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Empress Maria Theresa in the Age of Mozart, 1665-80).

Austria's empress, Maria Theresa, remained as wedded to absolutism as Frederick the Great. But, unlike Frederick, she had initiated reforms, cautiously and gradually reducing the powers of the nobles over their serfs and their overall power in her realm – except in that part of her realm that was Hungary. Faced with the rise of Brandenburg-Prussia as a rival, she had wanted to make government more efficient. Her reforms had come in wartime, when her government was in need of more money and all classes, including the nobility and the clergy, were to pay taxes – a "God-willed equality" according to the empress.

Maria Theresa promoted technical educations for her more talented subjects in order to replace amateurs in government service with professional civil servants. And for the sake of efficient policing, she maintained the practice of torture.

Mozart and family

The Mozart family in Maria Theresa's realm in the early 1760s. (watercolor)

She was devoted to the welfare of all her law-abiding subjects – in addition to being a devoted mother to her sixteen children. And her subjects returned that devotion. She welcomed the new public health service which was associated with the University of Vienna. She was a devout Catholic, but she sought to limit the Papal political influence in her realm, and she moved to bring the Church under an increasing government control, while the Church held onto its lands and the serfs upon those lands. The Church continued activities that Maria Theresa believed in: organizing relief for the poor and other welfare services, running the hospitals and the judiciary. The Church continued to run the schools, including universities, and to dominate intellectual life through censorship and its ownership of newspapers.

Maria Theresa approved of an elementary and intermediate education for unexceptional common people that did not subvert traditional values. She wished simple people to be left with their simple faith. One of her ministers described the only purpose in schooling common children as giving them a horror of theft, lying, drunkenness, ingratitude and other vices. Maria Theresa's husband Francis died in 1765 when she was forty-eight. She cut her hair and grieved for years, while sharing power with first her son, Joseph, who as Joseph II succeeded her husband as titular head of the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1780 Maria Theresa died, and Joseph II began liberalizing his government. He allowed faiths other than Roman Catholic to construct churches and schools. He abolished the death penalty and torture. He allowed marriage by purely civil contract. He freed peasants from feudal dues, allowed them to marry whom they pleased and to buy land from their former lords at a modest fee. Concerned about doing good he built orphanages, hospitals and parks. His reforms were resisted in Hungary and the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium). And after he died in 1790 his brother and successor, Leopold II, began to water down and sometimes cancel his reforms.

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