Carl Stamitz: Music, Failure and Alchemy
Today is the baptismal anniversary of composer Carl Stamitz, who would have been 268 years old and a day today if he had succeeded in the last act of his amazingly productive but wholly disappointing life. You see, in addition to being a brilliant creator of music, Stamitz studied alchemy as death approached.
First some background as Stamitz isn't one of the best-known names to the casual music listener. Born in Germany in 1745, he was the son of an equally badass musical genius, Johann Stamitz. He rose quickly through the world as a composer of symphonies, operas and a really spectacular series of clarinet concertos. That's the No. 3 up there in the video, and it's an objectively powerful piece of music that remains a standard repertoire work even today. Think of Stamitz as like a somewhat underground version of Haydn...minus the corpse desecration.
So, Stamitz. He pulled all the right moves, traveled the world, played when Handel's Messiah was brought to Berlin by Johann Hiller, was the guest of courts from Europe to Russia, and along the way managed to acquire a wife and four children. If you want a picture of legitimate musical success in the 18th century, look to the right.
Unfortunately, as with many modern rockers, Stamitz's later years were rough. Unable to find steady employment in one place as a musician, he was forced to keep touring until even that dried up. Eventually he retired to the town of Jena in central Germany. There were no bands or orchestras, and eventually he ran through his savings until he was broke. He died in November 1801 at the age of 56. All his possessions were auctioned for debt.
Here's where it gets interesting... After his death, many tracts on alchemy were found in his library. The general thought is that Stamitz might have delved into the study of the art thinking he could alleviate his poverty by producing alchemical gold, though at least one source claims that his interest was actually a long-established passion. He might have also sought immortality with the legendary Philosopher's Stone.
By Stamitz's time, alchemy and chemistry had already divided so that the scientific discipline we know today was established as a worthy pursuit of knowledge while alchemy was considered the work of scammers hoping to sell phony paths to fortune.
Still, there remained much interest. In 1781, a man named James Price claimed he had developed a powder that turned mercury into gold. At the time Price was a highly respected chemist, so it seemed plausible. By the next year, he was putting on public demonstrations where he would produce gold and silver in a laboratory. He even sent some of his work to George III because the Brothers Grimm hadn't published "Rumpelstiltskin" yet and he had no idea how bad an idea it is to send monarchs proof that you've unlocked the infinite money cheap.
Fellow scientists insisted that Price reproduce his experiments in front of peers. Price responded in 1783 by inviting them to a demonstration, and then committed suicide in front of them by drinking prussic acid. In short, Price was kind of a dick.
So no matter what Stamitz might have hoped for, James Price wasn't going to provide it. Still, it's possible that if he had sought out another musician, he would have had better luck. The infamous Count of St. Germain is not remembered as a major composer. Indeed, Justin Whitney of Church of Melkarth and I launched a search for actual manuscripts and sheet music that led nowhere. Some of his works have been recorded, though.
What St. Germain is remembered for is his allegedly immortal nature due to alchemy. Though he supposedly died in 1784, sightings of the man have occurred up until at least 1930, and he remains a towering figure in the world of the occult. It's believed he used his alchemical skills to prolong his life. Like Stamitz, he traveled the world as the guest of nobility, showering mysterious gems and strange textiles wherever he landed. If any man was a true magical alchemist, it was St. Germain.
That said...the sad truth of it is that you can't turn base metal into gold or produce an elixir of life, that as fond as I am of the Count, he was probably a bullshit artist, later sightings of him were made up by nutballs and no matter how much Carl Stamitz deserved to die rich and famous, he did the exact opposite. He did turn his thoughts into music that still rocks, though, and that's magic enough for me. Happy birthday, sir.
The Count of St. Germain is one of those things we trot out to prove Doctor Who is real. For more bizarre classical music trivia, you might like reading about Alexander Scriabin's attempt to start the apocalypse.
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