2019 May 11: Maria von Paradis

May 11, 2019 10:30

Andante grazioso & Allegro   Maria von Paradis (1759-1824) [PIANO]

"Open My Eyes, That I May See"


Maria Theresia Paradis (1759-1824) was the daughter of Joseph Anton Paradis, Imperial Secretary of Commerce to the Empress Maria Theresa. Around three years old Maria awoke one morning completely blind. Dad was sufficiently affluent to afford the best medical care available at the time, which in 1762 was rather grim: they shaved her head and put plasters on it for two months; and then there were the leaches, purgatives, and electric shocks. Unsurprisingly her condition didn't improve.

To give their daughter a diversion from her misery, her parents provided Maria with music lessons, and she became a capable pianist. When Maria was 11 years old the Empress attended a recital, and was sufficiently impressed to provide her with a pension so she could continue her musical education.

Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), a physician in Vienna and now immortalized in the word ’mesmerize’, offered his services. His treatments involved inducing trances – frequently with the aid of a glass armonica (certainly more agreeable than leaches and electric shocks!). And some degree of Maria’s vision was restored! However, blind from such a young age, she apparently had profound difficulty making sense of the raw visual data: The faces of friends and relatives caused uncontrollable weeping, when she gazed towards a window in the daytime or candle at night she experienced vertigo, and when outdoors she asked that her eyes be bandaged. Before she had walked around her house unaided with complete confidence; after she bound up her eyes and had to be led. "Why am I not as happy now as I used to be? Everything that I see makes an unpleasant impression on me. I was much more calm when I was blind... If I am always going to be as upset when I see new things as I am now, I would rather return to my blindness."

But worst of all, the partial return of her eyesight ruined her playing. And with that there was the very real prospect of losing her pension. A fierce battle in the Viennese medical community ensued — to the point of swords literally being drawn. Finally, dad informed Mesmer that he was taking Maria on a vacation "so she might enjoy the benefit of the country air," promising to return. Which they never did. Later Mesmer wrote "It was necessary, in the plans of her greedy parents, that this unfortunate girl should become blind again or appear so."

For the rest of her days Maria lived the life of a completely blind person. She conducted a school of music for women and was prominent in Viennese society. She performed in Paris and London, and composed several operas that were staged in Vienna and Prague. Mozart wrote a piano concerto for her. When composing, she used a composition board invented by Riedinger, her partner and librettist, and for correspondence a hand-printing machine invented by Wolfgang von Kempelen. (The Braille system, which encompassed both text and music notation, wasn't invented until 1829). All she would say about Mesmer is that he performed an "unsuccessful treatment". She died age 65. Today her piano music is really hard to find — I had to wait four months for this one and only piano piece in print.

P.S. Mesmer is often described as a charlatan, but having researched the historical data and reading his own writings (he WAS a glass armonica player, after all!) my sense is that he had a very charismatic personality and deeply believed his own theories. Apparently he had some successes — like Maria — which perhaps could be ascribed to the ’placebo effect’. And Mesmer set aside a portion of his practice to treat the poor for free in spite of his waiting room overflowing with wealthy patients – hardly the actions of a ‘charlatan’.

The controversy surrounding Maria forced Mesmer to relocate to Paris. There an unfortunate collision of politics meets science meets Mesmer’s enormous ego – a story in which Benjamin Franklin, the inventor of the glass armonica (which Mesmer used in his treatment protocol) played a significant role, forcing Mesmer to leave Paris. As a result Mesmer missed the French Revolution altogether (so that turned out to be a blessing in disguise). He wandered Europe for some 25 years and returned to his native Switzerland still reasonably well to do, and died age 81.

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