Franz Joseph Haydn

His Skull Became an Object d'Art

Haydn was affectionately known as ‘Papa’ Haydn by his many pupils and protégées. He had no real enemies – although he hated his wife, a feeling reciprocated by her! So why did someone remove his head?

He was born Franz Joseph Haydn (pronounced hidin’) in Rohrau Austria, on 31 March 1732 . Because of his beautiful high, clear voice, he was taken on as a chorister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Were it not for his father’s intervention, Haydn would have joined the ranks of the ‘castrati’. As it was, when Haydn’s voice broke he was thrown out of the choir into the streets.

After a number of temporary positions, he obtained a very satisfactory post with the ruling Esterhazy family. Following the building of a grand new palace in rural Hungary, the family spent most of the year there and Haydn felt increasingly isolated from his friends and associates in Vienna. Haydn was highly respected by his employers and was able to insist that the marble floor of the concert room should be ripped up and replaced it with the acoustically superior wooden floor.

Haydn married in 1760 but it was a stupendous blunder. His wife tore up his scores to use as curling papers for her hair. There were no children from the marriage, divorce was out of the question and both took lovers.

HaydnCredit: Wikimedia

Haydn stayed with the Esterhazy family until 1790 when the old prince died and economic measures forced the family to disband their orchestra. However they continued to pay him a salary (part of which he insisted be in wine) so he could continue to spread their name through his title of Kapellmeister.

Haydn took the opportunity to travel to England where he was treated royally with the Prince of Wales bowing to him and offering him a flat in Windsor if he would stay. However he returned to Hamburg in 1795 and re-entered the Esterhazy community as family rather than as a high-ranking servant.

Haydn died on 31 May 1809 as Vienna came under intense bombardment from Napoleon’s troops. Napoleon ordered an honour guard be placed outside Haydn’s home where he lay on his death bed.

On June 15, Haydn was buried in Hundsthrum churchyard. And this is where the story gets interesting...

Johann Nepomuk Peters, governor of the provincial prison, was an amateur phrenologist with a keen interest in the idea that a person’s mental capacities could be determined by aspects of their cranial anatomy.

Phrenology ChartCredit: Wikimedia

Phrenology was a scientific movement much in vogue at the time - a pseudoscience interested in measurements of the human skull.

With the city in turmoil and a genius just buried, Peters took the opportunity to advance his studies. Having bribed city officials to turn a blind eye, he hired two grave robbers to dig up Haydn’s body and remove the head. The head was boiled and carefully scraped clean, after which Peter satisfied himself that the ‘bumps of music’ were very much in evidence.

But what to do with the skull now? While removing the head had been difficult enough, it was almost impossible to return it to its body. So Peters put it in a box and when the war ended he gave it to Josef (one source says Karl) Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum was secretary to Prince Esterhazy.

(Some sources say Peters and Rosenbaum were fellow phrenologists and accomplices in stealing the head.)

Rosenbaum thought it best to keep his new acquisition under wraps, as it were, however his wife was very pleased with their new ‘ornament’ and proudly exhibited it in a purpose-built display cabinet. A great conversation piece for her musical soirees!

Although there was no particular secrecy about the skull, Prince Esterhazy remained unaware of the theft until 1820, when he decided to move Haydn’s remains to his private chapel at Eisenstadt. When the coffin was opened, lo and behold – no head!!

The prince was furious and wasted little time in discovering its whereabouts. However, Mrs Rosenbaum had no intention of handing over her main claim to fame. In a desperate attempt to save his own neck, Rosenbaum bought a skull from the mortuary and presented it to the prince. The story takes on the elements of farce at this point as the skull was examined by experts and found to be that of a young man, not an old composer. Perhaps the ‘bumps of music’ were not well enough defined.

Back goes Rosenbaum to the mortuary and asks for an ‘old’ head, (presumably preferably with music bumps). This proved acceptable and was buried with Haydn’s body in Eisenstadt.

The ‘real’ head continued to have a life of its own almost. It was willed back to Johann Peters on Rosenbaum’s death (my source doesn’t mention what his wife thought about the bequest). Peters kept it till he died and willed it to the Vienna Conservatory of Music. However, his wife ignored the directive and gave it to her doctor. In 1832, he passed it on to the Austrian Institute of Pathology and Anatomy. Perhaps they wanted to examine the bumps. Eventually it was presented to the Society of Music in Vienna.

Apparently, no-one thought that Prince Esterhazy might like to reunite the head with the body.

It remained in a glass bubble at the Musikverein (musical society) for many years. Later, Brahms sometimes slept in the building as he couldn’t afford his own home. As an aid to inspiration, he would take the head out at night when he was composing and place it on his desk.

One hundred years pass – and Prince Paul Esterhazy offers to construct a mausoleum for Haydn if the officials will only return Haydn’s head. Officials being what they are, this request had to considered - and considered very carefully.

More years went by. Nothing was decided when World War II started and, by the time it was over, Haydn’s body was in the Soviet Zone and his head in the International Zone of a divided Vienna. It seemed that never the twain should meet!

Finally, in 1954, Haydn’s remains were exhumed and the head and body reunited. They hadn’t seen each other for 145 years. Haydn’s body – and two heads – now rest in a marble tomb in the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt.

Truth is stranger than fiction.