The Mesmerizing Life of Franz Anton Mesmer (with a Benjamin Franklin & Mozart connection!)

While sorting through old video cassettes the other day, I blew the dust off the jacket of the 1994 movie ‘Mesmer’ staring Alan Rickman. I always enjoy a period film and watching it nudged me to do a bit of sleuthing on the character behind the film. MPW-49494

Franz Anton Mesmer was the talk of Vienna and Paris during the 18th century. This doctor, conjurer, and healer was welcomed, for a time anyway, in the company of the most celebrated of musicians and in the highest of courts. He was born on May 23, 1734 in the parish of Weiler in Germany. He was the third child and six more siblings would follow. His parents had German-Swiss blood in their veins. His father, Anton Mesmer, had a job as games-keeper to the Bishop of Constance. It was respectable enough and provided for the family.

IOS-Mesmer-portrait

Not much is known about little Franz’s early life.  I do know that he loved music and that he played the cello and clavichord.

Bach on replica of 1670 Gellinger clavichord (Preludio from Violin Partita No. 3, played by Ryan Layne Whitney)

Franz Mesmer was raised a Catholic and like many other young men of his day, he began his studies with intentions of becoming a priest. His teachers were the monks at the monastery and when he was fifteen he entered a Jesuit college in Dillingen. His exposure to the liturgy and chants of the church no doubt influenced his thoughts on music and meditation.

Latin chant “Salve Regina” (or Hail, Holy Queen, which is a common Catholic prayer) performed by the monks of the Abbey of Notre Dame.

Franz Mesmer enrolled at the University of Vienna when he was 25 to study law. He soon exchanged his law books for an abacus. Mesmer was fascinated by the mysteries of physics, mathematics, astronomy and the human body. His passion was to become a doctor of medicine and he completed his degree in 1766. Sometime during his studies he heard the new instrument called the ‘armonica’. It was an instrument invented in 1761 by Benjamin Franklin. He fashioned it after the popular musical glasses but with Franklin’s invention, you didn’t need water to make that ethereal sound.

benfranklin This sound was thought by some to have curative powers. Others rumoured that ‘regular contact with the armonia could undermine the nervous system, and gradually drive a frequent player insane.”

Freemasons enthusiastically championed this new glass music for the promotion of  ‘human harmony’. Benjamin Franklin, and Anton Mesmer were both Freemasons. Mesmer was recognized for both the virtuosity of his playing and the fine quality of his own glass armonica. Mozart even played one.

Excerpt from Mozart Adagio in C Major

mozart-thumb-260x320-42384Anton Mesmer was a man who liked music and musicians. Music relaxed and inspired him. He would spend hours playing on his armonia. His home was always open to the leading musicians of his day. He knew Christoph Willibald Gluck and Franz Joseph Haydn. He built a garden theatre in his home for evening’s entertainment.

During the period when Mesmer was studying medicine, he also met for the first time the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Vienna. He was bowled over by his talent. Although there is some doubt to whether this story actually happened, many sources insist that it was in Mesmer’s home in 1768 when 12 year old Mozart premiered his early opera, ‘Bastien et Bastienne’.

“Children! Children! Look, after storm and rain a fine day comes, nothing shall shake your happiness.  For this you may thank my magic power…extol the magic.”, sung by Colas from 12 year old Mozart’s opera.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Bastien und Bastienne, KV 50  Bastienne, Dagmar Schellenberger, soprano. Bastien, Ralph Eschrig, tenor. Colas, René Pape, bass. Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchestra Leipzig, Max Pommer

mesmerdetail Was it magic or was it science and medicine that Anton Mesmer was studying? Whatever you want to call it – it generated a great deal of interest in Viennese and Parisian society.
Mesmer’s training was traditional enough. He received a good and varied education and graduated with distinction from the University of Vienna when he was 32 as a Doctor of Medicine. His thesis was on the influence of heavenly bodies on people’s health, a theory he was working on called ‘animal gravity’.

200px-MaximilianHell

It was at the University of Vienna that Anton Mesmer first met Father Maximilian Hehl (usually spelt Hell), a Jesuit priest who was Professor of Astronomy and one of the court astrologers to Maria Theresa.  Father Hehl was conducting research that involved the use of magnets as a healing instrument.  He shaped the magnets to represent the organs of the body they were intended to cure.  Mesmer was fascinated and used Hehl’s magnets but decided that he could produce all these effects with his hands.

When he treated one patient with bleeding, a common prescription of the time, Mesmer noticed that as he approached the patient the flow of blood increased and lessened when he stepped away. This was enough to convince him that his own body must be some sort of magnetic force. He developed the theory that the body was like a magnet and its fluid ebbed and flowed with the same rules that applied to a magnet.

haydn Franz Joseph Haydn

The Spirits Song, Hob. XVIIa:41, from 12 miscellaneous Songs, Hob. XVIIa:36, by Joseph Haydn, with animated score

Anton Mesmer set up his medical practise in Vienna.  He studied his colleagues’ habits of making notes and detailing the case histories of their patients.  In 1768 he married a wealthy Viennese woman, Frau Marie Anna von Bosch.  She was a widow 10 years older than Mesmer and had a 20 year old son but she also had a home that was definitely in the right location.  What the union may have lacked in ‘wedded blissful passion’, her home had enough space for Mesmer to set up laboratories, a garden and a clinic to receive patients.  Maire Anna was the perfect receptionist to his clinic.  Mesmer had it made.

Mesmer’s reputation as a miracle healer spread so quickly that he could hardly keep up with the patients that came knocking at his door.  There were of course the very wealthy (more later on that), but there were also the very poor.

Mesmer-a

As the crowds continued to multiply so did his methods of treatment.  He created a system that he believed could distribute the magnetic forces to whole groups of willing patients.   Mesmer began by ‘immersing magnets in several jars of water connected with steel bands.  He then collected the jars into a wooden tub resonating with iron filings and more water, and attached a hose and nozzle to this contraption to help spray the magnetized healing about the room or garden area that was busy with patients lounging and holding hands by the dozens.”

He magnetised a tree so that patients could be healed by holding ropes from its branches.  Believe it or not, these cures seem to work or at least the power of suggestion.  They often produced a ‘crisis’.  His patients (or believers) would fall into convulsions.

Inside his clinic, the light was dimmed, everyone spoke in whispers and music was used to enhance the patients’ mood and leave them open to suggestion.  They were placed in a magnetic tub filled with glass powder and iron filings.  The sweet distant tones of the armonica created a relaxed state.  It was hidden behind a curtain that was decorated by astrological symbols.  Mesmer would enter, dressed in a long purple robe and touch every patient with a white wand which would send them into a trance.  Everything he touched seemed to be charged with this force – even the chairs in his consulting room.  So that, patients no sooner sat in them than they had a convulsion and shouted when cured.  The patients that were really carrying on (fit to be tied) were brought by Mesmer’s assistants into one of the padded crisis rooms to calm down.

Gluck – Dance of the Blessed Spirits

33890625 Maria T Paradis

Between 1768-1778 was a period of fame and relative happiness for Mesmer. He travelled giving lectures and his wallet was full. He had many clients though it was commented on by many a skeptic that his patients were usually ‘..hysterical bourgeois women. ‘

The clothing at the clinic was much like a loose smock’ so Mesmer’s ‘magnetic powers’ might work more effectively. He also ‘touched and kneaded their breasts, thighs, buttocks, and wherever he thought the flesh seemed knotted’.
When Anton Mesmer was 43 he met the god-daughter of Empress Maria Theresa, Maria Theresa Paradis. She was 18, attractive, smart and a very good musician and composer. She was also blind and for 10 years anyway had been treated by Dr. Von Stoerk the best oculist in Europe. Mesmer promised to cure her if she would live in his house. The story goes that with his treatment, Maria Theresa gradually regained her sight. Doctors from all over Vienna came to see this ‘miracle’.

Maria Theresa von Paradis: ‘Sicilienne’

performed by Jacqueline du Pré

Unfortunately for Maria Theresa, her mother removed her from Mesmer’s care before the cure was complete.  Jealous doctors told her mother that the Empress would withdraw her allowance if the child recovered her sight.  Why?  I don’t know.  But Maria Theresa didn’t want to leave so her mother struck her across the face.  Whether it was hysterics or not, her world once again became black.  The Imperial Morality Police became involved and Mesmer was accused of practising magic.  He packed his bags, and beat it to Paris.

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony for orchestra in G minor K183
Allegro con brio
Performed by The English Concert
Directed by Trevor Pinnock

Anton Mesmer set up another successful practise in Paris.  His sensual healing techniques became the talk over fine wine and food.  Maybe because of Marie Antoinette’s influence, King Louis XVI offered him a lifetime pension if he would sign a contract to remain in Paris and offer scientific proof of his discoveries.  Louis XVI was a great believer in the Royal Touch.

Mesmer declined both conditions because he wanted more money and didn’t want to prove anything as he thought his work could stand on its own. The King was put out that Mesmer refused so convinced his own Medical College to begin an investigation of Mesmer’s practises.  The commission included some of the leading scientific minds of the day, including Dr. Joseph Guillotin and Benjamin Franklin.  They concluded that there was no evidence of magnetic fluid and no scientific proof that these cures actually existed.  But they all agreed that he possessed great powers of suggestion.

The crowds outside Mesmer’s home thinned.  Like fashion’s changing hem lines, he was yesterday’s man.  Mozart who met and liked Mesmer as a boy, changed his tune as he matured into the composer of ‘Cosi van tutte’.  In the plot he poked fun at Mesmer.  (The sisters call for Despina, who urges them to care for the men while she and Alfonso fetch a doctor.  Despina re-enters disguised as a doctor with a special magnet pretending to draw off the poison.  ..  ” He’s taken a piece of iron in his hand.  This is a piece of magnet the stone which the great Mesmer discovered in Germany and became so famous in France.  Look, they are moving, twisting, shaking! … Very soon now you’ll see, by virtue of magnetism’s power the end of this paroxysm and they’ll be as they were before”.

Mozart Cosi Fan Tutte Act 1 Finale Part 2

The aging Mesmer who had the reputation of dabbling in the black arts, re-embraced his Catholic faith.  His death at the age of 81 was predicted by a gypsy while he lived in Paris.  So Mesmer was ready and at peace.  When he died on March 5, 1815 in Switzerland, a priest was at his bedside playing his beloved instrument, the armonica.