Did Groupies Originate in the Time of Haydn & Mozart?

A new way of appreciating music arose around 1760, but don't expect to learn about it in music appreciation courses

Did Groupies Originate in the Time of Haydn & Mozart?

By Ted Gioia

Readers of my music books have noticed that I write a lot about sex. This might suggest that I have a lascivious mind. Ah, nothing could be further from the truth. I’d much rather write about alternate tuning systems or the harmony of the spheres.

It’s those lusty musicians who force me to deal with sex. They can’t get enough of it, and it’s all over their music.

So don’t blame me, I’m just the messenger.

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Consider this academic study, which found that 92% of hit songs include “reproductive messages” (that’s the professors’ terminology for the dirty parts). And the typical hit song contains more than ten “reproductive phrases” (ditto) in the lyrics. Yes, researchers sat down and counted them, probably some grad students—I’d like to see how they described that on their CV.

But the most pressing reason why I’ve been forced to consider sex so much in my writing is the decision I made, some years ago, to focus with particular intensity on how songs impact their listeners. At a certain point in the 1990s, I began looking more at the audience than I had done previously. And if those libidinous musicians required me to become an amateur sexologist, the music fans were even worse.

Studying how audiences respond to music has taken me to some strange places. I’ll skip over the seamier details. But, at a certain juncture, I had no choice: I absolutely had to probe into the history of the groupie.

Many people assume that all this sexy music is a fairly recent phenomenon. And, it’s true, popular songs were less explicit back in the old days. But in every instance, songwriters put in as much sex as the censors would allow—and the battle has been going on for thousands of years. Audiences, for their part, always wanted a little bit more, and would often get in trouble for seeking it out.

Consider these figures, from a document published in in 1859, summarizing the British police’s confiscation of obscene materials.

As you can see, there were more obscene songs seized by the vice squad than obscene books. I bet you had no idea—nor did I until I started researching this hidden side of music history. Just don’t expect to read about those songs in the Oxford Guide to Victorian Music.

This fixation on sexuality has been part of the musical culture as far back as we can trace. The oldest songwriter known to us by name, Enheduanna, presided over fertility rites more than four thousand years ago, and her songs were just as sexually-oriented as anything from Cardi B or Nicki Minaj in the current day. Similar musical traditions can be found all over the world, and even have been incorporated into the world’s major religions. Check out the Song of Songs in the Bible, if you doubt it.

Darwin didn’t know about Enheduanna—or Cardi B, for that matter—but none of this would have surprised him. He believe that music evolved as a tool to propagate the species, and saw the mating songs of birds as the prototype for this universal behavior pattern. I tend to resist reductionist theories of the arts, so I will carp and complain about Darwin’s narrow notions of music-making. But I need to concede that his theory is supported by a surprisingly large amount of empirical evidence, most of which he wouldn’t have known about.

Above all, Darwin wouldn’t have known about groupies, those ardent fans who want to get as close as possible to a music star—in fact, you can’t imagine getting much closer. The word itself didn’t enter the English vocabulary until around 1965, and took off toward the end of that decade. In February 1969, Rolling Stone devoted an entire issue to “Groupies: The Girls of Rock,” and a few weeks later Time magazine breathlessly covered the phenomenon in an article entitled “Manners and Morals: The Groupies.” The story quoted rising rock star Frank Zappa—who later claimed that he invented the term “groupie”—described by that respectable weekly as a “28-year-old musician with a sociological bent.” Zappa explained this apparently new phenomenon for the benefit (and salacious curiosity) of Middle America: “Every trade has its groupies. Some chicks dig truck drivers. Some go for men in uniform—the early camp followers. Ours go for rock musicians."

Thank you, Mr. Zappa, but we know that just isn’t true. Musicians have a special allure not possessed by, say, certified public accountants or HVAC installers. That’s obvious today, and was probably just as obvious when the minstrels and troubadours showed up in your village a thousand years ago.

But were there always groupies? Just when did fans start seeking out a special intimacy with the celebrity musicians?

The word “celebrity” is, in itself, a useful guide to assessing this history. The word only achieved its current meaning around 1760 or 1770. People were called celebrities before that period, of course, but the term usually implied a criticism. You didn’t really want to be a cause célèbre before that time—in fact, that phrase originated in France to describe people involved in criminal cases. (The word cause translates as legal suit.) Whatever you had done to become a celebrity, it would have been better if you hadn’t.

But around the time of Mozart’s birth, the concept of celebrity began to take on a positive spin. Members of the public grew increasingly fascinated with celebrities, and musicians were among the chief beneficiaries of this new attitude of adulation. Although the details are hard to piece together, this shift almost certainly involved a change in the sex lives of the leading European composers.

Check out this graph, which charts the prevalence of word celebrity in English. (You will find a similar trend in French, and probably many other European languages.) Despite everything you’ve been told, the obsession with celebrities is less marked nowadays than back in the late 18th century. The change during the lifetime, for example, of Haydn (1732-1809) was remarkable, beyond anything we can comprehend today. And, as we shall see, the strange course of his career shows the impact of this shift at every turn.

Don’t get me wrong. Even before the 1760s, musicians had a special allure, but their ability to parlay this into love affairs was often limited. For the most part, they still weren’t genuine celebrities, in the current sense of the word. But even if they had been, their vocational demands would have imposed many constraints on their sex life. Recall that the leading employer of the great European composers before the time of Mozart was the church, and performance situations were actual religious services—so it wasn’t like the Rolling Stones looking for love outside the dressing room door after the gig.

When Bach met up with an “unfamiliar maiden” (fremde Jungfer) in the choir loft, he was disciplined for this indiscretion, and had to talk it over with the parson. Back then, even when musicians had opportunities for dalliances, there remained a social stigma attached to their profession. That would soon change, but in Bach’s day an organist or choirmaster clearly belonged to a lower caste than the nobles and ecclesiastics who hired them, and this too must have put some constraints on free and easy hookups. A determined lover could probably find ways around these obstacles—but obstacles they were, and no laughing matter when your career was on the line.

The case of Bach (1685-1750) is illuminating in other ways. Consider his second marriage at age 36 to a woman who was just 20. I’m not sure about your views on age differences between a couple, but I was always taught that a guy can’t decently date someone who isn’t at least half his age plus seven years. That’s always seemed a reasonable formula to me. And by that equation, Bach shouldn’t have married anyone younger than 25 at that juncture.

This in itself suggests a certain willingness to push at the limits of sexual conventions. Yet we also have good reason to believe that Bach didn’t stray far from his wedding bed—if only measured by the fact that Anna Magdalena Bach gave birth to a child almost every year during the 13 years following their union. The facts lead to an obvious interpretation: Bach was attractive with a significant interest in sex, but for him this was a matter of home and hearth. We can only speculate, but it’s hard to imagine him pursuing the affairs and one-night stands we associate with star musicians nowadays.

By the time his son C.P.E. Bach (1714-1788) came of age, things were starting to change, but only gradually. In every way, he’s more secular than his father. C.P.E. Bach dealt more with artists, writers and bohemians than with church officials, and in his famous textbook on keyboard playing insisted on a performer actually feeling on-the-spot the emotional currents of the music. Members of the audience must have found the romantic aura of such a performer attractive, perhaps even seductive. C.P.E. Bach actually wrote a brief autobiography—an extraordinary thing for a musician to do at that juncture. In this memoir, he mentions in passing: “It would not be hard for me to fill up a lot of space with the names of composers, female and male singers, and instrumentalists of all varieties that I have become acquainted with.” This is exactly what we expect from a celebrity bio—namely discussions of other celebrities.

Alas, C.P.E. Bach doesn’t provide many details, but he explicitly mentions his regrets that he didn’t travel more, adding that “I do not deny that it would have been of exceptional pleasure to me, as well as advantageous, if I could have had the opportunity to visit foreign lands.” That’s still several steps below the Rolling Stones on tour, but it’s not hard to envision what some of the pleasurable benefits of a traveling musician might have been in the context of Europe’s new mania for celebrities.

My conclusion is that groupies hardly existed in the Baroque era, which was coming to an end around 1750, but emerged just a little bit later. Unfortunately, our source documents from the first half of that century don’t give us many details of what happened behind closed doors in the homes of the great composers. Handel never married, and although that has led some to speculate about the ways he might have enjoyed the freedoms of bachelorhood, this is all just guesswork. As for Vivaldi, I’ll let others offer up theories about the “internal infection” that killed him at age 63, but the wilder hypotheses ought to be counterbalanced by considerations of his vocation as a priest and ample evidence that his health was poor even in his early years. And, yes, there was a sex scandal in Telemann’s life, but mostly due to his wife’s infidelity. For those in search of the origins of the groupie, there’s not much to go on here.

Then we come to the biography of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), and we start to see the first signs of what I can only describe as groupie behavior. Haydn experienced firsthand the tumultuous changes brought about by the new mania for musical celebrities. This impacted both his music-making and his private life.

“I note, for what it’s worth, that Haydn was not especially good-looking—in fact, he was rather homely in appearance.”

His earliest musical experiences took place singing in a choir—which was the career path of most composers in those days. His employment by the noble Esterházy family was a huge step up in the world, yet even here Haydn was initially treated as a servant—he had to wear an attendant’s uniform (white stockings, white linen, powdered hair, etc.), consult daily with his patron to get his marching orders, and sign away all his intellectual property rights to his boss.

There’s a thirty year gap between Haydn signing this employment agreement (in 1761) and his first trip to London (1791)—and the world of classical music changed dramatically during that period, largely due to the new celebrity fixation spreading through the continent. His letters to the Esterházy family, previously filled with obsequious groveling, are now confident and demanding. Haydn doesn’t really need a noble patron anymore, because he has a large audience and plenty of opportunities to earn money as a freelance composer. He puts up with his noble patrons, but just barely.

And what about his love life? In England the composer almost certainly had an affair with Rebecca Schroeter, almost 20 years his junior—who invited him into her home to give a “music lesson.” But even before this career-changing trip, Haydn pursued a love affair with mezzo-soprano Luigia Polzelli, almost thirty years younger than him. In 1789, he initiated a friendship with Maria Anna von Genzinger, roughly the same age as Schroeter, and their correspondence indicates a rare degree of intimacy. What happened in private between Haydn and these female admirers is hidden from our view, but we do know that in one letter, the great composer referred to his wife as an “infernal beast.” At his death in 1809, Haydn’s will enumerated many bequests to women who were neither family members nor relatives of any sort.

By any reasonable interpretation, this is the “birth of the groupie” moment in music history. The benefits C.P.E. Bach gave up—and complained about—by not traveling more in his final decades, were precisely those Haydn pursued with enthusiasm amid this new freewheeling atmosphere.

I note, for what it’s worth, that Haydn was not especially good-looking—in fact, he was rather homely in appearance. He had a large bulbous nose, swollen by a polyp. As a child he survived smallpox, and it left him with pockmarks. I’ve heard some claim that every portrait of Haydn looks a little different, as artists tried various methods of enhancing his appearance. I wouldn’t go quite that far. But even after whatever discretion exercised in their depictions (a kind of photoshopping before the Age of Apps), Haydn comes across as anything but sexy.

But looks aren’t everything, especially for an acclaimed musician. Is Mick Jagger handsome? Is Gene Simmons? Iggy Pop? Ozzy Osbourne? They actually strike me as a little bit repulsive. But my vote doesn’t count. The fans have voted already, and have given an overwhelming stamp of approval. Demographers often talk about people voting with their feet as the ultimate kind of validation or rejection of a political policy, but this vote, exercising a different part of the anatomy, is even harder to overrule. So who am I to judge?

In his favor, Haydn possessed a good-natured disposition. He dressed well. He clearly exuded stage presence. “The sight of the renowned composer so electrified the audience as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever, to my knowledge, been caused by instrumental music in England,” wrote Charles Burney in his memoirs in 1791. “All the slow middle movements were encored; which never happened before, I believe in any country.” Above all, he was a great composer—and in those days, that alone was something of an aphrodisiac.

Mozart also lived through the rise of the groupie, although without witnessing the kind of changes Haydn must have experienced. After all, Haydn lived 77 years, and Mozart only 35. Even so, Mozart’s surviving letters give vivid testimony to the liberties of a young music star in the late 18th century, and as a result have often been censored or bowdlerized. Yet the details here are also subject to different interpretations. Some biographers have assumed that the composer had frequent flings and affairs with servants, singers, admirers, etc., but Mozart also wrote to his father that he avoided casual affairs because of his scruples, of a religious or ethical nature. But even if this latter claim is true, the very fact that he felt the need to assert it makes clear what opportunities were available to a traveling musical celebrity in the closing decades of the 18th century.

And if you want further evidence that Mozart knew about hookups and one-night stands, just watch his opera Don Giovanni, which is the most significant cultural work ever devoted to the topic. It’s no coincidence that the subject appealed to the composer, nor that that it was so well received at its premiere in 1787. It was an age of celebrity seducers, and it made sense that these alluring figures would show up on the stage.

By that time, the shift was all but complete. Musicians were celebrities, and many admiring fans must have sought out an intimate—albeit transitory—connection with such intensely romantic figures. The very word Romanticism would come to signify the entire cultural tone that swept Europe in the aftermath. That’s a much better phrase than the Age of the Groupie. But the two concepts aren’t entirely separate.

So Mick Jagger and the rock sensualists need to step aside. They may have taken advantage of this adulatory attitude of their admiring audiences, but they hardly invented it. Haydn and those other staid old-timers in wigs were actually the first.

Nor will they be the last. The many me-too scandals of recent memory have forced us to reexamine the often fraught relationship between celebrities and their fans. That’s a good thing, and comes far too late. But I’m not kidding myself. Some abuses might be reined in by greater awareness, but the overall sexualization of star musicians won’t end anytime soon. It’s too ingrained in our attitudes, even our expectations. Above all, there’s too much money made by all those sex-crazy songs. Yet a little more honesty and scrutiny in addressing the subject in our music history narratives would be a step in the right direction.