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The Domestic Life of Haydn

By Arthur Elson

Less happy than Bach in his married life was Franz Josef Haydn. After a boyhood of poverty and struggles, he obtained a position as Kapellmeister to a Bohemian nobleman, Count Morzin. This post was none too lucrative, however, for it brought the composer only about one hundred dollars a year, while his teaching could not have provided him with much extra wealth, and his compositions brought him nothing. Yet his financial troubles did not deter him from seeking those of matrimony, in spite of the fact that Count Morzin never kept married men in his service. According to the poet Campbell, marriage looks like madness in nine cases out of ten; and Haydn's venture was certainly no exception.

The one upon whom the composer's affections lighted was the younger daughter of a barber named Keller. He had met her while a choir-boy in the Church of St. Stephen, at Vienna, and she had afterward become one of his pupils. For some unexplained reason,—let us hope it was not because of the young composer's love,—she took to the veil, and renounced the wickedness and the marriages of the world. The barber, possibly hoping to lighten the suitor's disappointment, and very probably wishing to have both daughters off his hands, promptly suggested to the young lover that he take the elder sister instead. Apparently realizing that marriage at best is but a lottery, Haydn accepted the proposition.

The wedding took place at St. Stephen's, on November 26, 1760. Whether Count Morzin would have made an exception in Haydn's case, and retained him in spite of this event, there is no means of telling, for that nobleman met with financial reverses, and was forced to give up his musical establishment. Fortunately for the young genius, some of his works had been heard and admired by the Prince Paul Esterhazy, who showed his musical discernment by taking Haydn into his service and becoming a lifelong patron of the composer.

There was little real affection between Haydn and his wife at the start of their life journey together. He declared, however, that he really began to have some feeling for her, and would have come to entertain still warmer sentiments toward her if she had behaved at all reasonably. But unfortunately, she did not seem to be capable of behaving reasonably. The wives of great men are usually proud of the attainments of their husbands, and take no pains to conceal this fact. But the barber's daughter of Vienna was totally lacking in any real appreciation of her gifted consort. As Haydn himself observed once, it would have made no difference if he had been a shoemaker instead of an artist. She used his manuscript scores as curl-papers and underlays for the family pastry; she made continual use of the conjugal privilege of going through his pockets and abstracting the cash; and once, when he was in London, her calm selfishness rose to the point of asking him to buy a certain house, which she admired, so that she might have a home provided for her widowhood.

Through all his troubles, Haydn preserved a dignified silence about his domestic unhappiness, and in his letters it is mentioned only twice. For a long time he bore the trials patiently, but at length was forced to give up the household and live apart from his domestic tormentor. The woman who had hoped for a permanent home in her widowhood ended her lonely existence in 1800, nine years before the close of her husband's career.

With these facts in view, it is not surprising to find that Haydn at times sought elsewhere the consolation he was denied at home. He was fond of feminine companions, especially when they were well endowed with personal attractions. He must have possessed ingratiating manners, for he certainly could not boast of great personal attractions, and he himself admitted that his fair admirers were, "At any rate, not tempted by his beauty." His natural tenderness showed itself in a passionate fondness for children,—a blessing denied to his own home.

One of his most violent friendships had for its object a young Italian singer of nineteen, Luigia Polzelli. Apparently she was not happy with her husband, and a bond of mutual sympathy drew the composer to her. After the death of her husband, she persuaded Haydn to sign a promise to marry her if his wife should die, but the composer afterward repudiated the agreement, very likely not wishing to repeat his first matrimonial blunder.

Another romance is found in the love-letters sent to the composer by a charming London widow named Schroeter. Without overstepping the bounds of propriety, he was able to draw some profit from this episode, for he gave lessons to his fair admirer, and allowed her to do manuscript copying for him. Apparently the friendship was more of her seeking than of his own, as her letters to him bear witness. These are copied neatly in one of his note-books, along with various amusing "Anectods," a description of a London fog, "thick enough to be spread on bread," and an excellent receipt for making the Prince of Wales's punch.