Early Modern Times – Prague-matic considerations

Early Modern Times - Prague-matic considerations

Dear readers,

This is the second of my Krum’lov-letters’, this time having returned from the Czech capital of Prague! Those of you employed by Early Modern Times in its Department of Loyal Subscribers may recall the January 6 post of this humble blog, when I reported on the four hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the Thirty Years War. The event which sparked this cataclysmic conflict (over four times worse than the Seven Years War, but less than a third as bad as the Hundred Years War) was the defenestration of three Habsburg officials at Prague Castle in May 23, 1618: not the first defenestration at Prague, nor the last. The first was a deadly defenestration in 1419 by the Hussites, while the third (though this is debated) refers to the death of Czechoslovakian politician Jan Masaryk in 1948. One of the oddest defenestrations was that of the great Czech satirist Bohumil Hrabal, author of such satirical classics as Closely Observed Trains and I Served the King of England (both the bases of excellent films). In 1997, Hrabal leaned out of his hospital window to feed pigeons, and fell to his death: he seems to have outdone the Spanish Inquisition’s auto-da-fé with his auto-defenestration.

Anyway, back to the Thirty Years War: the election of the Palatinate Elector Frederick (the Electors were members of the Holy Roman Imperial Diet–including fruits and vegetables like Rudolf II, as in last week’s post–and the Palatinate was a small German state, really just a smidge on a palette-inate) as King of Bohemia angered the Habsburgs who claimed dominion over that territory. The absolutist Habsburgs were not about to be outdone by a ruler with a state whose name closely resembles the pseudonym of Darth Vader’s mentor: central Europe was not big enough for two galactic empires. The Habsburgs were joined by their Catholic allies, while the Protestant states reluctantly defended Frederick’s title. Outmanned and outgunned, the Protestant forces fell to the Habsburgs at the Battle of White Mountain (near Prague) in 1620; Frederick was forced to flee along with his family, and was mocked as ‘The Winter King’. Living in exile, the members of the erstwhile royal family would recall their unfortunate circumstances, including Frederick’s daughter Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia (best known as the brilliant correspondent of the philosopher René Descartes, who happened to fight at the Battle of White Mountain on the Catholic side). Meanwhile, in 1621 the 27 Protestant leaders of the revolt were executed in the Old Town Square in Prague, many of whom had their heads spitted on the Charles Bridge.

It seems, then, that the Protestants were no match for the formidable toothpaste-like Habsburg power of ‘Prague removal’, while Frederick’s soldiers made a number of serious Prague-tical errors–not least in employing ruminating war-cows (the Cattle of White Mountain), a peaceful war-church-official (the Beadle of White Mountain), and crooning war-Liverpudlian-pop-singers (the Beatles of White Mountain). The Habsburg armies particularly ran ‘Ringos’ around the un-Fab Four, plunging the mop-top singers into a cavernous ‘George’, flushing them down the ‘John’, and in sum effecting an a-Paul-ing defeat. Hello, goodbye.

The class trip to Prague ended on a much happier note, as we attended a wonderful performance of W.A. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the historic Estates Theatre. Despite the opera’s basis in the banned play by Beaumarchais (for his anti-aristocratic satire), it was a huge hit in Prague after its first performance in 1786. Finding the Prague theatre-goers to be far more appreciative of his music than the uptight Viennese, Mozart went to Prague the next year and premiered Don Giovanni at the Estates Theatre. The theatre itself had opened in 1783 in Old Town Prague, and was intended by its patron both to entertain and enlighten a wide swath of Bohemian society. The latter opera was as sensational a hit as the former, and Mozart even wrote a symphony in honour of Prague. To this day, Mozart is claimed as an honorary Czech composer; Prague held a requiem in his honour when he died in 1791, and Mozart’s delight with his reception in Prague symbolised its cultural prominence after almost two centuries in Vienna’s shadow after the Battle of White Mountain.

But would the Czechs have been as pleased with the musical genius from Salzburg if they knew of his forgotten monster-pieces, such as his scandalous opera about an immoral tobacco seller who steals his master’s horse-drawn vehicle (The Carriage of Cigaro)? Or the excessively violent opera about a conceited Jacobin crossbowman who acquires an arsenal of artillery which he uses to bombard the royal houses of Europe (The Barrage of Big-Arrow)? Or his bizarre and surreal musical treatment of occult bananas (The Magic Fruit)? Or the unlikely operatic tale of an Italian mafia patriarch whose lower leg is blown off in a botched assassination and is reduced to working behind the wheel of a delivery vehicle, relying only on GPS and his upper leg to hit the pedals (Don Geo-Van-Knee)? Or finally, his unfinished funeral mass for a salesman of ‘second application’ skin lotions containing insect repellent for children (Re-Cream in Deet Minor)?

‘Til next week,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Occult Fruit Studies Program

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