Home News Revisiting Haydn’s life, 200 years later

Revisiting Haydn’s life, 200 years later

Published on 10/02/2009

Vienna -- On the 200th anniversary year of Josef Haydn’s death, the Wien Museum is offering a unique look at his life at his now-restored Vienna home.

"We are showing how Haydn lived here, who visited him, which pieces of music he wrote here and what kind of person he actually was in the last years of his life," says Werner Hanak-Lettner, curator of the exhibit at the Haydnhaus.

Unlike his close friend Mozart, a music prodigy who died young and destitute, Austrian composer Josef Haydn lived until the respectable age of 77 and died on May 31, 1809 as one of Europe’s most famous composers.

After modest beginnings as a choirboy, Haydn trained himself as a musician and composer before going into service for a rich Hungarian patron, Prince Esterhazy, with whom he stayed for almost 30 years.

Known for the originality and liveliness of his work, Haydn also did spells in London, where he proved a major success.

"He earned 4,000 guilders in one evening with his symphonies, that’s about 100,000 euros," says Hanak-Lettner.

But tired of his fame and the bustling city, he returned to Austria and retired to the countryside, away from the Imperial court.

A horse-drawn carriage at the time needed one hour from Vienna to reach the house in Gumpendorf where he settled in 1797 at the age of 64.

"Today, it takes just three minutes from the Hofburg (the imperial palace) with the underground," notes Hanak-Lettner.

Now close to one of Vienna’s main shopping streets on a lane renamed after him, Haydn’s house was then located in a middle-class neighborhood that later became an artists’ district.

On the first floor, where the old wooden boards still creak underfoot, one can read through the many notes left by Haydn’s loyal servants.

Sometimes I think I am a piano

"Papa Haydn," as he was affectionately called, followed a strict schedule, getting up every day at 6:30 am and going to bed at 10:30 pm.

In the morning, he dedicated himself to his music, at midday, he welcomed visitors and in the evenings, he would often go out.

It was in this modest home that the great composer created some of his most famous works, including "The Creation" between 1796 and 1798 and "The Seasons," from 1799 to 1801, even as his health was deteriorating.

On a business card given to a visitor, he wrote under a bar of notes: "I have lost all my strength, I am old and weak."

To another, he explained his continued creativity, even in old age: "My imagination plays tricks on me sometimes and I think I am a piano."

However, he remained immensely popular, as seen from the many miniature portraits of visitors and the numerous awards he received abroad — "toys for old men," according to Haydn — that cover the walls.

Haydn’s death

After Napoleon occupied Vienna in 1805, the “French enemies of the Habsburg court” invited Haydn to Paris. But the Austrian authorities prevented this visit by refusing a visa to the French emissary Ignaz Pleyel, who was supposed to accompany Haydn to France.

A cannon ball exposed in a glass case and similar to one that landed in Haydn’s garden on May 12, 1809, recalls Napoleon’s second attack.

Haydn’s loyal servant Johan Elssler, who doubled as a copyist for his music scores, wrote that his master was deeply shocked by the incident. Haydn died 19 days later.

He left Elssler and his cook Anna Kremnitzer, the only people present at his death bed, 55,000 florins (1.25 million euros, 1.6 million dollars), or as much as the rest of his family.

At a time when Austria was experiencing hunger and social upheaval, he also left a part of his inheritance to organizations to help widows and orphans.

Gabrielle Grenz/AFP/Expatica