Haydn seek! How Joseph Haydn lost his head!
Burgenland is Austria’s most Eastern, and least populated State. Just an hour from Vienna, it’s bordered by Slovenia, Slovakia, and Hungary, across the Neusiedler See, which is Austria’s largest lake, and landlocked Burgenland’s seaside substitute. Until 1921, the region was part of Hungary.
Unlike a lot of Austria, Burgenland is flat. The area was originally under the sea, and lots of fossils are still found in the area. The soil and humid climate are perfect for vineyards, and cherry trees. There are around 20 different kinds of cherries, and I loved them all!
A lot of the wines are sweet, especially the liqueur-like trockenbeerenauslese. Oh, I love that word – and the wine’s not bad either! Now, the wines go hand in hand with the local food, such as perch and catfish caught fresh in the Neusiedler Lake, beef from the lake’s marshland, or pork from the local black pigs.
The most famous resident of Burgenland was Joseph Haydn. He lived in the town of Eisenstadt for 40 years, from 1761 until his death on the 31st May, 1809 aged 77. If he could return to Eisenstadt now he would probably still recognise it. It’s nearly the same as it was over 200 years ago!
There are only three streets. The Main Street, which runs up to the Esterhazy Castle, has recently been pedestrianised. Eisenstadt means Iron Town. It had strong walls, built in 1,000AD and nobody could conquer the town. But the Germans occupied it until the end of WW1.
Haydn spent most of his working life as a Court musician for the very wealthy Esterhazy family on their isolated estate near Eisenstadt. As he was cut off from all the other composers, it gave him his original style. And when he died, he was one of the most popular composers in Europe.
The small town has around 14,000 inhabitants. It’s very pretty, and completely free of litter, graffiti, and tourists, except us! We strolled around the town, accompanied by Walter Reitcher, the Artistic Director of the Haydn Festival. He eats, drinks, plays and thinks Haydn. He knows every detail of Eisenstadt and Haydn’s life. I was interested to discover that the Haydns had an allotment, where they grew their own vegetables. I’ve never heard of an allotment that old!
Although Haydn’s house burnt down twice, it was always rebuilt. Now it’s a museum. Walter led us around, obviously in love with every picture, piano, and piece of paper, even though he’d obviously seen them many times before.
But for me, it lacked atmosphere, and it was just a museum, not a family home at all any more.
There are still seven working organs in the town’s churches. Haydn actually played at least one of them.
In the evening, we walked along the pedestrian’s road to the Esterhazy Castle, where the orchestra was playing Haydn’s music (of course!) in the beautiful old hall.
It holds 650 people, and I didn’t see any empty seats.
Although I appreciate watching classical music played by an orchestra, plus all the bowing, solo performances, and gentle humour, I must now admit that Haydn is not one of my favourite composers. It was an interesting evening though, in lovely ornate surroundings.
I could imagine tightly-corseted ladies in long flowing gowns, fanning themselves while they watched the performance, and the muffled sound when they clapped their gloved hands together.
After the performance, we went to the castle’s old stables opposite for dinner.
It’s well-worth going there just to see the building itself. It’s more like a mansion than a stable! The walls are still lined with the horses’ marble mangers.
I walked back along the deserted street (the Austrians obviously go to bed early) to the hotel and arrived in time to see the end of the Eurovision song contest.
Austria had won!
The contestant was Conchita Wurst, singing ‘Rise like a Phoenix.’
On the following afternoon, we travelled to Vienna to catch our plane home, and discovered that we’d just missed Conchita, who had become an overnight star.
Conchita is a man with long hair and a beard who wears skin-tight evening dresses, and I wondered what Haydn would have thought of him/her.
And then I thought, well, Haydn and his contemporaries used to walk around wearing ornate high-heeled shoes, white tights and shoulder-length wigs!
What about Haydn’s head, I hear you ask, Dear Readers!
Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy, 1792
The celebrated composer Joseph Haydn died in Vienna, aged 77, on May 31, 1809, after a long illness. As Austria was at war and Vienna occupied by Napoleon‘s troops, a rather simple funeral was held in Gumpendorf, the parish in Vienna to which Haydn’s house on the Windmühle belonged, followed by burial in the Hundsturm cemetery. Following the burial, two men contrived to bribe the sexton and thereby sever and steal the dead composer’s head. These were Joseph Carl Rosenbaum, a former secretary of the Esterházy family (Haydn’s employers), and Johann Nepomuk Peter, governor of the provincial prison of Lower Austria. Rosenbaum was well known to Haydn, who during his lifetime had intervened with the Esterházys in an attempt to make possible Rosenbaum’s marriage to the soprano Therese Gassmann.
A 19th century phrenological chart
Peter and Rosenbaum’s motivation was an interest in phrenology, a now-discredited scientific movement (see Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzheim) that attempted to associate mental capacities with aspects of cranial anatomy. Of particular interest to phrenologists was the anatomy of individuals held to have exhibited great genius during their lifetime. (Sixteen years later, a similar attempt was made on the body of Ludwig van Beethoven, possibly for similar reasons.)
The process of stealing the head was, apparently, not pleasant; since it had been eight days since the funeral, decomposition had set in and the smell was strong. However, Peter and Rosenbaum succeeded in cleaning the skull and duly carried out their phrenological examination. Peter declared that “the bump of music” in Haydn’s skull was indeed “fully developed”. Afterward, Peter kept it in a handsome custom-made black wooden box, with a symbolic golden lyre at the top, glass windows, and a white cushion.
In 1932, Prince Paul Esterházy built a marble tomb for Haydn in the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt. This was a suitable location, since it is where some of the masses Haydn wrote for the Esterházy family were premiered. The Prince’s express purpose was to unify the composer’s remains. However, there were many further delays, and it was only in 1954 that the skull could be transferred from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde to this tomb, thus completing the 145 year long burial process. When the composer’s skull was finally restored to the remainder of his skeleton, the substitute skull was not removed. Thus Haydn’s tomb now contains two skulls.
For further information please visit: www.burgenland.info;
for information about the Haydnfestival please visit: www.haydnfestival.at”