My Recurring Quaker Nightmare — Every January 27th

It happens on January 27th.

In the shadows of Viennese royalty and luxury, poverty and starvation.

In the dream, it’s 1777, and a Quaker minister named Scatterwell gets a burning concern to visit the decadent city of Vienna, to preach the gospel of love of God and neighbor. He’s particularly moved by reports of the tens of thousands of poor Austrians and others huddling there in the shadow of the luxuriant indifference of the imperial court.

When Scatterwell arrives in the bustling capital, he heads straight for the nearest low-life tavern, figuring to plunge into the depths and confront the Devil’s work head on.

In the crowded, dark tavern, he spies a young man leaning dejectedly over a big mug of ale, a crumpled sheaf of papers at his elbow.  The youth is clearly trying to get drunk.

An imperial palace in Vienna: extreme opulence

His clothes are out of place in the tavern — they are of a finer cut, though ragged and soiled.

Scatterwell sits at the same table, and tries out his Deutsch. “My friend,” he says gently, “whatever has brought thee to this dreadful place?”

The lad looks up at him. “Ach,” he says. “I’m lucky to be here, rather than in the ditch outside. I’m all alone. My mother just died, I’ve no work, and I’m down to my last few coins. I don’t know what I will do, so I thought  I’d just drink and forget my problems.” He takes a big swig, and wipes his mouth. “It works. For awhile.”

Drinking to forget

“Oh, Friend,” Scatterwell declares, “thee doesn’t have to end it here, or in the mud outside. God has a wonderful  plan for thy life, and for the many other unfortunates that thee can help”

And then, summoning all his earnest eloquence, Scatterwell preaches to the youth of the Universal Saving Light, of Christ’s gracious example and sacrificial life, and how God’s grace and Light can be spread today as it was in the  early church, for this is, in the words of the great Friend William Penn,  the day of Primitive Christianity Revived!

And as the young man listens, his eyes begin to shine, and Scatterwell knows his heart is being reached, his mind convinced. At length, he nods, and says, “Oh yes, my new  Friend, your English accent is strange, but your words ring true. Show me how to join in this wonderful new life.”

Beggars are everywhere, the forgotten castoffs of Empire.

And then Scatterwell shares the burden that he has carried all this way, of concrete help for the many desperate poor of Vienna. He plans to open eine kuchenzuppe, which is the closest he can come to “Soup Kitchen.” His monthly meeting will help them get started, he says, and they will find other supporters as they work.

Scatterwell emphasizes that just a small share of the value of the courtiers’ costly but useless baubles could underwrite their new work, and feed many thousands more.

“Yes,” says the young man, pushing the mug of ale away. “That is so true! Let’s get started right now.”

They both rise, and turn to head for the door. But then the lad spies the forgotten sheaf of papers on the table, and grabs them up, to toss into the fireplace as they pass.

Music, a useless worldly frippery

Scatterwell sees musical notes on them as the flames light up and then consume the sheets. “So much for worldly vanity,” he says with grim satisfaction. “Thy new life will be much more fruitful — er, what did thee say thy name was, Friend?”

The lad replies, “It’s –

And that’s when I wake up screaming.

Because the youth’s name is Wolfgang. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mozart

Yes, January 27 is Mozart’s birthday. He would have been (and IS, in a real way) 250-plus years old today, give or take.

And the nightmare scenario just recounted haunts me because it brings home how drastically poorer my own life would be, had the musician by some miscarriage undergone the kind of conversion it imagines.

How much difference has it made? There was an underground comic strip back in the Sixties about several disreputable characters called the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. These fellows had a saying, that “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.”

For me, tho I enjoyed the Brothers in their time, a truer long-term motto would be, MOZART will get you through times of no money better than MONEY will get you through times of no Mozart!”

And let the church say, “AMEN!”

So  while I am also dedicated to Quakerism, seek to achieve our vaunted “Simplicity,” and admire such missions as that of Friend Scatterwell, I’m sure grateful that neither he, nor any of the Catholic ascetic groups Mozart was more likely to have run into, found and deterred him from his musical course.

It’s also a great relief that Quakerism has finally outgrown (to a large extent), our opposition to such art. (To get a sense of this evolution, see this excellent compilation, “Beyond Uneasy Tolerance,” compiled by Friend Esther Greenleaf Murer.)

angelic theologians & music critics

Not that fulfilling what seems to have been his destiny turned out much better. He kept composing, but his music never brought him much worldly success, and he was carried off before the age of forty, buried in a common pauper’s grave in Vienna.

A couple hundred years later, Austria put Mozart on their 5000 shilling note (now replaced by the Euro), worth about $440. A lot of good it did him.

And that’s My Recurring Quaker Nightmare — Every January 27th  . . . .

Ah well, his genius was about as close to immortality as things human can get. If you’re also a Mozart fan, or just curious, have a listen to this short piece, the Credo from his “Great” mass , K. 427. This is the kind of “creed” even a liberal Quaker can get behind.”

15 thoughts on “My Recurring Quaker Nightmare — Every January 27th”

  1. As a Quaker musician, I’ve always been concerned about where Quaker theology and music cross, and would be very uncomfortable with Quakerism if it truly had no room for music.

    But I have an interesting story to tell about Mozart. When I was in an orchestra, I had a conductor who swore up and down that Mozart’s Requiem was commonly misinterpreted and that certain parts of it should be played faster and differently. It was an excellent piece and, sorry to say, our orchestra was probably not up to playing it as he truly wanted to hear it. But what struck me about the incident, or rather that period of my life, was that that piece really kind of represented an interpretation of death and the circumstances around it. Musically, I think the conductor was right: the world stole that piece and misinterpreted it. I wonder how often that happens, both in the field of music and elsewhere.

    1. The thing about music, much more than pictorial or sculptural art and just as much as theatrical art, is that the composer only has part of the responsibility for it. True, without the composer it wouldn’t exist at all, but without the musicians its existence wouldn’t matter at all. And interpretations are ALWAYS going to vary, and composers very frequently (and after their deaths, always) have nothing to say about the interpretation. The world didn’t steal that piece. Mozart gave it to the world. Writing a piece of music (as I know from personal experience as well as observation) is a risk, a leap of faith, or of hope: that the gift will be accepted and appreciated and that at least somebody will show it the way you thought of it, and others will at least be genuine in their ideas.

  2. I’ve always been glad to share a birthday with Mozart…and that our wedding anniversary is on Beethoven’s birthday! Although I don’t seem to have much musical talent, I am VERY talented at “audience”! Thanks for sharing this, Chuck.

  3. And what missteps are we Quakers taking right now? Because that anti-art stuff was surely wrong-hearted. (And now, having been inspired, I’m shutting down this machine to practice piano.)

  4. Hi Chuck, I’ve picked (back) up piano (and boy does my back hurt) after 30 or more years of neglect. I’m using a Beginning Piano Solos book, which has the pieces chronologically, rather than by difficulty, and I’m right now in the midst of the WAM pieces. I spent two hours today on one of the more difficult ones (for me in my atrophied state of paw), so how fun to find out that this was the big Jan 27 surprise!!! Thanks! Bob

  5. I have never been able to engage with Mozart. Peopke look at me lije I’m mad ahen I say that. But yhat tinkly twinkly business that pervades all his tunes merely annoys and irritates my nerves. Give me Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Weber, Schubert or Vivaldi and thanks for NOT playing Mozart.

    1. Mozart’s okay. But a lot of his music feels to me like contract-fulfillment stuff. As does Bach’s. Handel, too, is okay, though I have heard all the performances of “The Messiah” I ever need to hear. (Sung ’em, too.) Schubert, on the other hand, never repeated himself. Every single thing he wrote is a single thing, new and fresh and unique and deeply-felt.

      1. I don’t know all Schubert’s work, but the Trout Quintet, and each of its five movements, sure fits your description. And I’m not done with “The Messiah,” old workhorse that it is.

  6. Das stimmt. Scattergood meant well, and Wolfie hurt. Sometimes the Lord works in mysterious ways. Sometimes we will never know what we might have missed. Gott sei dank.

    Good story , Chuck , thanks.

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