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THEY CAME, they played, and they conquered. But first they had to travel, by road, sea, or rail—a tricky matter for any virtuoso musician in search of an audience. The diaries of English historian Charles Burney, who embarked on “the grand tour” of the European continent in the early 1770s, illustrate the problems. Like many men of his social standing, Burney felt the wide world beckoning, with places to see, people to meet, and music to hear, and he dutifully answered the call.
“If knowledge be medicine for the soul,” he wrote, oʃering a moral argument for his excursions, it is as important “to obtain it genuine as to procure unadulterated medicine for the body.” As he traveled, he recorded his concert experiences, encounters with great musicians (including C. P. E. Bach and Frederick the Great), and, not least, the hardships of the journey.
Trekking to Bohemia, he felt assaulted by excessive heat and cold, “together with bad horses, and diabolical wagons.” As he journeyed, he met “half-starved people, just recovered from malignant fevers, little less contagious than the plague, occasioned by bad food.” At a time when the English upper class routinely enjoyed up to twenty-ɹve dishes at dinner, this was alarming. Yet it could have been worse.
In Burney’s day, additional dangers lurked, like being snatched by pirates—from 1500 to 1800, Algerian and Moroccan corsairs regularly nabbed people at sea, as well as from towns along the English Channel—or attacked by bandits. (Mozart’s contemporary composer Giuseppe Maria Cambini told of being abducted from a ship and released only after a Venetian patron paid his ransom.) Leopold Mozart, who hauled his little prodigies all around Europe in search of celebrity and riches, complained of “impassable roads, uncomfortable carriages, wretched accommodations, avaricious innkeepers, corrupt customs oɽcials, and marauding highwaymen.”
Indeed, young Wolfgang Mozart once had to join a convoy of coaches to avoid Italian outlaws. And there were other hazards as well: he was so lonely on the road that he fantasized an alternate mythical world; hopping from city to city, he was stricken by serious illnesses (as was his sister, who nearly died); and he barely survived a major carriage accident. Conditions for travelers were so dangerous that many Europeans never ventured beyond their borders: in 1784, isolated Venetians, curious about life on the distant shore, eagerly paid to view an imported stuffed horse. Nevertheless, for professional musicians, there was little choice. Some actually fared well: Giuseppe Sarti (1729–1802), whose music Mozart quoted admiringly in his opera Don Giovanni, traveled to Russia at the request of Empress Catherine II and was rewarded with his own village in the Ukraine. But that was unusual.
Throughout the eighteenth century, keyboardists were so poorly paid that they were often forced to earn extra income by selling lottery tickets or painting portraits. A century earlier, the social status of itinerant musicians had been even worse. Dishonorable burials were the norm—reapers had a saying, “There lies a musician,” when they came across large anthills, and musicians were routinely suspected of the worst kind of behavior, including witchcraft. (In 1615, a ɹddler seen wading across the Rhine as he played was accused by Dominican monks of sorcery.
The local magistrate found that it was possible to wade across the Rhine even without the devil’s help, but nevertheless sentenced the man for mischievous wantonness.) Mozart was not the only tender soul who found touring psychologically torturous. In the nineteenth century, Clara Wieck (later Clara Schumann), arriving alone in Berlin just short of her twentieth birthday, expressed a litany of worries: about hostile critics, playing the wrong pieces, choosing the right piano, and more.
She even developed physical symptoms: “I strained my lungs so much playing yesterday that I still can not catch my breath today,” she wrote to her beloved Robert Schumann. “It is so strange that after playing a diɽcult piece I always become hoarse and get a sore throat. It makes me really scared.” (Her diaries recount one “unplayable” piano after another at performance venues, which certainly didn’t buoy her confidence.)