRE was apparently the first to dub Frederick “Great” (“Frédéric le Grand”), so early as 1742;1 the phrase was part of a mutual-admiration pact with still ten years to run. But if history may join Whitman in blowing bugles for the defeated it might as justly call Maria Theresa great, for she was one of several queens who in modern times have surpassed and shamed most kings.

Let us approach her through her background. Six years before her birth her Hapsburg father succeeded (1711) as Charles VI to the throne of the “Holy Roman Empire.” Voltaire thought it none of the three, but it was still an empire, dressed in the dignity of nine centuries. Governed loosely from Vienna, it included Austria, Hungary, Bohemia (Czechoslovakia), Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, and the Tirol; and in 1715 it extended its power over the former Spanish Netherlands, which we know as Belgium. The German states were only formally subject to the emperor, but the German free cities acknowledged his authority in their external affairs. Bohemia was now in decline, disordered by religious intolerance and exploited by absentee landlords mostly of alien speech. Hungary had suffered from being the chief area of contention between Christians and Turks; a dozen armies had crossed and consumed it; population had fallen, local government was in chaos; a numerous and martial nobility, now only partly Magyar, refused to pay Imperial taxes, and hated Austrian rule. None but nobles and the Church owned land in Hungary; they divided it into enormous estates tilled by serfs, and drew from them the revenues with which they built great monasteries, castles, and palaces, and patronized music and art. Some nobles owned fifty thousand acres each; the Esterházy family held seven million.2

Austria itself, as chief beneficiary of the Empire, was prospering. Whereas Hungary had some two millions population, Austria had approximately 6,100,000 in 1754, expanding to 8,500,000 in 1800. Here, too, the land was owned by nobles or clergy and tilled by serfs; serfdom survived there till 1848. As in England, the estates were kept intact by primogeniture, the bequest of the whole to the oldest son; younger sons were cared for by appointment to posts in the army, the Church, or the administration; so the court of the Emperor Charles VI numbered forty thousand souls. There was no rich middle class in Austria to challenge the omnipotence of the aristocracy, or dilute its blue blood. Marriages were matters of protocol. Mistresses and lovers were allowed by unwritten law, but only within the class. Lady Mary Montagu wrote from Vienna in 1716, presumably with the exaggerations of a traveler:

’Tis the established custom for every lady to have two husbands, one that bears the name, and another that performs the duties. And these engagements are so well known that it would be a downright affront, and publicly resented, if you invited a woman of quality to dinner without at the same time inviting her two attendants, … lover and husband, between whom she always sits in state with great gravity… A woman looks out for a lover as soon as she is married, as part of her equipage.3

The aristocracy, throughout what was now being transformed into an Austro-Hungarian empire, worked hand in hand with the Church. The nobles probably took the Catholic theology with a grain of salt; several of them were Freemasons;4 but they contributed gratefully to a religion that so graciously helped their serfs and undowered daughters to reconcile themselves hopefully to their earthly lot. Diversity of creeds would have confused this operation by leading to debate and doubt; religious toleration was obviously bad politics. Archbishop Firmian of Salzburg made life so uncomfortable for the Protestants in his archdiocese that thirty thousand of them migrated, mostly to Prussia (1722–23),5 where they strengthened Austria’s rising enemy. Similar migrations or expulsions from Bohemia shared in the economic decline of that once proudly independent state, and contributed to the advance of Protestant Germany.

Rich and poor joined in financing the ecclesiastical architecture of the age. In Prague the greatest of Czech architects, Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer, completed in massive grandeur the Church of St. Nicholas, which Christoph Dientzenhofer had begun. Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, the greatest of Austrian architects, left his mark in Salzburg, Prague, and Rome, and, with his son Josef Emanuel, raised a baroque masterpiece in the Church of St. Charles at Vienna. Magnificent monasteries proclaimed the glory of God and the comforts of celibacy. There was the Benedictine abbey at Melk on the Danube, where Jakob Prandtauer and his aides spread6 a complex of buildings, towers, and dome, with an interior of stately arches, perfect pillars, and gorgeous decoration. There was the old convent of the Augustinian canons at Dürnstein, rebuilt7 in sumptuous baroque by Josef Munggenast; note that its chief glories, the main portal and the west tower, were the product of Matthias Steindl, a sculptor who took up architecture at the age of seventy-eight. There were the Benedictine abbey church and library at Altenburg (also by Munggenast8), famous for luxuriant ornament. There was the twelfth-century abbey of the Cistercian friars at Zwettl, where Munggenast and Steindl raised a new façade, tower, and library;9 the glorious choir, however, was the achievement of Meister Johann in 1343–48; here the old Gothic displayed its superiority over the new baroque. There was Stams Abbey in the Tirol, rebuilt10 by Georg Gumpp, and distinguished by the iron grilles and stucco decoration of its “Prelates’ Staircase”; here the Hapsburg princes were buried. There was the abbey church at Herzogenburg, the chef-d’oeuvre in the brief life (1724–48) of Josef Munggenast’s son Franz. And there was the abbey church at Wilhering, which has been judged “the loveliest rococo building in Austria.”11 We remark, in passing, the superb organs in these churches, as at Herzogenburg and Wilhering, and the handsome libraries; typical is the Bibliotheksaal of the Benedictine monastery at Admont, housing 94,000 volumes and 1,100 manuscripts in a shrine of baroque embellishment. The monks of Austria were at the height of their glory in this age of waning faith.

The nobles kept pace with them. In Austria and Hungary, as in Germany, every prince hungered for a Versailles; and though he could not rival that unconscionable splendor he gathered sufficient spoils to build a palais (as he called it) whose every aspect should mirror his transcendence. Prince Eugene of Savoy raised a summer palace on two levels of his estate outside Vienna: a “Lower Belvedere” (now the Barockmuseum), and an “Upper Belvedere” handsomely designed by Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt. Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach designed the Prince’s Winter Palace (now the Finance Ministry). He also drew up plans for the palace and gardens of Schonbrunn to rival Versailles, but the actual construction, begun in 1696, abandoned or reduced these plans as it proceeded. Fischer von Erlach and his son Josef Emanuel designed the Imperial—now the National-Library, which a specialist in baroque art considers to have the finest interior of any library in the world.12 In 1726 Charles VI opened this treasure to the public; in 1737 he bought for it Eugene of Savoy’s immense collection of manuscripts and books. Vienna was by far the most beautiful city in the Germanic realm.

Most Austrian architecture was adorned with sculpture. We note with shamefaced ignorance the wood Crucifixion by Andrä Thamasch in Stams Abbey, and Balthasar Moll’s marble figure of the Emperor Francis I in the Barockmuseum at Vienna; and we can at a distance feel the dedication of Josef Stammel, who gave most of his life to decorating with statuary the Abbey of Admont. But how shall we be pardoned for coming so late to recognize Georg Raphael Donner as second only to Bernini among the sculptors of this age? Born in Esslingen in Lower Austria (1693), he learned his art from Giovanni Giuliani; through this Italian tutelage he acquired the classic bent that enabled him to chasten the exuberance of Austrian baroque. His marble Apotheosis of Charles VI,13however, still suffers from the fancifulness of baroque—the Emperor is raised to heaven by an angel with charming legs and effulgent breasts; nevertheless we are grateful to art for restoring to the seraphim—whom philosophy had thought bodiless—something tangible. Almost worthy of Renaissance Italy is Donner’s St. Martin and the Beggar in the cathedral at Pressburg (Bratislava); and his marble relief Hagar in the Wilderness14 has a smooth classic grace. He reached his peak in the figures that he cast in lead for two great fountains in Vienna: the Providence Fountain in the Neuer Markt, representing the rivers of Austria, and the Andromeda Fountain, rivaling the fonti of Rome. Just a year before his death in 1741 he cast for the cathedral of Gurk a group representing the lamentation of Mary over the corpse of Christ; this would have made Raphael rejoice that Donner had taken his name.

Neither the painters nor the poets produced in this age in Austria or its dependencies any works that attracted the attention of the outside world, except, perhaps, the frescoes that Daniel Gran painted within the cupola of the great library in Vienna. But in music Vienna was the acknowledged center of the Western world. Charles VI loved music only next to his daughters and his throne. He himself composed an opera, accompanied Farinelli on the harpsichord, and conducted rehearsals. He brought to Vienna the best vocalists, instrumentalists, actors, and scene painters, regardless of cost; on one occasion he spent, in Lady Mary’s estimate, thirty thousand pounds to stage one opera.15 His chapel choir numbered 135 singers and players. Music became imperial, or at least noble: in some operas all the participants—soloists, chorus, ballet, orchestra—were members of the aristocracy. In one such performance the principal role was sung by the Archduchess Maria Theresa.16

The greatest librettists of the time accepted the call to Vienna. Apostolo Zeno came from Venice in 1718, served as court poet to Charles VI, and in 1730 retired amiably in favor of Pietro Trapassi, the Neapolitan who had been renamed Metastasio. During the next ten years Metastasio wrote—always in Italian—such stirring poetic dramas that the leading composers of Western Europe were happy to set them to music. No one rivaled him in adapting poetry to the demands of opera—i.e., in adjusting the theme, action, and feeling of his text to provide the requisite solos, duets, recitatives, choruses, ballets, and spectacles; but in return he exacted from the composers the harmonious accordance of the music with the play. His success was so great that Voltaire worried that opera might drive drama from the stage; “ce beau monstre,” he said, “étouffe Melpomène [the Muse of tragedy].”17

Over all this music, art, and multilingual court and empire Charles VI presided with lavish hand, kind heart, and martial grief. His generals could not follow his baton; they gave him tragedies when he called for odes to joy. While Eugene of Savoy, who had shared with Marlborough in beating back the armies of Louis XIV, still retained his vigor of mind and command, matters military went well for Austria: she took Belgrade from the Turks, Sardinia from Savoy, and Milan, Naples, and the Spanish Netherlands from Spain. Eugene was promoted to be not only generalissimo of all Austrian armies, but also first minister and director of diplomacy; in effect he ruled everything but opera. But then, in the normal disintegration of our flesh, he grew weak not only in body but in mind. In the War of the Polish Succession (1733–35) Austria slipped into conflict with France, Spain, and Savoy (now known as the “small kingdom of Sardinia”); she lost Lorraine, Naples, and Sicily (1735–38). An alliance with Russia brought on another war with Turkey; Bosnia, Serbia, and Wallachia were lost; Belgrade became Turkish again (1739). The Emperor could not supply the talents missing in his aides. As Frederick the Great saw him,

Charles VI had received from nature the qualities that make a good citizen, but none of those that make a great man. He was generous, but without discernment; of a spirit limited and without penetration; he had application, but without genius. He worked hard but accomplished little. He knew German law well, and several languages; he excelled above all in Latin. He was a good father, a good husband, but bigoted and superstitious like all the princes of the House of Austria.18

His consolation and pride were in his eldest daughter, Maria Theresa, and his heart was set on having her inherit his throne. However, his father, Leopold I, had laid down (1703) a “Pactum Mutuae Successionis,” by which the principle of male primogeniture was to govern the succession; in default of a male heir, the crown should pass to the daughters of his son Joseph (b. 1678), and, next in line, to the daughters of his son Charles (b. 1685). The death of Joseph I in 1711 without male heir (but with two surviving daughters) left the crown to Charles. In 1713, in a “Pragmatic Sanction” delivered to his Privy Council, Charles declared his will that his throne and his undivided dominions should pass at his death to his eldest surviving son, and, should no son survive, to his eldest daughter. His only son was born and died in 1716. After waiting four years in vain for another son, Charles appealed to the European powers to avert a war of succession by accepting and collectively guaranteeing the order of succession that he had laid down. In the course of the next eight years his Pragmatic Sanction was officially accepted by Spain, Russia, Prussia, England, Holland, Denmark, Scandinavia, and France.

But there were difficulties, which made much history. Saxony and Bavaria had princes who had married the daughters of Charles’s brother Joseph, and who now claimed the succession to the Imperial throne by virtue of the Pactum of Leopold I. Frederick William I of Prussia consented on the understanding that Charles would support his claim to a part of the duchies of Jülich and Berg. Charles apparently agreed to this condition, but soon gave contrary promises to Frederick William’s competitors. The Prussian King thereupon allied himself with the Emperor’s enemies.19

In 1736 Maria Theresa, in her eighteenth year, married Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine, later (1737) Grand Duke of Tuscany. On October 20, 1740, Charles VI died, ending the male line of the Hapsburgs, and Maria Theresa mounted the throne as archduchess of Austria and queen of Bohemia and Hungary. Her husband became coruler, but, as he showed little concern or capacity for affairs of state, the full burden of government fell upon the young Queen. She had in 1740 all the charms of womanhood as well as of royalty: fine features, brilliant blue eyes, rich blond hair, grace of manners and movement, the zest of health, the animation of youth.20 Her intelligence and her character were superior to these charms, yet they seemed inadequate to the problems that encompassed her. She was now four months pregnant with the child who was to succeed her as the “enlightened despot” Joseph II. Her right to the throne was challenged by both Charles Albert, Elector of Bavaria, and Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, and a strong faction in Vienna favored the Bavarian cause. There was no assurance that Hungary would acknowledge her as its queen; she was not so crowned till June 24, 1741. The Imperial treasury contained only 100,000 florins, which the Empress Dowager, widow of Charles VI, claimed as her own. The army was in disorder, and its generals were incompetent. The Council of State was manned by old men who had lost the ability to organize or command. Rumors circulated that the Turks would soon again march upon Vienna.21Philip V of Spain demanded Hungary and Bohemia, the King of Sardinia demanded Lombardy, as the price of recognition.22 Frederick II, who had become king of Prussia only five months before Maria Theresa’s accession, sent an offer to recognize and defend her, and promote her husband’s election as emperor, if she would cede to him the greater part of Silesia. She rejected the offer, remembering her father’s hope that the realm would remain undivided and unimpaired. On December 23, 1740, Frederick invaded Silesia, and the twenty-three-year-old Queen found herself at war with the strongest power in Germany, and with the man who was to be the greatest general of his time.

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