Beethoven, Donizetti, Eisenstadt, Esterhazy, Florian Gassmann, Gall&Spurzheim, Gumpendorf, Hundsthurm, Joseph Haydn, Joshua Reynolds, Karl Rosenbaum, Mrs Billington, Napoleon, Nepomuk, phrenology, Princess and the Pea, Princess Maria Josepha Hermengild, Seven Last Words, St Cecilia, The Creation, The Seasons
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
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
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
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 alternative.
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 advancement.
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
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
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, would he?
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
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
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.