David Sedley
David Sedley

Parshat Vayetze – Haydn seek

Painting of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy in 1792. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)
Painting of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy in 1792. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

This week I want to tell you about the incredible and amazing story of why the Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn was discovered lying in his grave with a wig on top of his body, but no head. And why he now has with two heads buried with him.

In his book, “Haydn, A Creative Life in Music,” musicologist Karl Geiringer traces the composer’s life story.

Haydn was born in the small village of Rohrau near the Hungarian border. His father was a wheelwright and his mother was a cook. Both were keen amateur musicians, but nobody could have predicted that Haydn would go on to become one of the most famous and successful composers, a mentor of Mozart and, later, a tutor to Beethoven.

He spent most of his career working for the Esterházy family, far away from the musical centers of Europe, which he said, “forced [him] to become original.” Despite the distance, Haydn’s music was widely performed in concert houses across the continent.

He was an extremely prolific composer, writing more than 100 symphonies and over 80 string quartets, as well as masses, piano sonatas and much more.

Joseph Haydn playing string quartets. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Following the death of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, his son Anton became head of the family estate and economized by firing most of his orchestra. At that time Haydn accepted an offer to move to London, where he already dominated the concert scene. From 1791-1792 and again from 1794–1795 the composer wrote some of his best work.

During his first London stay he wrote Symphony 94 (along with several other symphonies and many other pieces).

The second movement of the Surprise Symphony, has the simple, repeated theme which later became the kid’s song:

Papa Haydn’s dead and gone
but his memory lingers on.
When his mood was one of bliss
he wrote jolly tunes like this.

It is nicknamed the Surprise Symphony because the opening, quiet, pianissimo line ends with a very loud, fortissimo G major chord, which jars the audience awake.

He wrote Symphony 101 while he was in London the second time. It became known as the Clock Symphony because of the “ticking” rhythm throughout the second movement.

Haydn included many similar “jokes” in his music. But in real life he also had a sense of humor.

In 1805 the musical world mourned when England’s “Gentleman’s Magazine” announced Haydn’s death. Several composers wrote memorial works, and a special concert was planned for February in Paris featuring some of his greatest music, along with Mozart’s Requiem.

Luckily, Haydn was still very much alive, and when the news of his death reached Austria he reportedly joked about the Paris concert, saying:

The good gentlemen! I am greatly indebted to them for the unusual honor. Had I only known of it in time, I would have traveled to Paris to conduct the Requiem myself.

On May 31, 1809, Haydn did pass away, at the ripe old age of 77. A month before he died he gathered his relatives and read out his will to them. He had amassed a small fortune during his lifetime, which he left to family, villagers living near the Esterházy estate and some of his special female friends.

Unfortunately, when he died, Vienna was occupied by Napoleon’s forces — munitions had been falling near Haydn’s home in the days and weeks before he died.

With the city under attack, it was impossible to organize a proper state funeral for the great composer. Instead, a small service was held for him in Vienna’s Schottenkirche, at which they did, finally, play Mozart’s Requiem, and he was buried in the Hundsturm cemetery.

Haydn wax sculpture by Franz Thaler, c. 1800. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

And this is where the incredible and amazing part of the story begins (which Geiringer calls “An Incongruous Postlude”).

Although the latest Prince Esterházy (the fourth Haydn had worked for) had promised that once Napoleon had left he would hold a more fitting service for the composer and move his body to an appropriate tomb, nothing happened until 11 years later. In 1820 Esterházy was reminded of his obligations and instructed that the body be brought back to his estate and buried in the Bergkirche, where Haydn had often performed his music.

However, when his coffin was opened, they discovered that there was no head in the casket, just his body and his wig.

They later discovered that the culprit was Carl Rosenbaum, an official who worked for Esterházy and who eventually married Haydn’s goddaughter Therese Gausmann, despite the composer’s opposition (he tried to get Prince Esterházy to forbid the marriage, but the two eventually did marry after Rosenbaum had left the prince’s service). Along with local prison governor Johann Nepomuk Peter, Rosenbaum bribed the gravedigger, Jakob Demuth, to dig up Haydn’s head and give it to them.

Ceramic phrenology head by Lorenzo Niles Fowler from late 19th Century. (CC BY, Catherine/ Flickr)

Rosenbaum and Peter may have wanted the head because they were interested in phrenology, the now debunked theory that a person’s talents or skills could be determined by the shape of their skull. They wanted to see if Haydn’s skull showed a well-developed “bump of music.”

However, after examining the skull, instead of returning it, they decided to keep it. Peter displayed it on a white cushion inside a black cabinet. At some point he gave it to Rosenbaum for safekeeping.

When Esterházy discovered the headless Haydn, he called the cops, who quickly discovered the culprits (it seems they had showed off the skull to many people by this point). But Rosenbaum had a spare skull in his home, and gave that to the police claiming it had belonged to Haydn.

But the ruse was quickly discovered, because the second skull clearly had not belonged to a 77-year old, and was too fresh to be Haydn’s. Police went to his house a second time and began searching the place from top to bottom.

To avoid the police discovering their treasure, Rosenbaum’s wife, the former Miss Gausmann, hid the skull in a straw mattress and lay down on it. When the police came, she apologised for not standing up to greet them, explaining that she was “having her days” and asked them to leave.

Eventually, Esterházy reburied Haydn along with the skull he had been given by Rosenbaum. Meanwhile the real head was passed from Rosenbaum back to Peter, and after Peter’s death he bequeathed it to the museum of the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna (it was still there when Geiringer wrote his book in 1946 — he worked for the Society, and wrote that he had shown it to visitors many times before the war).

Haydn’s sarcophagus in Bergkirche in Eisenstadt, Austria. (CC BY-SA, Ljuba brank/ Wikimedia Commons)

In 1932, Prince Paul Esterházy — a descendant of the earlier princes — built a marble tomb for Haydn, and tried to obtain the original skull to bury it with the rest of the body. But it was not until 1954 that the skull was finally reunited with the rest of Haydn, in a grand ceremony.

Even though the great, late composer was now whole again, they decided to leave the spare skull in the tomb too. So that is why Haydn is buried with two heads.

The story of the burial with a spare head reminds me of the story about the burial of Jacob and Esau. The Talmud (Sotah 13a) says that when his sons came to bury Jacob in the Cave of the Patriarchs, Esau blocked the way and claimed it belonged to him. After squabbling for a while, eventually Jacob’s grandson Hushim picked up a club and knocked Esau’s head off. The head rolled into the cave and was buried alongside Jacob.

But the way Gassmann concealed the skull from the police reminds me of a very similar incident described in this week’s Torah reading, Vayetze.

Jacob had worked for Laban for a total of 20 years. After seven years of working for Rachel’s hand, he was tricked into marrying Leah. Then he agreed to work a further seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage. And finally, he stayed with Laban for another six years while he built up his own flocks and acquired his wealth. At the end of that time, God told him to return to the land of Canaan. He took his wives, his children and his flocks with him. But unbeknownst to him, Rachel took her father’s idols, called teraphim, with her.

Jacob and Rachel Leaving the House of Laban by Charles-Joseph Natoire, 1732. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Laban chased after his fleeing son-in-law and daughters, hoping to reclaim some of the wealth. When he finally caught up with them, he demanded his idols back. Jacob, not knowing his beloved wife had stolen them, invited Laban to search the camp, adding, “The person with whom you find your gods shall not live,” (Genesis 31:32).

Rachel hid the idols under the camel saddle she was sitting on, and when her father entered the tent she apologized to him for not rising.

She said to her father, Let there not be anger in the eyes of my lord, but I cannot stand up before you, for the way of women is upon me.

Laban searched, but did not find the idols. But Jacob’s curse came true and Rachel died a short while later, while giving birth to Benjamin.

The question is why Rachel took her father’s idols. What was she hoping to gain from her theft? And what happened to the idols afterwards?

Rashi writes that Rachel took the teraphim to wean her father away from idolatry. This seems like a strange explanation — why hadn’t she taught him the error of idolatry for all the years she lived with him? And would stealing his idols really prevent him from worshiping others?

Rachel Hiding the Idols from Her Father Laban, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

Avraham Ibn Ezra thinks it has a human form and imparts information. But then he says that he cannot explain further.

Rashbam says that teraphim were used to divine information by those who believed in them. He explains that Rachel took them so that her father would not know where they had fled. If that was her plan, it didn’t work very well — he caught up with them within a few days.

Ramban says that the teraphim were some sort of clock that could be used to tell the future. Perhaps Rachel took them as a guide to help them in their journey.

This is perhaps supported by Josephus, who writes (Antiquities of the Jews 18, 9:5) about a Parthian who went on a journey:

“Now ’tis the custom of that country for all to have the idols they worship in their own houses, and to carry them along with them when they go into a foreign land.”

As to what became of the idols afterwards, a few chapters later (Genesis 35:2) there is a verse which may allude to Laban’s idols, just after Jacob’s sons have destroyed the city of Shechem and while he and his family are still in Shechem.

Jacob said to his family and all who were with him, ‘Remove the foreign gods that are among you, purify yourselves and change your clothes.’

The book of Jubilees (chapter 31) says that these foreign gods included the teraphim Rachel stole:

“And they gave up the strange gods and those which were in their ears and which were on their necks, and the idols which Rachel stole from Laban her brother she gave wholly to Jacob. And he burnt and broke them to pieces and destroyed them, and hid them under an oak which is in the land of Shechem.”

The words Jacob spoke to his family in Shechem are exactly the same words spoken by Joshua in Shechem to the people several hundred years later, immediately before his death (Joshua 24:23):

Now, remove the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to God, the Lord of Israel.

Just outside Shechem are the twin mountains of Gerizim and Ebal. It is here that the Jews made a covenant with God, blessing those who served Him and cursing those who turned away from Him.

It seems that Shechem is the place to bury one’s idols, to cast aside the false gods and to turn to God. Even if those idols were taken with good intentions they must be cast aside at Shechem. Even after God fulfills His promises there is still a need to reject idolatry in Shechem.

Archaeological site of the Biblical city of Shechem. (CC BY-SA, Hoshvilim/ Wikimedia Commons)

Shechem was the first place in Canaan that Abraham visited (Genesis 12:6-8) and he offered a sacrifice to God there. Many hundreds of years later, Shechem became the holy city of the Samaritans. That city was destroyed by the Romans, but Vespasian built a new city nearby, which he named “new city,” Neapolis (which later became Nablus).

Shechem returns again and again as a significant location in the Bible and in history. It tells us we must make a clear choice about our beliefs.

Perhaps Haydn, with his two heads, could simultaneously believe two contradictory ideas, and all of us do that some of the time. But when we reach our spiritual Shechem, we must make our final decision.

With thanks to No Such Thing As A Fish for telling me for the first time about what happened to Haydn and his head.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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