It is the great paradox of the modern world that at the very time when the world decided that people should not be coerced about their form of religion, it also decided that they should be coerced about their form of education. — G. K. Chesterton

Josph Haydn - George Upton




At Home and Abroad

The market village of Rohrau is situated in the level part of Lower Austria, not far from Bruck on the Leitha. It is an insignificant place, the low houses being mostly made of clay and thatched with straw. These houses stand in a double row and are intersected by a road leading from Hainburg to Bruck.

The last of the houses on the left toward Bruck, at the time our story opens (1737), was roofed with wood. Repaired wagon-bodies and wheels, new ploughs and wheelbarrows, visible through the open door, show it is the shop of a wheelwright or wagon-maker.

At eventide, and always on Sundays, part songs were sung in this little house, and the neighbors listened eagerly to the simple, pleasing melodies with the harp accompaniment. The performers were the wheelwright, Matthias Haydn, and his family. The father, at that time about thirty years of age, sat in the centre of the spacious but low living-room at his harp, which he had learned to play during his years of apprenticeship at Frankfort-on-Main, for an accompaniment to his agreeable tenor voice. His wife Maria, formerly a cook in the service of Count Harrach, and a native of Rohrau, sang soprano. The two children—the seven-year-old Franziska and her brother Joseph, two years younger, familiarly called Sepperl, also took part with their fresh young voices in the house concert, which was genuine recreation for the pious, industrious parents, after the day's hard toil, and also served to dispel their cares and perplexities.

Little Sepperl had a remarkably beautiful voice and a correct musical ear. He knew any melody by heart after once singing it, and never missed a note. But he was not satisfied with merely singing. Upon two occasions he had seen the village school-master play the violin, after which, for lack of any better instrument, he would play upon a board fastened to his left arm, with a stick for a bow, imitating the schoolmaster and keeping perfect time.

This schoolmaster, who sometimes visited the family, declared that Sepperl showed every sign of becoming a skilful musician, and that it would be a shame if his talent were not cultivated and he were forced to be a mere laborer.

"I think so too," said the wheelwright. "Sepperl is cut out for a musician. He takes it from me. I don't know a note, but I have learned to play the harp, and I think I am no bungler at it. If I had had a chance for a decent education in music, I would not have had to stay in this forlorn place, working with hammer and knife to make a new axle for a manure wagon, or set new teeth in a harrow. My boy ought to be what I could not be; but then—"

He paused and gave his wife a significant look.

She sighed and shook her head. "Music is all very fine," said she, "but will it get bread? No! A musician tramping about with his fiddle in his bag, or his bass viol on his back, playing for dances here to-day and there to-morrow, is not much better off than a vagrant. I admit that Sepperl is too good to work in a shop, but I would rather have him become a schoolmaster or a minister. Their occupations are respectable and would ensure him a living."

The two had many discussions of this sort, but they did not remove Frau Haydn's objections to the musical calling for Sepperl. She was ambitious to have him occupy either the platform or the pulpit.

One day a relative, Cantor Frankh, of Hainburg, came to visit them. Master Haydn brought out his harp and they sang some of their best songs for him. The mother and daughter sang, likewise Sepperl, who occupied his usual place upon the great green-tiled stove-bench, accompanying himself upon his make-believe fiddle.

The cantor watched him and listened with the utmost surprise. "By all the saints!" he exclaimed when the singing was over, taking Sepperl's hand, "the lad has a marvellous voice. How pure it is in every tone! He keeps as accurate time as a chapel-master. He has real musical genius."

"There, do you hear that?" said Master Haydn, turning with an air of satisfaction to his wife. "Our cousin agrees with me, and he knows what he is talking about, for he is a musician himself, an organist, and a choir master, which is no small matter.

"I do not think there is anything so very remarkable in the mere keeping of time," said the skeptical mother. "Many other children can do that as they listen to music."

"That may be," said the cantor, "but his skill lies in the way he keeps the time and uses his bow. Everything he does is in such perfect keeping with the music that it shows he has an absolutely correct musical ear. An expert would know that at once."

Frau Haydn repeated her customary objections; but when she referred to the doubtful subsistence and inferior position of a travelling musician, the cantor indignantly exclaimed: "I beg your pardon, dear cousin. Take my case, do I look like a dance fiddler? The musician's position is not always inferior. The lad some day will be a precentor or a chapel-master, with an entire orchestra under his leadership, and get a good living out of it too. It would be a sin to bury such a talent as his in a wheelwright's shop."

"Like mine," groaned Master Haydn.

"I do not intend he shall be a mechanic, but a teacher or a minister," replied Frau Haydn.

"Oh, well," replied the cantor, "it will be time enough for that when he has made a failure in music. Only recently, when I was in Vienna, I heard a young man, who has made a great reputation by his singing and violin playing, say he had been invited to the house of Prince Lobkowitz. His name is Gluck and that prince's patronage will greatly advance his interests. Musicians of his sort are destined, even in the cradle, to surpass ordinary ones. Why then should not the wheelwright's little Sepperl some day become the great Joseph Haydn?"

"Certainly he may, if such be the divine will," said the father, overjoyed at the cantor's suggestion, "but really," shaking his head, "I fear the road from Rohrau does not lead to fortune."

"Not directly," replied the cantor; "but I will make you a proposition. Let me instruct the lad at Hainburg. I will undertake his education, and some day you will thank me for it, dear cousin."

In her soul Mother Haydn still cherished her prejudice against the musician's calling, but she could not resist such an authority as Cousin Frankh, especially when he had made such a practical proposition. After some coaxing and persuasion on her husband's part, she finally gave her consent; and when the cantor left, Master Haydn promised to bring his little son to him within the next two weeks.

The mother now had her hands full, getting Sepperl ready for the "foreign country," as she called Hainburg, though it was but little more than two leagues distant from Rohrau. His clothes were mended, new linen prepared, and Franziska hardly ever had stockings out of her hands, so eager was she that her brother should be amply provided with warm footwear.

The time for departure came at last. A two-horse wagon, which Master Haydn had borrowed from a neighbor, stood before the door. The mother was still filling her darling's bag and pockets with articles he might need, and Franziska stood gazing at her brother, who was going to live in a city ten times as big as Rohrau, with a kind of awe. When he was all ready to start, his mother embraced him again and again, at the same time giving him fresh advice about taking care of himself on the journey.

The neighbors who stood around the wagon gave Sepperl a hearty good-bye. The school-master, who was present, wished him well and congratulated himself not a little upon being the first one to discover the boy's latent talent, which was now to be fully developed. At last, when Sepperl had taken his seat in the wagon at his father's side, Selascovitz, the village priest, who had christened him, gave him his blessing.

As the horses started off, the neighbors dispersed, and the mother with wet eyes went back into the house, which was now lonely enough.

Hainburg, the last purely German city on the Hungarian frontier, with its antique castle walls and towers, is a picture for a painter. In the background towers a lofty mass of rock, crowned with the ruins of the old Hennenburg castle, famous in the "Nibelungen Lied." According to tradition it was the royal castle of the Avari. Here King Etzel rested when he came with his wife Kriemhild and his heroes from Vienna. They still show two statues of Etzel and Kriemhild at the Roman or Hunnish gate of Vienna, and an old Roman aqueduct, still in use, is one of the remnants of the ancient Roman city, Carnuntum. This ancient city covered the present sites of Petronell and the German Altenburg. It was in the old Hainburg that King Ottokar the Second, of Bohemia, celebrated his marriage with the widow of King Henry, sister of the last of the Babenbergs upon which he based his claims to the possession of Austria. Directly opposite, on the left bank of the Danube, is the Marchfeld, where Ottokar lost his throne and his life in a disastrous battle with the Emperor Rudolf of Hapsburg.

The little Joseph Haydn was at last settled in the home of Cantor Frankh at Hainburg. No one in that city dreamed that the lad was destined to occupy an illustrious position in its history. In addition to his school duties, Cantor Frankh had charge of the church music. He played the organ at the mass, vespers, and litany; was the leader of skilful singers, violinists, and trumpeters; trained the boys in the ecclesiastical service; and, with the help of subteachers, instructed them in singing and music as well as in reading, writing, arithmetic, and theology.

With this excellent teacher Joseph studied the rudiments of singing and violin playing and made good progress; but it must be said notwithstanding his natural endowments, he sometimes got more chastisement than food. "Cousin" Frankh's regime was an arduous one. He encouraged Joseph to play the trumpet, as well as his young lungs would permit, and during the earlier part of his stay in Hainburg the boy devoted himself to the kettle-drums also, in connection with which an amusing story is told.

It was a custom in Catholic countries at that time to make ceremonial processions in Holy Week and invoke the blessing of Heaven upon the harvests. For three days procession after procession paraded in the neighborhood of the parish church. The festival of Saint Florian, June 4, was observed by the celebration of high mass and other services. Unfortunately the drummer of the band died only a short time before, and there was no one to take his place.

In this emergency it occurred to the cantor that his young kinsman, whose facility in keeping time had recently surprised him in Rohrau, was just the one for the place; so he gave him the necessary instructions about his duties and trusted the drumming to his skill.

Haydn was eager to help. He went to the closet, took a great meal basket, stretched a cloth over it for a drumhead, placed the unique instrument upon a chair, and began practising upon it industriously. The basket groaned and creaked under his vigorous blows; the meal flew about the room in clouds and so dusted the face and clothes of the little drummer that he looked like a miller. He paid no attention to his looks, however, and kept on pounding, until the cantor's wife, attracted by the strange hollow sounds, entered and stopped him—but not until he had learned drum playing sufficiently well to take his place in the procession as a substitute.

There was still another obstacle, however, to be overcome. As the drummer was not able to carry the heavy instruments, a helper was employed for that part of the work; but as the regular helper was a veritable Goliath, and Sepperl could hardly reach his waist, another had to be obtained who would not so far overtop the little Haydn. Only one could be found, and he was a hunchback of about Sepperl's own height. When the procession moved and the spectators saw the well-known hunchback carrying the drums on his back, and the still smaller manikin behind heating the calfskin with praiseworthy zeal and dignified solemnity, there was universal laughter. This was Haydn's first musical appearance in public. The drums upon which he played are still preserved in the choir of the Hainburg church.

Sepperl's person and clothes had always been carefully looked after at home. The cantor's wife, who filled his mother's place, should have cared for him, but she was so busily occupied with her household duties and the care of her own children that the lad was suffered to run about with ragged clothes and buttons hanging by a thread, like a little gamin. Thus two years passed, during which time Haydn made excellent progress in music and already sang solos in the choir at mass.

The pastor one Sunday sat down to a specially good dinner after service, for he had a guest from Vienna. It was a friend of his youth, the court composer, George Reutter, also chapel-master at Saint Stephen's cathedral. During a pause in the conversation, Reutter asked: "Who was that little boy who sang so sweetly at church to-day?"

"That was Sepperl," replied the pastor with a slight smile as if he had been awaiting the question. "His real name is Joseph Haydn. He is the son of a wheelwright in Rohrau; our teacher and choir leader, Frankh, who is related to his parents, is giving him lessons."

"That little fellow has a voice like a nightingale's, and as clear and pure as a bell. He would be a welcome addition to my choir," said the chapel-master, pacing up and down the room as excited as a treasure-digger who has found a chest of gold.

"I am a great admirer also of the little fellow," said the pastor, smiling. "He is wide-awake and industrious, and has honest, God-fearing parents."

"Can I not see him before I leave?" asked Reutter.

"Certainly. I will send for Cantor Frankh and have him bring Sepperl here," said the pastor.

A quarter of an hour later there was a knock at the door, and with a low bow Cantor Frankh entered, leading his little scholar.

Joseph modestly and somewhat shyly approached the great gentleman, for he was ashamed of his shabby clothes. Suddenly he was irresistibly attracted by a plate of cherries which had been left on the table, and could not help casting longing side glances at them. Noticing his actions, Reutter gave the boy a handful of them, which, it hardly needs to be said, were eagerly devoured.

"Herr Dechant has spoken well of you," said Reutter to the little fellow after exchanging a few words with the cantor. Then, regarding him searchingly with his sharp eyes, he added: "I have heard you sing to-day, and am much pleased. Your voice is still a little weak, but it will grow strong in time. Can you sing at sight, my boy?"

Oh! yes," replied Sepperl, and the cantor smilingly confirmed the truth of his answer. Reutter went to the piano and looked among the music lying upon it. Handing a piece to the boy, he opened the instrument and struck a chord. Sepperl sang the piece from beginning to end in a delightful manner, without missing a note, and also with such expression and intelligence that the Vienna chapel-master enthusiastically praised him. Encouraged by the applause, Sepperl said: "I can also play the drums."

"We will leave drum-beating to the Turks," replied Reutter. "Can you shake?"

"No," replied Haydn, in the most artless manner, and, turning a side glance at his teacher, he added: "And he cannot do it either."

Reutter smiled, and was not a little amused at the embarrassment of the cantor. He then told the lad what was meant by a "shake," and showed him how to do it.

The scholar tried to imitate him, and improved so rapidly at each trial that Reutter graciously exclaimed: "Bravo! you understand quickly. How old are you, my lad?"

"Seven years."

"Good," said Reutter. "Now, you must stay here a year and study hard. Then I will take you into the singing class at Saint Stephen's and instruct you and care for your future. Your parents certainly will not object."

Saying this, he gave the little singer a bright silver piece, and after a few words with the cantor, all took their leave.

There was not a happier person in all Hainburg that day than the little Haydn. He was so overjoyed that he longed to climb to the top of old Hennenburg and proclaim to all the world that he was going to the chapel-house in Vienna. There was great rejoicing in the old home at Rohrau also when the news reached there.