Beethoven, on his deathbed, was shown a painting of Joseph Haydn’s birthplace in the village Rohrau. This market town was set down in the monotonous marshlands along the Leitha River in Lower Austria. (Rohrau is translated from the German for reedy meadow.) Every few years in spring the river flooded the low-lying countryside. In the dry season the townspeople were fearful of their thatched roofs catching fire. When the mosquitoes rose from the swamps they were plentiful, and disease was never far behind. Rohrau also had a history haunted by invasions. The town was near the Hungarian border, so the military tug & pull of 18th century Central Europe often wrenched the lives of the modest citizens of Rohrau, whom history records as honest Croatian rubes.

In 1732, born among them, there was baby Franciscus Josephus Haydn; and ninety-five years later, here was Beethoven, looking back through the intersecting planes of both their lives at the smoky clay cottage where his one-time teacher was born, and Beethoven is said to have said, “Strange that so great a man should have been born in so poor a home.”

It is likely that Beethoven did not know how far the truth of his words reached into Haydn’s early life. By the time Beethoven came to Haydn to study, in 1792, Haydn had already aged into “Papa,” a man so reticent and so forgiving that if he spoke of his battered and impoverished beginnings at all he did so with hardly a trace of resentment..

Haydn’s father, Mathias, like his father before him, and his father before him, fixed wagon wheels for a living. Mathias also produced wine for a small profit, grew crops, and was entrusted by the townspeople with the duties of Marktrichter, which included checking that everyone went to church, watching out for adultery and gambling, and overseeing the labor needed to repair the local ditches. Mathias Haydn worked like a mule, as did his wife, Anna Maria, who bore twelve children (six survived infancy; Joseph was the second child), and kept her household scrupulously.

If this sounds like the wellspring of Haydn’s profound sense of industry and order, as Haydn himself spoke of it in his old age, the Marktrichter and his wife must have passed along their qualities of diligence genetically more than by strict example, for when their eldest son was five years old the Haydns sent him away to live.

The boy, nicknamed Sepperl, was fair-haired and inward-looking. From about age four he showed a pleasant aptitude for music (he could sing in tune). One soggy autumn day, into Rohrau for a visit came Johann Mathias Franck, a distant cousin of the Haydns by marriage. This man Franck was school rector in the castle town of Hainburg on the Danube. As rector, he served as choir director of the town’s Catholic church. He was also overburdened, the sort of man who seems forever lunging from one unhappy chore to the next. In Hainburg he was responsible for the education of eighty children, and for keeping the church register, maintaining the town clock, and ringing the church bells for services and fires. For this, Franck had the help of two assistants, whom he was required to pay himself.

Upon arriving in Rohrau, Franck was treated to one of the Haydn family’s after-dinner amusements – father played the harp, accompanying mother and her brood of girls and the boy in peasant tunes. Franck, hearing Sepperl’s clear, melodious voice, wasted no time proposing the boy be apprenticed to him. Under the guidance of a music master, said Franck, the boy might discover his fine gifts. The Haydns agreed, but told Franck they did not want their son to become a musician. They would have him one day take holy orders. Franck declared that as anyone knows a musical education is unfailingly useful to a priest. Yes yes, the Haydns knew that to be true as well. Soon they began making arrangements to relinquish their little Sepperl to Cousin Franck. The boy never again lived with his parents.

In Hainburg, within the town’s medieval gates, Franck soon revealed his predilection for caning. He took an inch-thick stick of polished wood and gave the back of the legs a hard snap. Evidence strongly suggests that Franck used to snap his cane off young Joseph’s legs (and back and shoulders) not merely for punishment, but to vent his frustration. He received a least one official admonishment from the Hainburg Council to refrain from pulling out the hair of his pupils.

Of course, seen from a different perspective, this came under the heading of Tough Taskmaster, and Papa Haydn years later gave credit to his first teacher for showing him the meaning of hard work. But as for musical training, though Franck dished out plenty, his standards must have been abysmal. He was satisfied if he could elicit from his meager choir anything that God, or the farmers of Hainburg, might recognize as music, and he seems to have known how to do that scarcely more than did his choirboys.

Franck’s wife, from accounts we have of her miserable life, was a bitter, slovenly woman with two toddling daughters and an infant son. Upon entering the home, young Joseph immediately became, in the eyes of Juliane Franck, household help – someone to scrub the front steps, empty the chamber pots, and so on. Predictably, the boy’s clothes were stained and needed mending. His hair grew lice-ridden and smelly. Juliane tossed a wig at him and told him to cover it. He grew scrawny. His skin, already deeply marked by childhood smallpox, took on a brownish tint that would never leave him. Years later even Haydn, dear generous Papa whose tempered memory did not allow for harshness, even Papa Haydn recalled that during his two years under Franck’s guardianship he “received more floggings than food.” He changed from a clear-eyed and melodious lad into “a regular little ragamuffin.”

Then there came to Hainburg one Johann Adam Karl Georg von Reutter, the young, rising, and newly appointed kappellmeister at the famous St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Herr Reutter was a composer of recent note in the Imperial City. His ambition made him bristle. Herr Reutter was combing the Austrian outback in search of fresh voices for his choir. The parish priest, who had often looked kindly upon the quiet Haydn boy, recommended that Herr Reutter hear the boy. “His is a weak but sweet voice,” said the priest.

At the house of the priest, Herr Reutter gave the boy a tune to sing on sight. Joseph stood before him and sang it with simple purity, with precision and smiling ease, and none of the brashness so common among boys his age. Herr Reutter’s eyes lit with delight.

“You do not trill,” said Herr Reutter. “What is the reason, Bubchen?” Joseph tried his best to explain that his cousin had never…his cousin did not know how…how could he be expected to trill?

“Come here,” said Herr Reutter, “I will teach you.” He took Joseph between his knees and showed him the simple exercise, agitating the palate to produce a quick succession of notes. Joseph picked it up on the first try. Herr Reutter was most pleased. By his side was a plateful of plump cherries. He reached a handful and stuffed them into Joseph’s coat pocket. Years later, Papa Haydn still treasured this memory, and said that on the rare occasion that he would trill he never failed to recall those plump cherries.

Herr Reutter sent word to Joseph’s parents. He wished that when the talented child became eight years of age, in a few months, he would come live in Vienna and be part of his Cantorei at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Herr Reutter even promised he would look after the boy personally. The answer came back: Yes.

Once in Vienna, Master Joseph must have been dumbfounded by the sight of St. Stephen’s four-hundred foot south tower, high slender buttresses, and gargoyle dragons. Inside the cathedral there was a wondrous labyrinth of altars, nooks and passageways. But Joseph’s most startling discovery was that of a different Herr Reutter than the one who had filled his pockets with cherries. At St. Stephen’s the kappellmeister, who had succeeded his father in the position, was far too absorbed in advancing his reputation as a composer to give more than a nod to the six choristers, one subcantor, one organist, and several string players whose general education fell under his domain. Herr Reutter did push the boys in his Cantorei to practice their singing and their instruments (Joseph played violin and clavier), thereby assuring his compositions would receive adequate performances. But as for Latin and arithmetic and everything else Herr Reutter’s teaching principle was simple: the boys could figure it out for themselves.

In his nine years at St. Stephen’s Joseph received from Herr Reutter exactly two lessons in music theory. Once, as Joseph was trying his naïve hand at writing a Salve Regina, Herr Reutter walked in on him unexpectedly, startling them both. When he discovered that Joseph was trying to compose, in twelve parts no less, Herr Reutter mocked him. “Silly child,” he said, and tossed the music paper aside.

Worse was the deprivation. St. Stephen’s did not provide Herr Reutter with enough money to care adequately for his pupils. So his pupils were crammed together in the Cantoreihaus, a filthy, unheated structure, and there was never much to eat. Years later Papa Haydn used to joke about how when the Cantorei performed in the houses of Viennese nobility he and his fellow choristers would stuff themselves with refreshments. Likewise, the choristers would often sing in the streets for a few kreuzer to buy bread and soup.

These turned into charming memories. But back then, in the absence of food, there was little to think of besides food. Papa had to sadly admit, it wasn’t charming at the time.

Then at seventeen, Joseph’s voice suffered the last ravages of puberty. As his singing slowly deteriorated, Kapellmeister Reutter began frowning each time he looked Joseph’s way. Herr Reutter was one of the court composers at Empress Maria Theresa’s newly erected castle of Schönbrunn. This meant that for funerals and feast days Herr Reutter would bring his choristers to sing with the court choir, and Joseph might be afforded a solo. But now the empress, who had so often enjoyed Joseph’s sweet soprano, was displeased. She commented that the fair-haired boy was “crowing like a cock.”

No more solos for Joseph.

Herr Reutter faced two options: 1. Remove Joseph from the choir and place him among the violins (where the boy was a little suspect) until his voice matured into the fine tenor it might become. 2. Expel him from the Cantorei.

Herr Reutter chose a third option. He recommended castration to save his voice. The young Joseph shuddered, and from far away in rustic Rohrau came word from father, Mathias Haydn, that he didn’t think a musician’s life would be worth such a barbarous operation. No castration.

Herr Reutter quickly cast the young man out. He used the excuse of a small practical joke by Joseph. Playing with a new pair of scissors, he cut the pigtail off the wig of a fellow chorister. When Herr Reutter learned of this he summoned Joseph and berated him, finally spelling out his punishment, “You will be caned on the hands!”

Mustering up all his defiance, the young Joseph Haydn spoke to Herr Reutter in his breaking voice, “I would rather leave the Cantorei than be caned.”

“Of course you will be expelled,” said Herr Reutter with venom enough to leave an indelible stain on Haydn’s memory, “after you have been caned.” And this he did.

One day years later, Beethoven would kneel before Haydn and press those hands to his lips in gratitude.

It was an afternoon in November, 1749. Master Joseph Haydn carried with him nothing more than three wear worn shirts and a coat that needed mending. Commanded to lave the Gothic confines of St. Stephen’s, the young man found himself on the stone streets of Vienna. He had no place to stay. He had no money. He knew he was not nearly good enough a musician to eke out an existence performing. Besides, Herr Reutter had made sure the worthless delinquent understood he would have no recommendation. The young man was without prospects – not even the skills of a cartwright.

Above the bare nut-trees, the great gargoyled south tower of St. Stephen’s rang out the hour, and Haydn listened in stupefied despair. It was two o’clock and getting cold.

For the next eight years, the young man lived in garret near St. Michael’s Church and pieced together a living mostly by giving lessons, or even accompanying lessons, especially the lessons given by Nicola Porpora, who would teach Haydn much about composing and singing. On Sundays, Joseph also accompanied early morning Mass for the Brothers of Mercy, played in the chapel of Count Haugwitz late morning, and sang noontime Mass at St. Stephen’s, from whence he had been kicked out, all for a pittance. It was, said Papa Haydn in a brief autobiographical sketch prepared near the end of his life, “a wretched existence.” But the text blames no one – not Herr Reutter, not Franck, not his father. By then, Papa Haydn had long since set blame aside and found his autodidactic way to greatness. That greatness was so widely acknowledged that not only did the music world bestow on Haydn its highest honors and erect to him its most magnificent monuments, but even the Croatian country folk of his heritage paid him splendid tribute with a homily that has remained to his day: “As good a marksman and fisherman as Haydn.”

Leave a Comment