Beethoven, Donizetti, Eisenstadt, Esterhazy, Florian Gassmann, Gall& Spurzheim, Gumpendorf, Hundsthurm, Joseph Haydn, Joshua Reynolds, Karl Rosenbaum, Mrs Billington, Napoleon, Nepomuk, phrenology, Princess Maria Josepha Hermengild, Seven Last Words, St Cecilia, The Creation, The Princess & The Pea, The Seasons
Brassica was moved to tears by my poem, (see previous posting)
but then she is somewhat emotionally labile at the best of times.
Since you called me ‘cerebral’, Brassie, I will let you see my latest short
story, based on the composer, Haydn’s skull. It is too long to read in this
noisy cafe, so I will e-mail it to you. Let me know what you think.
In the end, it was not The Seasons that gave him his finishing stroke,
but rather a sharp instrument which severed his skull from his spinal
column. Eight days after his internment, he might have been as
surprised as his audiences, not by any symphonic eccentricity, but by
the admission of light, as his coffin lid was prised open. Perhaps his
agitated outburst at his final attendance of The Creation implied some
premonition, for he exclaimed: It came from hence! (Rather than a shaft
of divine inspiration, however, this interruption emanated from an
earthier and more material source and might have been deemed a
diabolical intrusion, instead of an ethereal epiphany.) In fact, the whole
episode had been engineered by my thoroughly material amateur
phrenologist spouse and his associate.
We had all been friends for years. My husband, Karl Rosenbaum, had
been Secretary to the Esterhazy family and we even attended the burial
at Hundsthurm churchyard in Gumpendorf, the suburbs where Haydn had
lived. Thank God that Napoleon had ordered his troops to be respectful
and the simple service passed without incident. However, the memorial
plaque’s inscription could be seen to have been proleptic and ironic, I
suppose: I will not die completely.
Personally, I liked Josef. He was generous enough to offer me solos in
his masses and in his Seven Last Words. I wonder what his seven last words
to me would have been, if he had known that I would make an exhibition of
his skull in an ebony box with a golden lyre on the lid. Musicians and those I
considered important enough to be invited to my soirees marvelled when I
displayed the great relic, reposing on its cushion of white silk. They gawped
through the glass side panels with gratifying envy and voyeuristic intensity.
My father, Florian Gassmann, the Viennese chamber composer might not have
approved, I fear, nor would Haydn’s patroness and friend, Princess Maria
Josepha Hermengild. However, Josef had no children to object, nor a wife by
then. Why should we not have preserved some remains for posterity?
(Princess Maria Josepha Hermengild: Wikipedia)
It was not as if it was a very pleasant task for Karl and his friend, Johann,
to have to boil and examine the skull. However, it was for research purposes,
you understand, and for the advancement of human knowledge.
Number 17 cranial organ was as expected, Karl told me. It showed great
musical aptitude, confirming Gall and Spurzheim’s theories on the links
between mental capacity and aspects of anatomical protuberances.
Musical bumps, I joked.
There had been no malice in the procedure whatsoever, I vow. As I said,
Haydn, though swarthy and pockmarked and generally unattractive physically,
was genial and complimentary to the female sex- even to his insufferable wife,
whose cranial convexities must have been minimal. She used to line her pastry
tins and curl her ringlets with paper from his manuscripts. She selected the
house that he lived in latterly, telling him that it was suitable for a widow. Yet
he loved ladies and was chivalrous and Platonic in his behaviour and
demeanour. He quipped that if four eyes could have been sealed, he could
have married his nineteen years old, already espoused enamorata. He also
praised the vocalist, Mrs Billington, who was having her portrait painted by
the great Joshua Reynolds, as St Cecilia listening to the angels. Haydn stated
that there must have been some mistake, for the angels should have been
depicted as attending to her.
We did not take possession of it immediately. It was eleven years later
when Prince Nikolaus Esherhazy was suddenly reminded that he had
promised to remove Haydn’s remains to the family seat in Eisenstadt.
Sturm und Drang! he expostulated. He made some stronger comments
when he realised that the skeleton was incomplete.
Johann passed the skull to us and we hid it under my straw mattress. I
feigned indisposition when the search party raided- women’s matters!- and
so no trace of it was discovered. Meanwhile I felt like the Princess and the
Pea and wager that Haydn himself would have appreciated the farce, in
addition to enjoying the intimacies of my bed.
However, the Prince grew imperious and we tried to distract him with
a substitute, but unfortunately, being amateur phrenologists, we did
not discern the differences between the skull of a seventy year old and
that of a twenty year old man. In the end, though, he accepted an
Everyone in Vienna knew where the skull was. After all, we passed it
around with post-prandial spirits and it received due homage. Karl had
promised to return it to Johann on his own decease, in order that it should
finally be given to the Society of Friends of Music, but I preferred to retain it
and willed it to my doctor, so that it should receive veneration at the Austrian
Institute of Pathology and Anatomy, as well as being of benefit to medical
How was I to know that it would be a century and a half and two
intervening World Wars before the dear old boy would be made whole?
For a time he lay in two different zones: the Soviet and International, but,
let us be clear, he already belonged to a wider audience than Austria alone.
And Johann kept the secret well. His middle name was Nepomuk, so I expect
his patron saint assisted him, even when the heavens were telling. At least he
died with his tongue intact, unlike his namesake. So, although our associate
knew the truth, others, such as Beethoven, knew nothing. Well, he would not,
Haydn often said that he made something out of nothing. I feel that the
musical world did the same. When all is said and done, he is at peace and a
man who exchanged his best quartet for a good razor would surely not have
minded us sharing his effulgence. We cannot all get what we want-like Jacob,
he had to take the sister of the girl he really loved. We just made sure that
we took what we wanted. At least the Nazis did not appropriate the head
and we preserved him from Donizetti’s fate: apparently his skull was sold to
a pork butcher who used it as a receptacle for collecting money. Some people
have no respect!
Beethoven’s ear passages were excised and two of his teeth stolen, so, all in
all, Josef suffered no sacrilege and was surrounded by music, rather than the
silence of the grave.
Many a time a visiting tenor directed his dulcet tones to his casket:
His large and arched brow sublime
Of wisdom deep declares the seat..
At least when the Lord took the great man’s breath away, he did not
disappear into dust. And now the heavens and earth his power adore.
Achieved is his glorious work. The Lord beholds it and is pleased.
And we were that happy pair, misled by false desire to covet that we should
not have, nor should have striven to know what was not meet. Nevertheless,
I did enjoy possession for a while, but you have his essence for eternity.