Mozart married at the age of twenty-five in Vienna’s Stephansdom Cathedral, where you can still go today and kneel near the spot where he knelt with his bride. He was a city man and sophisticated, so he may not have participated in some of these wedding customs…or perhaps he did. Nevertheless, he set to work at once to get his bride between the sheets, which was what mattered in his eyes. However….
For good fortune, the bride of the late eighteenth-century must not sew the last stitch of her wedding dress until it was time to leave for the church (we hope she remembered to remove the needle); once on her way, she must not look in a mirror. Brides on the way to marriage were considered susceptible to evil spirits. As they walked, her bridesmaids, often dressed in a similar way so that such spirits could not distinguish them from each other, clustered around her protectively. It was good luck to see a chimney sweep or a black cat. Wednesday was the most propitious day for marriages; Fridays and Saturdays were bad. If snow fell on her wedding day, it would bring fertility and wealth.
On leaving her house, the bride would step over piled of broken dishes. The night before the wedding was the Polterabend, where friends and family would smash all chipped crockery or glass for good luck and hurl them out the windows. (A girl was expected to be a virgin and, of course, to behave with utmost propriety, particularly after her engagement. Mozart was furious when his fiancee allowed a strange man to measure the calf of her leg with a ribbon.)
The wedding procession was led by a fiddler, and on the wedding morning the bride was sent a morgen-gabe–a morning gift–from her groom. She in turn sent him a shirt she had sewn for the wedding day, which he would keep all his life.
The bride’s dress was often white, which stood for joy, not purity; she often wore a blue band at her hem, representing purity. Her veil was another way to hide her from the spirits until safely in her husband’s care. But the first one to buy anything after the marriage would dominate the relationship; brides sometimes arranged to buy a pin from a bridesmaid. (This was before you could place an order by cell phone while walking back up the aisle.)
During the reception, the bride danced the wreath dance, sometimes called “dancing off the bridal crown,” the wreath which symbolized her maidenhood. Married women danced about her until their circle was broken by their fatigue or roughly intruding groomsmen, who then stole the wreath. Guests tried to take home a part of the broken wreath, which mean they would be married within the year. The bride then put a matron’s cap on her likely disheveled hair.
After the wedding, the best man would often steal the bride, leaving the groom to find her. Events could turn bawdy. That was not as bad as life on the manor of a lord. There, the lord had the right (and sometimes insisted on it) to help himself to the bride’s virginity on her wedding night. In Mozart’s opera Le Nozze di Figaro, a young engaged couple create a clever plot to avoid this and still keep their jobs.
After marriage, a woman’s life would consist of kinder, kleider, kirche, and kuche–children, clothes, church, and cooking. Of course, for many women there was much more than that, but that is another story. Though Mozart and his wife were often poor, their marriage was a joyful one. His love letters to her during their married life are tender, bawdy, and filled with the greatest love.
Stephanie Cowell is the author of Marrying Mozart from Viking Penguin.
Image: Jean-Baptiste Greuze, “The Marriage Contract,” 1761 (Louvre, Paris)