November 22, 2013 6:17 pm

A long overdue pilgrimage

‘And then there was the parrot. Haydn bought it in London and it lived with him for 19 years’

He came to live here when he was already famous – one of the greatest Europeans of his time – and no longer young. The house represented something he had never really had: “How sweet is the taste of a certain freedom,” he wrote to a close female friend. “I had a good Prince, yet had to depend at times on base souls. I sighed for redemption; now I have it to some extent.”

The man, you may have guessed, was Joseph Haydn. The house is the Haydnhaus in Gumpendorf, Vienna, where the composer spent the last 12 years of his long and illustrious life. My pilgrimage there was overdue, and surpassed expectations.

This had nothing to do with beauty of surroundings (the house was once surrounded by fields and vineyards, but now sits close to a busy shopping street), splendour of architecture or furnishings. The house is modest, on two floors with a small courtyard garden. There are few objects, a couple of keyboard instruments, some pages of scores, other writings, some pieces from Haydn’s small store of precious things presented by visitors, medals, the drawer of a fine cabinet the rest of which was destroyed in the bombing of Darmstadt in 1944.

What shines through is the sense of a man and an exemplary life. In his last few years, Haydn didn’t venture out much, but received many visitors. The young composer Carl Maria von Weber came in 1803 and remarked: “It is moving to see grown men come to him, the way they call him Papa and kiss his hand.” Members of the Esterházy family, who had once addressed Haydn as a servant, especially the Princess Maria Josepha Hermengild, for whose name-day he wrote his splendid series of late masses, paid calls on the distinguished old man, this time on equal terms.

At this time Haydn printed his last visiting card, which had engraved on it the words “All my strength has gone, old and weak am I,” with his own musical setting. I’m not sure he meant it entirely seriously; among the displays is a lovely note from Haydn dated November 6 1805 in which the gallant old gentleman complains bitterly to an unknown female friend: “How so? Is it then possible that you can leave your good old friend and servant sighing for your noble presence for so long?”

Haydn had no children, and was not on particularly good terms with his wife, who bought the house saying it would be suitable for a widow. But she died in 1800, nearly a decade before he did, and in his last years the closest people to him were his devoted cook Anna Kremnitzer, to whom he left 1,000 florins, while to his valet and copyist Johann Elssler he left 6,000 florins – six times Haydn’s annual pension from the Esterházy family.

And then there was the parrot. Haydn bought it in London and it lived with him in Gumpendorf for 19 years. Sometimes it would “imitate the flute and run up a whole octave”, before speaking the words “Come Haydn Papa, to lovely little parrot”. In the sale of his effects after his death in May 1809, the parrot, valued by the auctioneer at 100 florins, sold for 1,415 florins.

All this is wonderfully touching, but as I wandered round the house in Gumpendorf the music in my mind was not the great late masses or the two oratorios which he composed there but works he composed nearly 30 years earlier, out in the sticks of Esterháza: works which would change the course of western music.

This is quite a claim to make for a set of six string quartets which have never been hugely popular among the general public (unlike say the London symphonies, the Creation, or the quartets opus 76), though always revered by musicians. But the six string quartets opus 20 are works of quite astonishing originality and brilliance. They do not tend to get mentioned alongside such works as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, but in terms of their influence on an art form stretching hundreds of years into the future, they are right up there with them. No wonder that Brahms, who has a room to himself in the Haydnhaus as perhaps the older composer’s most devoted admirer, regarded the autograph scores of the opus 20 quartets as one of his most treasured possessions.

Haydn composed the opus 20 quartets as relatively young man, in his early forties, not the benevolent old “Papa Haydn” which is the image most people have. He may even have been quite an angry man; the music is unremittingly serious and both intellectually and emotionally dense, and blows the whole idea of 18th music as pretty and sweet right out of the water. The slow movements are among the longest and most questioning he ever wrote; the fugal finales look forward to the great fugal finale of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.

One man, working on the edge of a swamp in Hungary in virtual isolation, more or less single-handedly created one of the richest art forms in western culture. Never underestimate Papa Haydn.

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harry.eyres@ft.com, @sloweyres

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