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Joseph Haydn: The Travels of His Purloined Noggin

Joseph Haydn: The Travels of His Purloined Noggin
Ludwig Guttenbrunn

The old joke goes something like this:

"Why couldn't they find Beethoven's teacher?"

"Because he was Haydn?"

"No, because they stole his freakin' skull and passed it around for phrenologist to fondle!"

Ok, the old joke stops before the decapitation of one of the greatest composers who ever lived. Joseph Haydn was a close friend of W. A. Mozart, and did indeed teach Ludwig Van Beethoven a thing or two about music. He is also the composer of The Creation, The Seasons, and many other works that remain popular in the modern repertoire.

Also, he died successful, rich, and surrounded by family and admirers. We mention this because we rarely get to say it, and every once in a while it's nice to see someone get their due. Today is the 202nd anniversary of old age finally getting the best of Haydn in 1809.

Unfortunately, it's also the anniversary of Napoleon occupying Vienna, so even though a national hero had just died there just wasn't much opportunity to have a big send-off. Instead, he was buried in a small, quiet ceremony.

His head was removed in a smaller, and more quit ceremony just a little while later. To understand why, let's talk about phrenology, the pseudoscience that is actually the precursor to several very important neurological concepts, especially that different areas of the brain control different parts of thought and motion. However, phrenologists believed that you could judge these functions through the bumps in a skull.

They were keen on trying out their studies on so great a mind, and it just so happened that Haydn's patron Joseph Rosenbaum was something of an amateur phrenologist himself. Some money changed hands and Haydn's head got "borrowed."

 

Eventually, the phrenologists returned the skull to Rosenbaum, and the theft might never have been discovered if Prince Esterhazy hadn't taken it into is head to transfer Haydn's body to an elaborate mausoleum on his estate 30 years later. They opened the grave, missed the head, and all eyes turned to Rosenbaum.

Give Rosenbaum some credit for guts. First, he hid the head under his wife's mattress when the Prince stormed into his home, and then he had the gall to say that if a reward was offered the head might turn up. The Prince was glad to offer a reward, which he never paid, and Rosenbaum happily handed over the head, which was a substitute because apparently graverobbers and nobility are about as equally trustworthy.

The real head moved back and forth from owner until the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde ended up with it in 1839. In 1895, they decided the public would like to see it, and put it in a glass case on a piano. Visitors who asked could hold it. Try that with a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull and they put your name on a stupid list for 20 years. (3 to go!)

Finally, in 1954, the Esterhazy family finally convinced the Gesellschaft that letting people play with Haydn's head was a tad unworthy for so great a composer. Prince Paul Esterhazy gained possession of the head, and headed back to Hungary to re-capitate the composer.

The ceremony went off without a hitch, despite the fact that Soviet forces had seized the Esterhazy estate. If there's anything we can say for totalitarian regimes, it's that they are utterly trustworthy with composer's body parts.

As for Haydn, he remains at rest, head and all.


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