Simon Winder on Joseph Haydn's two heads and his 'Sunrise' quartet

30 August 2013

by Simon Winder

Did you know that the composer Joseph Haydn acquired a second head after his death? All that really matters when it comes to Haydn is to put on the opening of the ‘Sunrise’ Quartet, or the second movement of the catchily named String Quartet in G Major, Op. 64, No. 4, Hob. III: 66 – and be completely happy. You can listen to the music (the tune at 6 minutes 47 seconds is especially wonderful), and find out about his second head, in an extract from my book Danubia below.

Eisenstadt is the home of the ‘Mountain Church’ where Haydn was finally buried. […]

As a church owned by the Esterházy family, it seemed a good place to bury Haydn, but he suffered many indignities to get there. After his death a couple of crackpots stole his head to prove various phrenological theories,* and he was buried with a substitute skull to make it all more dignified. Eventually the real one reemerged and was donated to the Musikverein in Vienna in 1895.

Prince Paul Esterházy in the 1930s managed to find a sculptor so sensationally retro and backward in his enthusiasms (Oskar Thiede) that he could put together a plausibly early nineteenth-century style tomb for Haydn and he was reburied there in 1932 but still without his real head. Esterházy was subject to a nightmarish show-trial in Budapest after the War and imprisoned until the Hungarian Revolution when he was able to escape abroad. In the meantime, in 1954, the head was at last secured, the tomb re-opened and Haydn was complete for the first time since shortly after his death. In a final, very peculiar twist it was decided to keep the ‘original’ head there too as it had, after all, been caught up in the first obsequies and retained a sacred enough tinge that it could not really be chucked away. So Haydn now rests easy in Eisenstadt, surrounded by a political framework at an almost mad distance from his own, but with the familiar holy staircase still circling above his heads.

 

*And indeed his skull did show a pronounced bump of excellence in the area devoted to music – the sheer stupidity of phrenology must make us freeze with anxiety about the dim things we unthinkingly buy into today.

 

Find more Habsburg Europe facts on our ThingLink

You may also like