Posted by Richard on  UTC 2016-09-05 10:58

The name 'Spaun' will immediately attract the attention of Schubert fans, who know of Joseph and Anton von Spaun as early and prominent members of the 'Circles of Friends' (Freundeskreise) around Schubert. Both were respectable and loyal friends who supported the young composer in many ways. Their father Franz Xaver von Spaun was an upstanding member of society in the Austrian town of Linz. In contrast, their uncle, Franz Seraph, was a noisy malcontent whose life was a trail of wreckage. This is his story.

Getting by in the Empire of Paperwork

Ennobled in 1721, the Spaun family was not one of the great houses of the Austrian nobility, but its members had earned their promotion by notable administrative service. They continued that tradition in eminent respectability well into the 19th century.

Whatever does that mean?

It requires some effort on the part of moderns to try to comprehend the world in which the Schuberts and the Spauns grew up and lived, particularly its complex social structure.

It is difficult for people nowadays to imagine the great glamour that surrounded the imperial court of the Habsburg emperor: its history that went back into the mists of time and the mysteries of Habsburg tradition. The visitor to today's Austria, particularly to Vienna, will still easily detect a feeling of imperial pride even a century after that empire collapsed. Circled around the great central jewel were other smaller, but dazzling jewels: the Hochadel, the upper nobility that consisted of the great and ancient families of the empire such as the Kinskys, the Dietrichsteins, the Liechtensteins and so on and so on. You would be surprised how many of them there were. Each part of the Empire had its local royalty.

Around them clustered concentric circles of lesser gems, circle after circle until we reach the outer limits of the formally noble. The word 'formally' here is quite precise. All these sparkling jewels, even the smallest and most circumferential had a piece of paper that confirmed that they were aristocrats and specified their position within that hierarchy, each title and grade specified in extraordinary detail. Within this structure what we now call social mobility barely existed, the very idea would have struck an eighteenth century mind as quite bizarre. As time went by, the occasional aristocratic house died out, and a few, a very few, common people received their piece of paper stating that they were now nobles.

Around the centre was the upper hierarchy of the Catholic Church, positions in the upper levels of which were also usually filled by aristocrats. Then came some bourgeois worthies in the towns – people such as the school director Franz Theodor Schubert, the composer's father – and solid farmers on the land and then, beyond all that, the great heaving, formless mass of the common people, the urban and rustic poor, the wandering artisans, the diseased, the crippled, the widowed and the hopeless, as anonymous as the clay from which they came and to which they would silently return, all those who 'kept the noiseless tenor of their way'.

The bejewelled interior of these circles rested on an army of clerical administrators. They were organized according to the aristocratic hierarchy: the great offices were taken by the old families and so on downwards until, at the bottom, there was a great troop of bourgeois hopefuls who cranked and oiled the wheels of the Empire. They had a job, some status and the hope of preferment if they did their jobs well and were pleasing to their superiors.

The administrative hierarchy had to match that of the aristocratic hierarchy: it was inconceivable that people of lower ranks could be in charge of those of higher ranks. This structural rigidity was one of the key factors that caused the Habsburg Empire to be so backward in adopting the technological, administrative and social change that began at the end of the 18th century.

The Habsburg empire in the 18th and 19th centuries was truly the 'Empire of Paperwork', as we have frequently called it on this blog. The higher education system was geared to producing the sort of minds the Empire of Paperwork needed for its administration: lawerly minds, minds which could dissect ideas and write reports. For young men without great fortunes to inherit, this was the way forward to a respectable and safe job, a family life and a future. Those with great wealth behind them, such as Schubert's erratic friend, Franz von Schober, could just mess around doing what took their fancy at any moment. The careful and upstanding Spauns took the route of the imperial administrator.

The two brothers

The members of the Spaun family were intelligent, well-educated and diligent. One of the them, Simon Thaddeus von Spaun, (1724-1786) pursued, like all the clan, a steady and worthy career in the government which brought him to a post in Linz, in Upper Austria. Of his three daughters and four sons only two interest us here: Franz Xaver (1756-1804) and Franz Seraph (1753-1826) von Spaun.[1]

Franz Xaver von Spaun

Franz Xaver, the younger brother, had an aristocrat's education culminating in a law degree that prepared him to follow the traditional administrative career of the Spaun tribe.

He completed his degree in 1773, after which the hormones spoke and the 17-year-old fell in love with Josefa Styrer (1757-1835), the 16-year-old daughter of a well-placed family friend. Well-placed or not, family friend or not, the two families agreed that Franz Xaver's current lack of a position made marriage out of the question. After this setback Franz Xaver continued to work on his career prospects, whereas, in 1778, Josefa fell in love with a high-ranking army officer (an Oberkriegskommissar) called Heretmüller. The two lovebirds married in haste on the eve of his sudden recall to his regiment.

Passion and romance generally do not last long on this blog, however: Heretmüller's coach toppled over on the way to his regiment and he died of his injuries shortly after. Josefa was now a widow after one night of bliss and two days of marriage. The distraught widow withdrew from public life until all memory of that night of bliss had faded.

It must have been quite a night, because the forgetting of it lasted seven years. Finally Josefa appeared again at a public event, signalling her return to the world. Franz Xaver Spaun, now a senior civil servant, was still waiting: the steady, loyal and patient man finally managed to marry his teenage sweetheart in 1786. Of their six children only two interest us because of their connection with Franz Schubert: Joseph (1788-1865) and Anton (1790-1849) von Spaun.

Whereas Franz Xaver led the orderly life of a servant of the state, behaved himself when forbidden to marry, patiently acquired his love in the end, made a career and founded a family of five children who would themselves go on to live notable and respectable lives, we now turn to his older brother, Franz Seraph, an example to us all of how badly things could go wrong for hotheads in Franz II's empire.

Franz Seraph von Spaun

Is there a gene that determines that for the whole of someone's life he or she will be a contrarian, gainsaying, troublemaker who will pick a fight with anyone, the more powerful and influential they are the better? And further, a gene for intellectual arrogance, which means that whatever idea comes into this person's head is held to be immediately and incontrovertibly true? And – we haven't finished yet – yet one more gene for bitter ingratitude, which we might call the 'bites-the-hand-that-feeds-it' gene? If so, Franz Seraph Spaun had all three of them. Taken together, self-destruction is pre-programmed. He had no wife – which should not surprise us – and no children, so fortunately for the later world his toxic mix of traits ended with him.

It feels as though such traits really should be genetic, because throughout an entire life the traits never change – the hardness never softens, the arrogance never declines, the viciousness never relents. Nowadays we would call this behaviour hard-wired. But, of course, this cannot be genetic, because his ancestors and relatives all seem to be completely reasonable people who lived honourable and respected lives. Among the orderly and respectable Spauns we suddenly stumble over Franz Seraph.

Normal people can have disagreements, arguments, can even be in bitter feuds with others. Normal people can be stubborn and contrarian over some things.

But Franz Seraph was not normal: his personality made it impossible for him to get along with anyone. He was contrarian with everyone he met. His quite unjustified intellectual arrogance was reinforced by a biting and dismissive sarcasm and a breathtaking lack of empathy for the feelings of others. An obituary of him tells us that he never married but was engaged three times.[2] Three women had a lucky escape, is all we can say.

Franz Seraph's biography is difficult to reconstruct. In his extensive writings he rarely writes of his life; there are therefore only a few biographical asides. None of his contemporaries stirred themselves to leave us more than a few mentions of him. Only his family, ever dutiful, recorded some biographical information in the Spaun family chronicle. But a life encompassing nearly 40 years of legal disputes, judgements, appeals and censorship actions has left a trail of paper in official archives. Out of all this we can reconstruct some of the details.

The first flight of Icarus

His life started very well, quite in the tradition of the rest of the Spaun family. After going with his brother to a private tutor he attended the Theresianum in Vienna – a high school for the nobility that was considered to be a preparation for the civil service. He progressed to the University of Vienna, where he studied Law, finally gaining a doctorate in 1776. His doctoral thesis was of high quality, which is underlined by the fact that the Universiy printed and published it.

At university he came into contact with many of the notables of the Enlightenment, especially Josef von Sonnenfels, whom we mentioned, readers will remember, in connection with De l'esprit des loix. After a two or three year internship at the High Court (Reichshofrat) the now 25-year-old Franz Seraph obtained his first real post – on the basis of 'his father's services and his own good efforts' – in Freiburg im Breisgau.

Freiburg is now in Germany, but at that time it was the capital of the fragmented Habsburg territory 'Anterior Austria' (Vorderösterreich). Diligent readers will recall its presence among the early acquisitions of the Habsburg family as they spread from Alsace to northern Switzerland. Eight centuries later, after Napoleon had played skittles on the map of Europe, this geographical division was finally swept away by the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

Spaun started there in 1779 and seems to have continued without incident there until 1782: at least we have no record of any problems. One commentator believes that he threw himself into the enlightened and free-thinking intellectual whirlpool there was at the University of Freiburg at that time. The idea is plausible but there is no direct evidence of it.

A bad landing

In 1783 he was appointed, on the basis of his 'excellent characteristics' as the Waldvogt in Waldshut, now Waldshut-Tiengen, a town on the Rhine where the river forms the border between present-day Germany and Switzerland. There is no English translation for the position of Waldvogt that would make any sense to a modern reader. He was essentially a magistrate and administrative official rolled into one, with responsibility for Waldshut and three other towns along the Rhine. Just one more distant worker bee in the hive that was the Empire of Paperwork. A good post for a 29-year-old, but not well-paid. Up until the moment he entered his new post he had enjoyed the direct guidance and patronage of well-disposed superiors.

Now that he is left to his own devices we begin to hear less and less of his 'excellent characteristics' and more and more rumbles in the Spaun family chronicle of Franz Seraph's real character traits, which we described above. He was making enemies.

Just a few months after starting his job in Waldshut his bad temper, stubborness, intemperate language and antipathy to aristocrats – at least, those that outranked him – caused a trivial local dispute about the condition of two horses ridden by couriers for a member of the immensely important Tallyrand family to escalate into an international incident that needed the combined efforts of high-level diplomats in France and Austria to settle. The elements of the first major catastrophe in his life are now all in place.

In early 1788, five years after he started in his job in Waldshut, he was dismissed from his post for various instances of misconduct, as well as fraud, corruption and a suspicious business relationship with a Jew. He certainly had money troubles, he had run up debts and had made many enemies. Once he was under investigation the witnesses came forward to settle their scores: he was 'unapproachable'; appellants in cases he was hearing who objected or tried to explain themselves further 'were told abruptly to shut up' and threatened with imprisonment if they didn't (which even seems to have happened); because of this unpredictable behaviour appellants 'stood before him in fear and terror'.

He would always maintain his innocence, but was found guilty after due process. He was not only removed from his post but had to make up the deficit in the accounts from his own pocket – about 1,500 florins, one and a half times his annual income.

A brief taste of family life

His career in the imperial administration was not only at an end but financial ruin was added to career ruin. Franz Seraph returned to Linz and sought refuge with his brother Franz Xaver and his family. Whatever the cause of his punishment, there was initially some sympathy in Linz for the catastrophic fall to earth of the local Icarus. He shared his time between Linz and Vienna, where he lodged appeals, all unsuccessful, against his dismissal.

In 1792, Franz Seraph brought another crisis crashing down on his own head. Invited for a social event into the house of the provincial Governor of Upper Austria, Count Rottenhann, no less, Franz Seraph, once more flying close to the sun with waxed wings, praised in glowing terms the French Revolution in principle and in deed. All attempts by the other Spauns that were present to temper his words or shut him up were in vain: 'the guests jumped up in outrage, declaring him to be a complete Jacobin'.

After this outburst it was impossible for him to stay any longer in Linz. He went once more to Vienna for another attempt to get the judgement against him in the Waldshut affair dispensed with. He failed.

Perhaps embittered by his experiences at the hands of the Austrian authorities his utterances in the Kaffeehäuser and salons of Vienna became ever more open, radical and provocative. He even wrote to Franz Karl Count von Colloredo-Waldsee, a great Cabinet Minister with responsibility for foreign affairs, offering his extreme thoughts on the beauty and rectitude of the French Revolution. Leopold II had died that spring and Franz II and his ministers were desperate to counter all traces of 'Jacobinism' in the Empire.

Let us remember that 1792 was the year in which the 'worst of times' began in the French Revolution: in August the Tuileries were overrun by the mob and the Swiss Guard slaughtered, the September massacres followed and the Austrians and Prussians were defeated at Valmy. Whilst the reports of one barbarism after another were arriving in Vienna, the convivial and witty Franz Seraph Spaun was holding forth on the virtues of revolution to anyone who would listen. It could only end one way.

Into the darkness

On 11th December 1792 Franz Seraph Spaun was arrested whilst taking part in a meeting with 15 others, among them French exiles. The group had been under surveillance for some time and an informer was among them. The authorities had had enough of this nuisance. The investigating officer found that, although there was not much that Spaun was directly guilty of, it would be dangerous to allow a man of such principles, not lacking in talent, whose loose character is notorious and who, because he lacks a secured subsistence is likely to get involved in dangerous attempts, to roam around freely. A strikingly prescient summary.

We have to remember the mood music of the French Revolution that was playing in the background in 1793, during Franz Seraph's arrest and investigation: Louis XVI was guillotined on 21 January 1793, after which the terror began in earnest. That execution shook Europe. A further milestone would reached on 16 October with the guillotining of Marie-Antoinette, Franz II's aunt, the despised 'Austrian woman'.

There was no trial for Spaun. Franz II's ministers, fastidiously legal, distanced themselves from the decision, leaving it up to their Emperor. He in turn saw what was happening in France when the hotheads were allowed to flourish. Spaun was 'disappeared', as we say now.

His ever-loyal brother Franz Xaver came to Vienna to try and find him and to arrange for his release or at least a normal judicial trial, an act that was not only loyal but quite courageous in the circumstances. All his efforts were in vain. The files on Franz Seraph were declared secret and were inaccessible to other agencies. His place of imprisonment was also kept secret. In the dungeons his name was kept secret and he could only be referred to by the number of his cell.

Dungeon tours

In July 1793 Franz Seraph was sent first to the Tyrolean fortress of Kufstein, close to the border with Bavaria. He spent three years as prisoner 'No. 7', until Kufstein was threatened by the French in 1796. There followed a tour of dungeons: a few months in Vienna, then a few more months in the dreaded Munkács fortress in Hungary, then back to Vienna. He would spend a total of eight years of imprisonment without charge, without trial and without contact with the outside world.

It takes a strong mind to endure an indefinite imprisonment: it is, literally, interminable. Your hopes are for a release in weeks or months, or perhaps another year… or perhaps it might be another five or twenty years, or perhaps you will die there.

It also takes a strong constitution. The dungeons of the Empire were not designed with the object of keeping people alive. They did not offer imprisonment as we would understand it nowadays, a way of keeping someone securely out of the way for a time with a hope of rehabilitation. They were punishments and extremely harsh ones at that: the food was terrible, hunger and cold were permanent states. Were those who had to endure the psychological tortures of the solitary cell better off than those who shared the stale air of an overcrowded, subterranean hole with the diseased and the dying? As if that were not enough some unfortunates were singled out for the particular misery of imprisonment in irons.

Franz Seraph's obsessive brain survived his torment – he spent his time without pen or paper making the best of a bad job by improving his mental skills in his favourite subject, mathematics. As we saw in the case of that other troublemaker, Christian Schubart, the angry contrarian mind seems to be able to survive such assaults almost unharmed. His moment finally came in May 1801. The current war in the series with France, the First Napoleonic War, ended in February 1801. Representations by Franz Seraph himself and, above all, by his well-respected and well-connected family finally led to his release, after eight years of dungeon tourism.

The golden 25-year-old who had started his first job in Freiburg all those years ago was now 47 years old and had only old age ahead of him. He was released under two conditions: he had to stay with Franz Xaver in Linz, where his brother would guarantee his behaviour and his income, or leave the country, in which case he would not be allowed to return. It was no secret, however, that as far as the government was concerned, the second option would be preferable.

The family teacher

He went to his brother's family in Linz. All began well, just as it had done in Freiburg. He helped out by teaching Franz Xaver's two boys, Joseph and Anton, the future friends of Schubert. Joseph, then twelve, has left us a description of his first sight of his uncle.

He was shorter than my father, but corpulent and with a strong frame. His face was very pale, the features were regular but not handsome. His hair and the lightly shaved beard were grey, despite his being just middle-aged. He wore a lightblue cap and his clothes and appearance were slightly unkempt. I would say that his appearance looked strange and that more experienced eyes than ours would recognize that he had spent a long time in the dungeon.[3]

Franz Seraph's teaching methods were, let us say, unorthodox:

On the first day of our education, he awoke us at four o'clock in the morning and led us in our nightshirts with no shoes or socks on out into the courtyard to the fountain. One after another we had to stand in the fountain while he sprayed us hard with the jet of water.[4]

The children benefited from his talent at mathematics and Latin, although they had to listen to rants against the Austrian educational system, against conventional mathematics teaching – presumably the technique that did not require cold showers – and against teachers who were former Jesuits. The Spaun children seemed to have enjoyed their uncle's teaching, cold showers included, but their mother, Josefa, was mistrustful. She was, like her husband, an orderly person, pious and socially responsible. For her the Austrian empire was a bulwark, not a burden. Her character was the diametrical opposite of that of her brother-in-law, who had caused her family endless trouble, risked their reputation in society and cost them a lot of money to support him and get him out of his scrapes.

Franz Seraph, the convicted Freiburg fraudster, the Viennese Jacobin and ex-convict, was now pouring his mad contrarian, anti-establishment ideas into her boys' ears. He may be good at mathematics and Latin, but he was just the sort of wild man who shouldn't be in charge of children.

It didn't help that Franz Seraph the teacher had made a mess of a teaching assignment ten years before, just after his Freiburg disaster, with the family of Count Casimir Esterházy de Galántha (1749-1802) in modern day Bratislava. He had not survived more than half a year in that post.

Now there were arguments in the Spaun family. Franz Xaver had to dig deep into his reserves of goodwill and loyalty to mediate between his brother and his wife, but Josefa only needed to be patient. Our moth, though no longer Icarus, would be reunited soon enough with the candle flame. In fact, only two months after leaving his dungeon.

Franz Seraph seems to have got bored with teaching and family life quite quickly. Did we expect anything else? It is said that he also fell in with a group of French emigrés in Linz. His eight years in dungeons were forgotten and the police in Linz, who had wisely never really let him out of their sights, reported his new associates to Vienna and had a serious word with his brother.

Franz Seraph couldn't settle into an orderly family life in his brother's household, he couldn't give up his political opinions nor could he ever control his tongue. He didn't wait to be thrown out, he left Austria and went to Bavaria on 6 August 1801. The parting from his brother and the family was 'cool', although his brother, astonishingly loyal to the last, tried to find him a position in Bavaria. The two boys, Joseph and Anton, would be spared any more naked, early morning romps in the fountain and would never see mad Uncle Franz Seraph again. Which, without doubt, was a great relief to their mother.

The Bavarian wilderness

Now the mysteries begin. From Linz Franz Seraph journeyed to Donauwörth. It is not known why he went to this town in Bavaria and did not stay in Munich. Donauwörth is 100 km further on from Munich, to the north east. We know that about a year later he made the journey back to Munich twice, arriving on 9 June and 16 August 1802 and on both occasions staying at the inn zum goldenen Hahn in the Weinstrasse. When he finally settled in Munich we do not know. Without any solidly permanent position he probably got whatever work he could find that suited his talents.

Of that time he says 'I am living, without any suffering, but frankly a life such as mine has no great attraction.'[5]There are hints that his character defects also caused him some difficulty in his jobs at this time. However desperate he was, it seems, he never subordinated his prickly character for others. Some may call this trait noble, others stubborn.

Bitter partings

On 13 October 1804, during Franz Seraph's wilderness years in Bavaria, his brother, the ever-loyal and generous Franz Xaver, died of a kidney complaint. He was 48 and left behind his wife Josefa and five children, among them the two teenage boys who would befriend Schubert. The Spaun family chronicle reports Franz Seraph's response to the death of his younger brother – the man who had supported him for 20 years, given him a pension, put a roof over his head when necessary, looked for jobs for him and personally intervened with the Emperor himself to get him out of the dungeon into which his stupidity and arrogance had landed him – the response was 'cool': he stated that 'unfortunately he could nothing for his brother's family'. A few years later, during the French occupation of Vienna in 1809, a 'mocking' letter he had written to his sister-in-law and sent via a French officer led to the final rupture of all contact with his family.

After Franz Xaver's death Josefa and family had to move out of the official residence. The following year, now that Linz was threatened after the French victory at the Battle of Ulm, they moved to the safety of Vienna, from where the destiny of the Spaun family intersects with that of Franz Schubert. In 1805 Joseph started studying Law at the University of Vienna. He stayed in the Stadtkonvikt, where he met the young Franz Schubert, who arrived in 1808. Around 1814 Joseph's younger brother would become friends with Schubert too. Mother Josefa was a talented musician and passed on her passion for music to Joseph and Anton. The brothers' friendship and support for Schubert were extremely important for the development of the composer. Joseph, as loyal and steadfast as his father Franz Xaver had been, was one of the few to risk a visit to Schubert during his last illness. After the composer's death, it was Joseph who wrote the calmest and most moving reminiscences of him.

Bridge building

Finally, Franz Seraph's wilderness years ended with the help of a Frenchman who had been imprisoned with him and who now had a responsible post in the Bavarian government. Spaun was granted a small pension and in 1808 obtained a post as a Commissioner with the 'Bridge, Road and Water Agency' (Brücken-, Straßen- und Wasserbauamt). He was now 54 years old. Having at last obtained a solid position after the turmoil and suffering he had endured since he lost his job in Waldshut 20 years before, a sensible person would work quietly through their declining years.

As we surely know by now, Franz Seraph was not a sensible person. The progress of the story was the usual one. Barely six months after starting his job the Director of the agency was so annoyed with him that he tried to get him transferred or have his salary stopped. Franz Seraph attacked in particular the Director's bridge designs. For some reason Spaun just received a telling off and kept his post. His complaints about his job and his colleagues continued. Finally the government offered to transfer him, an offer which he characteristically refused.

He was sacked in 1811, having lasted three years in the job. The 57-year-old was now on his own. Miraculously, the small pension of 600 florins a year that he had had before the job was reinstated and would remain until the end of his life.

Rage until the end

Franz Seraph's spirit was unbroken, which is a kind way of putting it: retirement gave him even more time to write his thoughts on politics, philosophy and mathematics. He self-published a lot of his work, being, in effect, an early 19th century blogger. How happy he would have been with the internet! Much of what he wrote was published anonymously, but nevertheless much of his work was confiscated by the censors and never saw the light of day. His manuscripts were frequently taken by the police and never returned. There were spells in police cells, too.

In this article we may have abused and mocked Franz Seraph – sometimes venomously – but we have to give him great credit for his indomitable will, immense persistence and great courage in fighting the totalitarian nature of society of his time. Our characterisation of the social structure of the Empire of Paperwork at the start of this piece was clearly seen by the 'Jacobin' Franz Seraph.

We may mock some of his wilder hobby-horses, but his understanding of the many defects of the social structure of the time seems accurate. In his maturity, unlike the rest of his family, he never bent his head to anyone. Unlike the clever enthusiasts for the French Revolution who crawled back under their stones when the news of its horrors became known, Franz Seraph stuck to his principles, come what may. In those deferrent times such principled behaviour required the courage that only the bloody-minded have. Reading the sample below, written in 1820, we are not surprised that his betters did not love him:

Why do we talk about an aristocracy? We have a moneyocracy ('Pecuniocracy'). There is no nobility anymore… It just consists of some largely degenerate descendants of famous ancestors; of the offspring of even fewer people who have been ennobled because of some service or other; of a few lucky people who, God knows how, managed to get rich and then got themselves ennobled in order to become the oppressors of peasants. Parasitical growths which weaken the plant but are themselves useless.[6]

Franz Seraph spent his last 15 years spitting and snarling at whatever and whomever crossed his path. 'Everyone has their hobbyhorse', he wrote with remarkable insight, 'mine is contradicting people'.[7] What else could we expect?

In his writings he relied more and more on a principle he called 'common sense', in the Spaun sense meaning: whatever was in his head at any particular moment. A comment in a report written about him during his employment hits the nail on the head: 'His critical attitude and his personality cause him to attack anything that is not his own idea.' Using 'common sense' he was able to dismiss Lavater's physiognomy theories (quite rightly), Mesmer's animal magnetism theories (also quite rightly) and Newton's gravitational theory (erm…).

As far as Newton's theory was concerned, 'common sense' did not allow Spaun to admit the attraction of two bodies as though tied together with a piece of string. Spaun, the great mathematician, therefore consigned Newton's theory – and thus the laws of motion on which it rests – to the dustbin. He also dismissed Schelling, the philosopher of the Romantic period and Goethe, the literary giant. Spaun, in a Munich coffee house, was asked about Goethe:

I got to know [Franz von Spaun] several years ago in a Munich coffee house. As I entered I saw several people gathered around a small man who was leaning on the oven, perorating loudly and waving his hands around in the air as though he were crazed. Since it was just past the normal lunchtime I thought he may just have over-indulged at the table. That was not the case, as I found out later, for as far as he was concerned it was still morning. The little man pulled terrible faces and began to fulminate with anger at Herrn von Goethe, the man and the poet. I have to say that this little man's thundering made the complaints of Goethe's other opponents … seem like lamblike whispering. When the listeners started to laugh, the Goethe-eater dropped the subject and told us that he had visited the King (still Max, the friend of the people) that day. Someone asked him what they had talked about; the little man replied calmly that he had not been allowed in. At that there was wild laughter…[8]

The Goethe puzzle

In 1816, Schubert's friend Joseph Spaun sent a collection of Schubert's settings of some of Goethe verses to the great man, signing the accompanying obsequious letter himself. The silence of Goethe to Schubert's wonderful settings of his verse is one of the great mysteries of Schubert scholarship. A favourable word or two from the great man acknowledging the young composer's skill would have made the sale and publication of Schubert's Lieder so much easier. It was not to be. A reply from Goethe never came.

As we on this blog have at times remarked, history abhors a vacuum. No one knows whether Goethe received Spaun's package, whether he read it, whether he had its contents played and sung to him, whether the pianist and the singer were half-way competent, whether Goethe perhaps even acknowledged the reception of the packet in some way about which we now know nothing. Perhaps he just didn't like what Schubert had done to his Erlkönig. Even so, it is curious for a person in Goethe's position not to at least acknowledge the receipt of the works. Who knows? Commentators cannot resist attempting to fill that vacuum with whatever possibility enters their heads.

It has been suggested[9] that one of the reasons for Goethe's silence was that the name 'Spaun' was on the accompanying letter. Spaun, the great mocker of the master (or one of his relations)! Nevertheless, without further evidence it seems far-fetched to imagine that Goethe should confuse a desperately obsequious letter by Joseph, Ritter von Spaun from Vienna with the rants against him emanating from a Franz von Spaun in Munich.

It's a nice hypothesis, but it needs some more work before we can take it seriously. On the surface, Spaun's printed criticisms of Goethe came later than 1816 and more generally in the 1820s. They could have had no influence on Goethe's attitude to Joseph von Spaun's 1816 letter. The earliest of Spaun's attacks that I know of is in a publication entitled Politische und literarische Phantasien von Franz von Spaun in 1817, still too late for Schubert's package. This is not a definitive judgement, however, but it will be a wearisome task to establish when exactly Franz Seraph Spaun wrote his invective about Goethe and when the master first heard about it or read it. A task that has yet to be undertaken.

The mad uncle in Munich

Let's toy with another fundamentally insoluble problem. What was said among the friends of Schubert's Freundeskreise about Joseph and Anton's difficult uncle Franz Seraph? After Franz Seraph's final split from the family in 1809 – possibly nothing. We have no hint of his existence. No one in the Circles of Friends wrote down anything about him – 'wrote down' being here the key phrase.

There were revolutionary, anti-establishment currents among the young people of the Freundeskreise. Johann Chrysostomus Senn, the friend of Schubert's from the Stadtkonvikt, was an early casualty. He, like Franz Seraph, was an opinionated hothead who was careless and brazen and to whom that dependable old girl Nemesis, in the shape of the secret police, came calling – though not quite as severely as she did for Franz Seraph. Senn's journals were found and thoroughly researched. The names of his friends and acquaintances were entered in one of the Empire of Paperwork's many files. He was interrogated with beatings and starvation. Reports were written. Paperwork was generated. After a year he was sent to exile in his home state of the Tyrol.

Did Schubert and his friends know about Franz Seraph, his incarceration and his exile in Bavaria? We don't know, but it would be quite surprising if they didn't. We don't know because in Franz II's reign nothing of any political consequence was written down. Careless talk could result in arrest, beatings, searches for incriminating material and indeterminate imprisonment and exile. If anything of consequence was written down it was written in unremarkable texts that only had meaning for those already in the know. Encoded writing was extremely dangerous, since it immediately proved the malignity of the writer, after which extracting the code under torture was a simple task.

Back to Franz Seraph. After his last job he was graced with 15 years of life before his end came on 3 March 1826 in Munich, at the grand age of 72 and in his own bed, not a dungeon or a police cell. He outlived his younger brother, the careful administrator and family man, by 22 years. Franz Peter Schubert had 15 years of creative time before his death at half Spaun's age.

No empire for troublemakers

Leaving aside for a moment Franz Seraph Spaun's many serious character defects he remains an example of the way that creative and intellectual talents were reduced to dialectical anger at the empire of Franz II and his aristocratic minions.

Despite all Spaun's failings his life demonstrates remarkable qualities of intellectual bravery and an astonishing strength of character bordering on the psychotic. A more judicious, circumspect personality would have had a calmer life, 'calm' being exactly what Franz II demanded above all from his subjects. Noisy cut-and-thrust debate, sarcasm and satire had no place in his empire. Franz Seraph Spaun might have made a remarkable intellectual contribution to his times, but branded a troublemaker, a disturber of the imperial calm, the Austrian authorities kept him in their sights until his death in 1826.

In contrast, whilst our Icarus spent much time hopping around on the ground, his wings singed from multiple ill-advised flights – the Waldshut disaster, his incarceration and his Bavarian catastrophe – his brother Franz Xaver's career advanced smoothly among the cogs of empire, despite his having such a wild brother. His nephews emerged from a month or so of Franz Seraph's teaching without permanent damage, able, unlike their clever uncle, to keep their mouths shut. Both of them had exemplary careers in the Austrian Empire. It was, indeed, possible to have a career – just as long as you kept your mouth firmly separated from your brain and remained calm, always calm.

Franz Seraph was never calm. Even in his very last hours his speech could not be stilled, so strong was the will to speak:

He wanted to keep talking, but the strain had tired him so much that his voice failed even though his spirit still trembled... it was the last flutter of a flame close to extinction, the last clutch at the earthly life which the poor dying man was so unwilling to give up. Through half closed eyes, in pauses, he whispered of his arrest, of Galileo, of Anitus and Melitus, of reconciliation and forgiveness…[10]

He has found the peace which he had abjured for high and pure reasons: his indomitable abhorrence of repression and arbitrary power allowed him no rest.[11]

Sounds about right.


  1. ^ In the present article the forenames of our hero have consistently been given as 'Franz Seraph'. His baptismal names are given as 'Franz Seraphikus' in the family chronicle. He usually called himself simply 'Franz von Spaun', but since for the purposes of this article we have to distinguish him from his brother Franz Xaver von Spaun and all the other Franz's in the Spaun tribe we have consistently used his middle name. There is also considerable confusion about his middle name, even some of the normally punctilious official biographies using 'Anton', for example, another name that was frequently used in the Spaun family. Some learned works come up with even more surprising variants.
  2. ^ Spaun, nie verehelicht, wiewohl dreymal Bräutigam
    Obituary in the Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände, München, 4. April 1826.
  3. ^ Er war etwas weniger groß als mein Vater, aber korpulent und von starkem Körperbau, das Gesicht sehr blaß, aber regelmäßig, ohne schön zu sein. Die Haare und der wenig rasierte Bart ergraut, ungeachtet des kräftigen Mannesalters. Er trug einen einfachen lichtblauen Capot und seine Kleidung und Haltung waren etwas vemachläßigt. Ich möchte sagen, daß sein Anblick etwas fremdartiges hatte und daß geübtere Augen als die unseren hätten erkennen können, daß der Mann solange im Kerker gesessen
    In the Spaun Family Chronicle: Oberösterreichische Landesarchiv, Linz, Kopienarchiv, 91, Spaun Chronik Teil 1 1788-1865. Quoted in Spinnler, Verena. Franz von Spaun (1753-1826), Ein österreichischer Jakobiner in Bayern. Schriftenreihe der Internationalen Forschungsstelle Demokratische Bewegungen in Mitteleuropa 1770-1850', Peter Lang Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2013. ISBN 978-3-631-64076-0, DOI 10.3726/978-3-653-02554-5. p. 107.
  4. ^ Am ersten Tage begann die Erziehung damit, daß er uns um 4 Uhr in der Früh weckte, uns im Hemd, ohne Schuhe und Strümpfe hinaus in den Hof zum Brunnen führte und uns einen nach dem anderen nackt unter den Brunnen stellte und mit Macht den reichen Wasserstrahl über uns ausschöpfte.
    Spinnler, ibid, p. 107.
  5. ^ Ich lebe, und leide nicht, aber freilich hat ein solches Leben wie das meinige keinen grossen Reiz.
    Spinnler, ibid, p. 123.
  6. ^ Was schwätzt man von Aristokratie? Wir haben eine Pecuniokratie. Es gibt keinen Adel mehr; es kann eben so wenig einen Adel, (!) als es eine Armee geben kann, die nie ausrückt, eine Schneiderzunft, die nicht schneidert. Er bestehet aus einigen größtentheils ausgearteten Abkömmlingen berühmter Ahnen ; aus den Sprößlingen einiger weniger, wegen Verdienste geadelten; aus einigen, (Gott weiß wie?) reich gewordenen Glückspilzen, die sich nobilitieren ließen, um Bauernschinder werden zu können. Parasite Auswüchse, welche die Pflanze schwächen, und zu nichts nützen . Ihre einzige Tendenz ist, ihre usurpirten staatsverderblichen Gerechtsamen zu sichern….
    Spaun, Franz von, Über die gutsherrliche Gerichtsbarkeit und das königliche Edict, München, 1820. p. 8f.Online (German Fraktur).
  7. ^ Jeder hat ein Steckenpferd. Ich im Widersprechen;
    Spaun, Franz von, Träume eines Wachenden, 1819. p. 21.Online (German Fraktur).
  8. ^ Die Bekanntschaft des Tirolers [sic, Oberösterreichers] machte ich vor mehreren Jahren in einem Kaffeehause zu München. Als ich da eintrat, sah ich mehrere Leute um einen kleinen Mann versammelt, der an einem Ofen lehnte, heftig perorierte und mit den Händen in der Luft herumschlug wie toll. Da soeben die gewöhnliche Mittagszeit vorüber war, so glaubte ich, das Männchen habe sich bei Tisch etwas übernommen. Dem war aber nicht so, denn wie sich später ergab, war es bei ihm noch Vormittag. Der Kleine schnitt erschreckliche Gesichter und fuhr fort, zu fulminieren. Sein Grimm galt dem Herrn von Goethe, dem Menschen wie dem Poeten. Ich muß sagen, daß gegen dieses Männchens Gedonner alles, was die Anti-Goetheaner Glover, Lieme, Menzel and Heine vorgebracht, nur lammfrommes Geflüster heißen kann. Als die Zuhörer anfingen zu lachen, sprang der Goethefresser von seinem Thema ab und erzählte, daß er heute beim König gewesen sei (noch Max*, der ehrlicher Menschenfreund). Man fragte um die Unterredung; der kleine erwidert ganz ruhig, daß er nicht vorgelassen worden sei. Hierauf entstand ein wieherndes Gelächter,
    *Maximilian I (1756-1825), King of Bavaria (1806-1825), fondly known to his subjects as 'König Max'.
    Gräffer, Franz, Kleine Wiener Memoiren und Wiener Dosenstücke, Georg Müller, München, 1922, vol. 2, p. 154f.
    We should not take Gräffers undated gossip seriously. This may very well have been Spaun's reception among the denizens of Munich's coffee houses but his obituary in the Morgenblatt (op cit) explicitly noted the respect in which he was held in Munich.
  9. ^ The notion that Goethe took exception to the name 'Spaun' on the covering letter for Schubert's compositions has been propagated by Ernst Hilmar in Franz Schubert, Rowohlt, 1997, p.93, 'spekulativ aber reizvoll' and his Schubert-Lexikon, Graz, Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, 1997, p. 163, 'Goethe'.
  10. ^ Es that mir in der Seele weh, den bescheidenen und besonnenen Mann solch verwirrtes Zeug reden zu hören im Fiebertraum.
    Er wollte noch weiter reden, aber die Anstrengung hatte ihn so sehr ermattet, daß ihm die Stimme versagte, obschon sein Geist noch fibrirte, wie in schwülen Sommernächten leuchtende Blitze um den Saum des Horizonts zucken. Es war das letzte Aufflackern der dem Verlöschen nahen Flamme, das letzte schwache Festhalten am Irdischen, wovon der arme Sterbliche sich so ungern losreist, als er, schon mit halbgebrochenen Augen, in Pausen, noch etwas von seinem Arrest, von Galiläi, von Anitus und Melitus, von Versöhnung, Verzeihung flüsterte, wovon ich, wegen des unterbrochenen Zusammenhangs, hier nichts näheres erwähnen kann. — Bald war er nicht mehr, und das Herz, das so lange für Recht und Wahrheit geschlagen, so viel dafür gedultet hatte, stand still.
    Spaun, Franz von, Docen, Bernhard Joseph, Eisenmann, GottfriedFranz von Spaun's politisches Testament : ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Preßfreiheit im allgemeinen und in besonderer Hinsicht auf Bayern, Erlangen, Palm und Enke, 1831. p. 21.Online (German).
  11. ^ Er hat nun die Ruhe gefunden, auf die er aus hohern, reinen, Zwecken hienieden verzichtet zu haben schien, weil sein unbesiegbarer Widerwille gegen Bedrückung und Willkühr ihn keine Rast ließ; …ibid, p21.

The two main modern sources (both German) at the time of writing for Franz Seraph Spaun are:

  • Kunze, Rolf-Ulrich. ‘Franz Seraph Ritter von Spaun, 1753-1826 : ein österreichischer Jakobiner und aufklärerischer Intellektueller. Eine werksbiographische Notiz ’: Zeitschrift für Bayerische Landesgeschichte 64 (2001): 401-429.
  • Spinnler, Verena. Franz von Spaun (1753-1826), Ein österreichischer Jakobiner in Bayern. Schriftenreihe der Internationalen Forschungsstelle Demokratische Bewegungen in Mitteleuropa 1770-1850', Peter Lang Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2013. ISBN 978-3-631-64076-0, DOI 10.3726/978-3-653-02554-5.

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