The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

Haydn in England and the Language that Crosses Borders

At the end of the eighteenth century, Austria’s unrivalled export was its musicians. Three of the greatest music geniuses of all time were near contemporaries, living in Vienna. The eldest was Haydn, there was Mozart, and the German Beethoven who moved from Bonn to Vienna in order to study with Haydn. Then, as now, musicians travelled and gave concerts abroad, which was one of their main sources of income. So, there was nothing unusual when the elderly Haydn (1732-1809) left Vienna for London in 1790. Mozart, who had himself performed in London at the age of nine, had expressed his concern that Haydn didn’t speak foreign languages and had no English in particular, but the older man was unconcerned: “Oh, my language is understood all over the world.” Moreover, as one of his biographers, Daniel Heartz, says, Haydn had been “won over by potent monetary arguments.” As usual, the great composer, who had spent his youth in abject poverty, didn’t lose sight of money matters.

Portrait of Haydn by John Hoppner, commissioned by the Prince of Wales in 1791, Buckingham Palace, London

Haydn caused a sensation when he arrived for the London season. Once again, music proved to be a language that crosses borders. As he wrote in one of his letters to Vienna, “my arrival has caught the attention of the whole city ... the story is in all the newspapers.” At a court ball at St. James’s Palace, the Prince of Wales walked to Haydn and, before the eyes of all, bowed deeply to him (the incident was widely reported). In 1791, Oxford University made Haydn an honorary Doctor of Music. During the elaborate ceremony, the Viennese composer was received with a standing ovation. The Holywell Music Room in Oxford, the first public concert hall in England and possibly in Europe, a still functioning tiny building in the centre of Oxford, played an important role in popularizing Haydn. His Symphony number 92, known as “the Oxford Symphony,” became one of the most performed pieces at the Holywell.

The Holywell Music Room in Oxford (1748), the first public concert-hall in Europe.

Amid all the glory, Haydn never lost his sense of pragmatism and the issue of money remained as present as ever in his mind. His description of the Prince of Wales was characteristically down to earth. The Prince had “an extraordinary love of music and feeling, but little money.” In other words, there was not much of tangible use to be expected from a royal, but penniless admirer, however flattering his attentions might be. Meanwhile, Haydn’s letters were full of complaints that “everything here [in London] is frightfully expensive.” He made sure that he was well-paid, as he needed the money for a new house in Vienna. Frau Haydn had chosen a house, which, as she wrote to her husband, she wanted “to occupy in the future when she was a widow.” In the event, she died first.

Haydn came back from London to Vienna and acquired the house, now the charming Haydn Museum in Vienna. In the meantime, the much younger Mozart had died, while Beethoven was waiting eagerly for his teacher.

Comments are closed.