Professor Jeremy Black looks at the history of Gustav III, King of Sweden, whose assassination provided the inspiration for Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera.
An unpredictable meteor, Gustavus, born into the house of Holstein-Gottorp, became King of Sweden in 1771 on the death of his lacklustre father, Adolf Fredrik. In 1756, Adolf Fredrik had been humiliated through a failed coup that attempted to recover some power for the crown, which had lost it in the Swedish ‘Age of Liberty’ after the death of Charles XII in conflict in 1718. In contrast, helped by widespread dissatisfaction, the 26-year-old Gustav staged a bloodless coup on 19 August 1772. The powers of the Crown were restored, the Senate was arrested, and the Riksdag (Parliament) was reconvened.
A new constitution, with greater powers for the crown, was approved on 21 August, by which Gustav regained the power to summon and dismiss the Riksdag, to appoint ministers and to propose legislation. The preamble of the new constitution declared that the king had tried ‘to promote the advancement, strength and welfare of this realm, as well as the improvement, safety and happiness of our loyal subjects… the present situation of the country requires an unavoidable amendment of the Fundamental Laws, adapted to the above-mentioned salutary purpose’.
The ‘Age of Liberty’ was dismissed: ‘Under the name of the blessed Liberty, several of our fellow subjects have formed an Aristocracy, so much more intolerable, as it had been framed under licentiousness, fortified by self-interest and severities, and finally supported by foreign powers, to the detriment of the whole society.’
Gustav claimed to be re-establishing the former constitution. Touring Sweden in 1768, he had written to his brother from the small settlement of Avesta: ‘At Stockholm, where one lives in plenty, it is impossible to imagine the condition of these poor people.’ In 1771, he observed that the Riksdag was ‘no pleasant spectacle for any but cosmopolitan philosophers’. The political system of the ‘Age of Liberty’ was indeed regarded as corrupt and prone to sectional interests. Power politics were involved. France backed the coup.
Read more in our programme, available at the theatre before all performances of Un ballo in maschera. Tickets are still available for the remaining performances of Un ballo in maschera on 25, 27, 28 and 29 June. Book here.