22 March 1459: The young sprig of the Habsburg family is born who grows up to be Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor.
Max practiced masterfully the art of the dynastic marriage both for himself and his descendants, significantly sweeping under either direct Habsburg sovereignty or collateral affiliation large swathes of Europe, most notably direct kingship over Hungary after the disaster of Mohacs in 1526. It was Hungary which provided the “and royal” tag in the Habsburg “imperial and royal” descriptor after the Compromise of 1867. On the other hand, it was in large measure Hungarian intransigence which forever derailed what feeble attempts Franz Joseph and his advisors made to drag the empire forward as a viable geopolitical force. I forget now which German senior commander (or was it a chancellor? I’ve slept since then) observed during the Great War that Germany was “shackled to a corpse.” Magyar refusal to entertain any measure which might impair their oppression of the crazy-quilt of ethnicities within Hungary has to bear a good portion of the responsibility for the truth of that statement.
Gentle Reader will perceive how easily that for which we strive mightily, and sacrifice nearly all to defend once in our possession, can turn out to be a poison chalice in the end, after all. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose.
Max also is a pretty good example of the Habsburg penchant for eccentricity. He spent a large amount of effort on a couple of lengthy epic poems as well as a novel. The purpose, in addition to patting himself on the back for being An All-Round Swell Guy, was to glorify what he presented as the traditions of chivalry and more to the point, the Habsburgs’ role as principal exponents of ditto. There is a fascinating history of the family which takes for its focus the means and media in which the successive Habsburg rulers used their representation in visual and written arts to establish, explicate, and fix in permanence their role and claims in the European power system.
History has been less impressed with Max as author than he might have desired.
What Maximilian did do, and what to this day remains as an enduring legacy, perhaps his only enduring legacy, is the direction he gave to one of his court flunkies in 1498 to go hire, as a permanent fixture at court, some musicians and young male singers. Just over 500 years later the Wiener Sängerknaben — better known in English as the Vienna Boys Choir — is still going. Roughly 100 strong, they of course perform concerts in and around Vienna; they also split into four separate touring groups and travel all over the world performing. A couple of years ago, one of them visited the city near where I live and as a bucket-list item I took my mother to see them. They put on a pretty good show.
In addition to concerts at home and abroad, they also play a significant part in the cultural life of what has as good a claim as any to the title “Music City”. Here’s a video including them performing at the 1989 funeral of Zita, the last Empress of Austria-Hungary.
[Here I will confess to a bit of a personal preference. I understand that musicians must perform what their audiences want to hear. Thus I do not take it ill of the Sängerknaben that so much of the program they presented that evening we saw them was newer settings of newer things. But I prefer a greater homage to the towering music of the past. I mean, let’s face it: Just about anyone who can carry a tune in a dump truck — and I own that I am not among them, not at all, even a bit, by any standard — can sling together a passable setting of “contemporary” music, showtunes, and so forth. It’s just not all that challenging. The great music of the past, however? That takes a bit more in the way of chops. I prefer the focus of the Thomanerchor, which is even older than the Sängerknaben (they trace their roots back to 1212, I think) and which concentrates above all on the music of their one-time Kantor, one J. S. Bach. Not to take anything away from their colleagues in Vienna; it’s just that I sort of wish they’d devote their undoubted talents to challenges more worthy of them. Purely personal taste.]
Perhaps Maximilian did achieve his earthly immortality, and through the medium of art. It just wasn’t his own, or even about him. Irony will out.
Go make a joyful noise, in memory of H.I.M. Maximilian.