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Sunday, December 06, 2009

THE MUSICAL KING


I have always thought of Joseph II, Emperor of Austria, as a bit of a schizophrenic, half enlightened revolutionary and half unsighted dictator, and totally a legend in his own mind. He explained himself this way; “I am a royalist by trade”, a truly conflicted description by a man whom, I suspect, did not fully understand what a tradesman was or did.

But Benedict Anton Michael Adam Hapsburg (his real name) was astute enough to hire Amadeus Mozart to waltz his court, and turned him lose to produce his greatest opera, Don Giovanni; and for that we all should be grateful to the man they called the “Musical King”. I prefer Mozart’s “The Wedding of Figaro” myself, but then it is a generally accepted truth that I have no taste in opera.

(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQ7PKtS2BR8&feature=related)

But I love the “il catalogo e questo” when the servant Leporello comforts Donna Elvira by listing Don Juan’s feminine conquests. “In Italy, six hundred and forty; In Germany, two hundred and thirty-one; A hundred in France; in Turkey, ninety-one; But in Spain already one thousand and three.”

Joseph’s catalog of failings came into sharp focus in 1787 when, displaying a miserable sense of geopolitical timing, Joseph declared war on the Ottoman Turkish Empire. He was just trying to live up to a treaty with Catherine the Great of Russia, but it was not a popular decision with the ruling elite in Vienna. The conservatives were unhappy with the new taxes levied to pay for the war. The price of bread in Vienna went so high that bakeries in the capital were actually looted. And that simply encouraged the young liberals to see the war as a betrayal of the democratic ideas Joseph had seemed to support. They found reasons to travel abroad and avoid their draft notices.

The rest of the polyglot empire had fewer options. While the army was officered almost solely by German speaking Austrians, the bulk of the soldiers were divided between Italian speaking Lombards from south of the Alps and Slavic speakers from the Balkans. And no attempt was made to bridge the divides between them. When Joseph took the field in the summer of 1788 to join his 100,000 man army in laying siege to Belgrade, disaster seemed inevitable to everybody except Joseph.

The decision to lay siege to Belgrade was logical. The Turkish city on the Danube had been captured by Austrian armies in 1688 and again in 1717. Each time it had been lost again, the last time in 1739, but there was a young leader on the throne in Turkey, and Joseph was looking to grab a quick trophy to assuage his critics.

Unfortunately Joseph encamped his army on mosquito infested marshland outside of Belgrade, and over the next few weeks 33,000 of his troops contracted malaria, including Joseph. He had lost a third of his army and he hadn’t even fought a battle yet. And then in early September Joseph received intelligence that the Turks were sending troops to reinforce the fortress of Vivda, on the Timas River, a tributary of the Danube.

The fortress was called Bada Vida, or Grandma Vida, because it had been a border fort since before the Romans. Clearly the Turks were intending on opening a supply line to Vida, down the Timas and then up the Danube to Belgrade, breaking the seige. Joseph decided the best way to counter that move was to take Bada Vida, before the Turkish reinforcements arrived. So between attacks of debilitating fevers, Joseph ordered an immediate forced march to capture Vida, and the nearby village of Karansebes.

You see, Joseph had a logical reason for doing everything he did. On paper Joseph was a genius. It was only in reality that he was a complete fool. Having been raised to be a King, Joseph expected his army to have blind faith in him. In reality his army lacked faith in them selves, faith in their leaders and they certainly had no faith in Joseph. That just left everybody blind.

The troops dispatched to Vida had no idea why they were marching away from Belgrade so quickly. In a few hours their joy at escaping the stinking marshes was replaced by exhaustion. And still their Austrian officers drove them onward, without stopping for food or rest. By September 17th the forward cavalry scouts had reached the Timis River. Crossing over the bridge late in the afternoon, the fatigued scouts fell upon a camp of tzigani, commonly called gypsies. The tzigani were well stocked with schnapps, which they reluctantly sold to the cavalrymen. Suddenly things were starting to look up in this crummy war.

An hour behind the scouts in the gathering dusk came an equally weary infantry battalion. The cavalrymen, well drunk by this time, decided the infantry were after their booze. They constructed a makeshift fort from the gypsy wagons and, as the infantry approached, fired a warning shot or two. The infantry officers, unsure what was going on, shouted for their men to halt, pronounced in German as “halfte, halfte”. What the Slavic infantry heard was “utisit, utisit”, which is Czech for “Allah”. They thought their own officers were warning them the shooting was coming from Turkish Muslims.

Some returned fire. When the infantry fired back, more of the drunken cavalry fired. This exchange of gunfire, first, convinced the officers it was Turks to their front, and second, stampeded the tzigani’s horses, which convinced the officers they were about to be attacked by Turkish cavalry. The Austrian officers ordered a retreat, wondering why their scouts had not warned them the enemy was so near. The retreat immediately turned into a rout.

As the following battalions crossed the bridge they heard shooting to their front. Understandably they mistook the retreating solders for advancing Turks. They threw their men into firing lines and let go with volley after volley. And still the attackers came on, charging through the darkening shadows. From the “Turks” point of view, they were not attacking they were retreating, under heavy fire. They had to get to the bridge, to escape the Turkish trap they had obviously stumbled into. And like dominoes the Austrian battalions fell over, one after the other.

On the other side of the bridge, officers were throwing up a defensive line to hold back the Turks, of whom there were actually none within fifty miles.

Meanwhile the drunken scouts had begun to suspect they might be in some trouble. They grabbed their booze and went galloping for the only escape route. As they thundered over the wooden bridge, the Austrian artillery opened up. The cavalry overran them, and the entire Austrian army melted away, pausing only to plunder a few villages and rape a few peasant women. The retreat reached such levels of panic that Joseph was knocked off his horse and fell in a stream, not a recommended treatment for a man recovering from malaria. The army did not stop until they returned to their siege lines outside of Belgrade and the perception of safety.

Forty-eight hours later a small part of the real Turkish army, sent to secure the fortress of Vida, stumbled upon the remains of a great battle. Ten thousand dead and wounded Austrian soldiers, with their equipment, were scattered across the fields around the village of Karansebes. It was a great victory which didn’t cost the Turks a dime. They weren't even there. The only other losers,, besides the Ausrians, were the tzigani who lost their horses, and an unknown number of human casualties.

Joseph abandoned the army in front of Belgrade, turning it over to retired Field Marshal Gideon von Loudon. Loudon would capture Belgrade the following year. By then Joseph was near death, weakened by malaria. He died in November 1788, broken by his failures. And by dying, Joseph now abandoned Mozart.

Amadeus Mozart lost his cushy court job. He never wrote another opera, and spent the next two years spending more time writing letters begging for money than he spent writing music. He died in 1791, famously buried in a pauper’s grave. Realizing this makes watching the the final scene in “Don Giovanni” all the more poignant. The aging reprobate hero is challenged to either repent or burn in eternal damnation. Don Juan has the chutzpa to sing, “To none will I succumb! For me there's no repentance.” How refreshing to meet an honest liar, if only in on the stage.

It was almost as if Mozart was trying to send a message to Joseph. I wonder if the Emperor never got it?

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