Heads Will Roll: Rick Jones Joins Composers from around the World to Celebrate Haydn's Legacy-And See His Two Skulls

Article excerpt

Because the town of Eisenstadt in Austria was home to the composer Franz Joseph Haydn for most of his life, it has become the focus of some attention in this, the bicentenary of the composer's death. The proud authorities there have marked the occasion in two ways. First, they have commissioned 18 new piano trios from composers all over the world, which the Haydn Trio Eisenstadt, having performed them there, will bring to London in September. Second, they have mounted a display of Haydn's two heads, which, for the cost of a euro, visitors may view in the church where he is entombed.

Readers may be surprised to learn that Haydn had two heads. Between performances of the new piano trios, I paid to see them. They are both skulls. One is clean and white and has a strong, prominent jaw. This is the head Haydn used when he was alive. Phrenologists--students of the now-discredited science that believes character is determined by skull shape--cut it off and stole it shortly after Haydn died in Vienna. The opportunity to study the head of a genius clearly overcame their misgivings about either the legality or the morality of their action.

The other skull is small and brown and has a broken jaw. This was the substitute obtained when Haydn's erstwhile employer Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy discovered that the corpse he had fetched for reburial in Eisenstadt was headless. "Better any head than none," he said. The provenance of the replacement is unknown, but it remained Haydn's head for 130 years, as the original was not reunited with the body until 1954.

The phrenologists believed the skull would provide evidence for Haydn's genius. More reliable proof was available from the sheer volume of work he produced: the 104 symphonies; 84 string quartets; operas, oratorios, masses, piano sonatas; other chamber pieces including those for long-obsolete instruments such as the fluteclock; and about 600 songs, 400 of them arrangements of Scottish folk songs commissioned by publishers in London, where he had become something of a superstar. Unlike Bach and Handel, Haydn almost never repeated himself, so effortlessly did he compose.

"String quartets would have been too obvious," says Walter Reicher, artistic director of the Haydn Festival 2009, of the decision to commission the piano trios. Haydn's own output in this genre, numbering 30 works, takes the form on from its modest beginnings where the cello doubles the piano's left hand and the violin merely embellishes the right, to a tight-knit but combative meeting of three independent voices. In music history, the piano trio is second only to the string quartet as the ideal chamber group.

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Every one of the 18 composers has been gathered for the so-called Triothlon: six from Austria, six from Europe and six from the rest of the world, all presenting themselves on stage before the premiere of their eight-to-ten-minute, Haydn-inspired composition. There are 13 concerts to attend in four days and the sight of groups of composers taking the kilometre walk from the hotel to the concert hall in the Esterhazy Palace and back becomes familiar. The custard-yellow palace is impressive. The outer wall is decorated with terracotta ancestral busts, one of which is Attila the Hun. "He wasn't really in the family," says Reicher. "The Esterhazys didn't go that far back, so they made up their history. One of the family trees includes Adam and Eve."

"I used to play the early piano trios," boasts the American composer William Bolcom in his introductory talk, "but the cellist always complained!" Bolcom's contribution is a witty web of rondo themes that Haydn might have dreamed up. The German Dieter Schnebel takes a similarly light-hearted line and bases his composition on a single phrase from the Joke Quartet (Opus 33 No 2). …