The angry historians see one side of the question. The calm historians see nothing at all, not even the question itself. — G. K. Chesterton

Josph Haydn - George Upton




Metastasio and Porpora

Haydn's neighbors on the fifth floor of the Old Michaeler House, mostly servants of the distinguished occupants of the lower stories, were a lackey, a cook, a butler, a porter, and others, with all of whom the young artist was on good terms—a fact which soon worked to his advantage. One day a servant of a gentleman on the third floor said to him: "My gracious master is looking for a piano-teacher for the little Fraulein Martines. He has heard that there is some one on the top floor who thoroughly understands piano-playing. You had better apply at once." He also gave Haydn some suggestions as to the best way of securing an interview with his master, who was very whimsical.

This odd personage was the famous Italian poet Metastasio, who had been summoned to Vienna and appointed court poet by the Emperor Charles VI. As court poet he wrote melodious verse for all the imperial fete-days. He had given up some rooms in his apartment to the family of his friend Nicolo de Martines, who was attached to the papal Embassy as master of ceremonies. Martines had two little daughters. Marianne, the elder, displayed a gift for music and was a great favorite with Metastasio, who was deeply interested in her education. Though much sought after in the higher circles, he lived very quietly. To one of his morbid temperament the restlessness of court life was unendurable. He was at this time in his fiftieth year. Though he outwardly appeared vigorous, he was the victim of some peculiar malady. He ate and slept well and was of stout figure, and yet, it is said, he suffered from lung trouble, acute nervousness, and indigestion. He would get angry at any one who thought he was well or who congratulated him upon his healthy appearance, but was always delighted when asked about his health, and when he had a chance to tell the story of his aches and pains to some sympathetic listener, especially if the listener would gently reproach him for working too hard and not having enough pleasure in his life. It was a mistake to express a hope that his health would improve, for he would at once retort that his death was nigh at hand. But at the same time he would not listen to any mention of death or dead people, for he had an irrepressible fear of dying.

After receiving instructions how to approach the old hypochondriac, Haydn called the next day. The servant who had done him such a good turn had already prepared his master for the interview, so that the young artist was spared a ceremonious presentation. It was unnecessary, however, for Haydn to use any diplomacy in meeting him, for Metastasio received him with great friendliness and sincerity of manner.

"I know you already by sight," he said, advancing to meet Haydn, "for we live under the same roof. They tell me you are very industrious, which pleases me, for I too improve every hour of my time. Work is a solace, not a burden to me. In my young days I strolled about the Campus Martius in Rome, but was not idle. I wrote songs and accompanied them on the lute. Things went badly with me and my songs, however, until I found a generous patron in the great advocate Gravina. But for his help I should have been forced to play the yardstick instead of the lyre, and to follow the vocation of my father, who was a poor shopkeeper." As the outcome of the interview, Haydn was engaged as piano-teacher for Marianne Martines, then in her tenth year. His compensation was his table-board which it was understood he must procure outside the house.

Marianne received instruction in vocal music from Porpora, the celebrated Italian teacher and composer. As this famous maestro was now an old man and disliked to play the accompaniments for his little pupil, Haydn was engaged for this work also, and this circumstance brought about an acquaintanceship with Porpora which was of great help to him.

Porpora was born in Naples and founded a conservatory in Florence, which had graduated many great singers. Besides this, his numerous operas and church works had earned him fame as a composer. He, too, was an odd personage, but in a different way from Metastasio. Fame and good living had made the poet a hypochondriac, while disappointments and some bitter experiences had turned the old teacher into a bitter misanthrope. Many of his scholars who owed their success to his skilful instructions and who were now artists of the first rank, forgot their teacher, rewarded him with ingratitude, and left him to the risk of poverty in his old age. The result was that he believed the whole world was ungrateful and cold, and he retaliated by exhibitions of surly temper and bitter acerbity.

Haydn hoped to profit from the study of Porpora's vocal method. He wanted also to enjoy his instruction in composition, in which he had never had methodical training, also to learn something of the Italian language from him, for he still had hopes of seeing Italy some day. He was even ready to endure his abuse, provided he could learn something from him.

After waiting some time Haydn at last plucked up courage to call upon the growling old bear in his simple lodgings, thinking that the worst he could do would be to throw him down stairs.

"How! what!" roared Porpora, after listening to his wants with the utmost impatience; "a mere piano teacher, a poor devil like you, become an artist! And I give you instruction! I, the great Porpora! Oh! I am so thankful for such a chance! Sir, I only take the children of the wealthy. True, they generally know nothing, but they are excellent pay, they are proud to have me for a teacher, and they really imagine they will know something when they leave me. Artists are nothing but miserable, ungrateful wretches, traitors, and liars. Maledetto! I am not making any more artists. Take yourself off!"

Haydn begged and entreated. He would do the maestro any service, anticipate even his slightest wish. Porpora, after a little consideration, growled: "So you are willing to be of service to me?" Then, looking about the room, which was a dreadful example of bachelor habits, he added: "Well, put things in order here right away. When I get back I will see how you have succeeded." With these words he took his hat and left.

Haydn was happy. He believed Porpora had already promised to help him in his studies, and began to clear up the room at once,—no easy task, by the way. Porpora returned an hour later and, without noticing the change in the room, strode to the piano, which he had left covered with music sheets in wild disorder, to get a paper upon which he had sketched a theme the evening before. As he saw the papers piled up in the neatest manner, he thundered at Haydn: "Corpo di Bacco! have you dared to disturb my music?"

"I beg your pardon, Herr von Porpora," said Haydn, humbly, "that was part of my work. Your papers were lying about in utter confusion—a perfect chaos."

"But I could find everything in that chaos," shrieked the maestro, gesticulating wildly. "I could get up in the middle of the night and find the smallest bit of paper in the dark. Now I cannot find anything."

"On the contrary," Haydn ventured to reply meekly, "your Grace can find things much more easily in the pile I have made, than in that litter of papers which the slightest draft of air might have swept out of the window."

"What! Have you put every piece in that pile?" Porpora shrieked. "Now I shall never find the piece I want. I am lost. It will take me a month to set things to rights again."

Porpora pulled the hair out of his wig and threatened to throttle Haydn. At last he recovered his senses and grabbed the papers to make sure they were all there. With queer grimaces he turned them over, and as he did so his anger gradually subsided. After a brief search he found the missing paper, and had to acknowledge that Haydn's new system was a very convenient one.

"Go to the piano and play me the theme, but be careful about it," said Porpora.

Haydn obeyed, but as the maestro was not yet satisfied with it he made him repeat it thirty times, in the meantime indicating the accent he preferred upon this tone and that, and making changes which occurred to him with such exasperating frequency that only one of Haydn's heavenly patience could have endured it.

Such was the beginning of Haydn's studies with the capricious Italian, which continued several months. It was severe discipline, and it sorely tested Haydn's good nature. Porpora thoroughly availed himself of the service his pupil had tendered him. He not only had to clean up the room, but dust the old man's clothes, curl his wig, carry his ruffled shirts to the washerwoman and perform other menial work. His reward was epithets like "ass "and "beast," and other such shameful names. When Maestro Porpora was in particularly bad humor he vented his spleen by poking Haydn in the ribs.

While studying with Porpora, Haydn could not devote himself to composition with the freedom he might have enjoyed had his time not been occupied with other duties. It was impossible for him to concentrate his thought upon such exacting work while engaged in writing dance and serenade music to eke out his slender income. One of these serenades, for five instruments, seemed to him better than usual, and his opinion was verified the first time he performed it with his four companions. It was enthusiastically applauded and an encore was demanded. Its success encouraged him to play it under Porpora's windows. The maestro listened to it with great pleasure, and lustily applauded at the close without recognizing in the darkness who the players were.

Haydn was in such good spirits over the maestro's approval that his old passion for a practical joke was aroused. He requested his companions to accompany him to the Tiefengraben, a low, gloomy street, and informed them that he was going to play a new style of serenade. On the way, a fifth player, a drummer, was picked up for the mysterious expedition.

Upon reaching the Tiefengraben, Haydn assigned the players to different localities. The drummer was stationed on the Hohenbrucke, which unites the Tiefengraben with a higher cross street. No one knew what the other was to play. Each one was instructed to play his favorite tune fortissimo, and when the signal was given the din commenced. The violin scraped a furious prestissimo, the bassoon grunted its deepest tones, and not far from them the clarinet shrieked; in another place the horn exulted most hilariously, and from the Hohenbrucke reverberated the thunder of the drummer. The concert had hardly begun before windows were flung open on all sides and infuriated people, wakened from their slumbers, hurled oaths and execrations at the "cursed hell music," as they called it. The players soon realized the danger of their situation and the audacious way they had violated the city laws, when the patrol got after them. They took to their heels in a hurry and escaped, but the unfortunate drummer, whose heavy instrument impeded his flight, was caught and became the scapegoat of the party, as he would not give their names.

The beautiful and musically gifted Wilhelmina, wife of Corner, of the Venetian Embassy, was among Porpora's distinguished scholars. Haydn was engaged as accompanist in her studies, and as Corner spent the summer with his wife at the baths of Mannersdorf, he took Porpora and Haydn with him. Mannersdorf, a market town with a castle on the Hungarian frontier, not far from Bruck on the Leitha, was at that time, like Ischl to-day, the favorite resort of the Austrian nobility and distinguished foreigners. It was a lively, bustling place. Elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen, followed by liveried servants, paraded the walks, and the streets were filled with sumptuous state coaches, and stages closely packed with arriving guests. Both real and imaginary patients found themselves invigorated by the curative properties of the springs.

Haydn was delighted with the rural charm of the spot, which was situated not far from his own home and on the very stream which ran past his father's house. He was paid six ducats a month for his piano accompaniments for the ambassador's wife, and was also allowed meals at the table of the secretaries, minor officials, and upper servants. A young artist in those days without a settled profession and means had to accept social inferiority; but this was no hardship to the wheelwright's son. He had opportunities for admission to the higher circles, however, and sometimes played at the soirees of Prince Hildburghausen. Here he made the acquaintance of many distinguished musicians, among them Gluck, the court-theatre director. The latter was an advocate of the Italian school at that time, and he advised the future great master of German art to go to Italy and study. This had long been Haydn's desire, for Italy was to musicians then, what it is to-day for painters and sculptors. The Italians of all classes revelled in music. It was heard everywhere—in the church and the theatre, in the home and on the streets. Appreciation increased with the constant hearing, and really good music was accepted not only enthusiastically but intelligently. In this way Italy had become the favorite school for all foreign musicians. Haydn believed he could live and work there and gain not only success for that work, but incentive for future effort.

After the charming summer outing was ended, Haydn applied himself with fresh zeal to his studies in Vienna. Now and then he and his brother Michael visited Rohrau, but as a rule the brothers were not often together. Michael had a leading position among the chapel-boys, and sometimes supplied the place of organist in the cathedral. Next to music, he was devoted to scientific pursuits. He also made great progress in Latin and was very proficient in classical literature, of which he was fond all his life.

Whenever the two brothers went to Rohrau, their father, as in the old days, brought out his harp and they sang his favorite songs together. Naturally enough, the sons, who were now professional musicians, noticed that their father took liberties with the tunes and now and then made false accords on the harp. When they criticised him for it he would refer them to his old teacher in Frankfort-on-the-Main, saying that he was not a forward young fellow like some persons, but a man who knew what he was about. Sometimes neither side would give in, and on such occasions the old man would get angry and end all further controversy with the terse announcement, "Both of you are asses." Before long, however, singing and playing ceased in the old home. Haydn's mother died February 23, 1754, in her forty-sixth year. The fame of her eldest son had not yet matured. What an unspeakable joy it would have been to her had she known he was to become one of the greatest musicians of all times!

The father married again a year later, and another ruled in the little home where a true mother's care and love had blessed the early childhood of an immortal one.