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Haydn's Two Skulls

The term First Viennese School is used to refer to the classical composers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. (The term Second Viennese School, used a century and a half later, would refer to Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.) The former trio composed such a vast number and variety of works that between them they codified the sound of the classical period - the period of music from about 1750 - 1827.

Joseph Haydn was born in Rohrau, on the Austrian border with Hungary, to a wheelwright father (Mathias repaired wooden wheels) and a mother who had worked as a cook. While Mathias played the harp and was into folk music, both parents realised that to further Joseph's talent in music he would have to venture beyond the village borders; hence they accepted a proposal for their son to be apprenticed and trained as a musician by a schoolmaster and choirmaster, Johann Frankh. From the age of six Haydn never again lived with his parents; instead he endured a life of frequent hunger and humiliation over his clothing. He learnt to play the harpsichord and violin, and his singing so impressed Georg von Reutter, a music director in Vienna then at the age of only eight he moved there and spent the next nine years as a chorister.

Haydn received little instruction from Reutter, but learnt from the musical exposure in Vienna. And like Frankh, Reutter did not always ensure the child in his care was properly fed. Haydn would later remark that this gave him motivation to sing well, so that he would be invited to perform for aristocratic audiences - where singers were served refreshments.

Adolescence meant the loss of ability to sing higher parts, and his "crowing", as well as a prank on a fellow student (he cut off the latter's pigtail) saw Haydn dismissed, where he tried different jobs before ending up in the employment of the Esterhazy princes (Prince Paul Anton, and later Nikolaus I), where he had responsibilities for composing music, running the orchestra, playing chamber music and composing opera. Haydn spent nearly thirty years there, resulting in a trove of works which tended to be influenced by the interest of the princes. When Prince Nikolaus took up the baryton, Haydn ended up writing nearly two hundred works for the rare instrument. And when the prince later developed an interest in opera, Haydn produced such works too.

In 1779 Haydn was allowed to write for others and sell his work to publishers (previously his output had been the property of the Esterhazy family) and hence he started writing fewer operas, choosing instead to write more quartets and symphonies.

When Prince Nikolaus died in 1790, his son Anton reduced the size of the court musicians and since he had little need for Haydn's services, he was willing to let Haydn travel - which he did, visiting England on two occasions, and composing works such as the London Symphonies. By the time he returned to Vienna in 1795, Anton's successor, Nikolaus had revived the role of music in the courts and Haydn was again made Kapellmeister, composing more music to augment an already impressive corpus.

Haydn often referred to himself as a living clavier (keyboard instrument). He spoke of how the musical ideas would physically affect him when compositional ideas were in his mind; his heart rate would be accordingly affected by the fast or slow passages.

In the days leading up to his death in 1809, the French army under Napoleon attacked Vienna. Because Austria was at war when he died, a celebration of the great composer's life wasn't really appropriate and Haydn's remains were interred in the local cemetery until 1820, when Nikolaus II decided to exhume them to the family seat in Eisenstadt.

There was one problem.

There was no skull.

Joseph Carl Rosenbaum and Johann Nepomuk Peter, persons known to the establishment, had bribed the gravedigger to steal the head. The two were phrenologists, who believed that certain parts of the brain have specialised functions and a person's capacity in these areas could be estimated by physical measurements of the area of the skull over the corresponding part of the brain. Peter declared that the "music" part of Haydn's skull was developed. It was displayed in his house, shown to visitors, and later came into Rosenbaum's possession.

On the sight of Haydn's headless remains, the Prince quickly established who was responsible. But when court officials arrived at Rosenbaum's house, his wife hid the composer's skull under her pillow while Rosenbaum passed off another as Haydn's, and it was taken to be buried together with the body.

After Rosenbaum's death in 1829 the skull passed among various individuals before it was eventually given to the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of the Friends of Music).

In 1932, a marble tomb for Haydn was built in the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt. The location was significant as it was where some Haydn masses written for the Esterhazy family were premiered. The aim to unify the composer's remains - skull with skeleton - did not materialise until in 1954, when the skull was transferred, in a splendid ceremony, from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde to the tomb. A large motorcade of over 100 cars, drove past Haydn's birth house en route. The skull passed off by Rosenbaum many years earlier as Haydn's was not removed, which is why Haydn's tomb now contains two skulls.

Why not play music you like while learning the piano? It makes it more fun, engaging and relevant.

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