Haydn is intimately connected with the beautiful little town of Eisenstadt in Austria. The magnificent Haydnsaal at the Esterhazy Palace is a favored place for orchestras and choirs to perform, with its stunning acoustics. Just up the hill from the palace is the Haydn Church (more properly called the Bergkirche), where the great composer lies buried. With his body are two heads: one belongs to him, the other to an unknown stranger.
The story of Haydn’s head is truly extraordinary. The great composer died in 1809 in Vienna at the age of 77. He was buried in a local cemetery, where his body lay undisturbed for the grand total of 8 days. Then, in the thick of night, two men who had bribed the sexton, dug up the now somewhat decomposed body (it was the beginning of June). They severed the head from Haydn’s body and carted it off. They were students of the now discredited science of “phrenology” that sought to link the shape and size of the brain and skull with mental capacity. The leading light in this field, Professor Gall, had been expelled from Austria by the Emperor a few years before because even then the work was so controversial. Beethoven’s body was subject to a similar attempt a few years later, but it was foiled.
For 11 years Haydn’s body lay in the Vienna cemetery without anyone aware that it was missing his head. Then in 1820, the Duke of Cambridge visited his friend Prince Esterhazy in Eisenstadt. He persuaded the Prince that someone as great as Haydn ought to be buried with the appropriate pomp and circumstance in the Prince’s family seat. The Bergkirche was selected for the funeral and preparations were made. The body was exhumed in Vienna and hey presto: the gruesome theft became apparent.
Prince Esterhazy called in the authorities. The skull was being kept in a beautiful custom made black wooden box, complete with windows and a white cushion. The thieves managed to hide it in a straw mattress before their houses were searched; one of their wives lay in the bed pretending to be ill so that it was not searched. Eventually they did hand over a skull, but it was not Haydn’s. The fraud soon came to light, however, and the “other” skull was kept with Haydn’s body in Eisenstadt. The Prince, however, ordered that the sarcophagus intended for Haydn must stay empty until the real skull was reunited with its owner. The sarcophagus remained empty for over 130 years, with no bones and no skull in it.
Meanwhile the real skull was later gifted by will in 1895 to the world famous Musikverein in Vienna. The organization refused to hand it over, and indeed brought it out on occasion to show visitors. In 1932 a beautiful marble tomb for Haydn was built in the Bergkirche by the then head of the Esterhazy family, but again with the order that no funeral would take place whilst the stalemate continued.
In 1938 Austria became part of the Third Reich. In 1945 it was divided into 4 zones of occupation. Burgenland, where Eisenstadt was located, fell under Soviet control. The occupation lasted ten years, far shorter than neighboring Germany, and in 1955 the powers agreed to pull out and grant Austria sovereignty again. Just before their departure, the local Soviet commander decided to use his powers to ensure justice would be done to Haydn and his head. The skull was taken from the Musikverein and delivered by the Russians to Prince Esterhazy in Eisenstadt.
There followed, 145 years after his death, a full funeral procession through the streets of Eisenstadt for the now long-dead composer. Haydn’s skull was reunited with his skeleton and the marble tomb was used for the first time. There it lies to this day in the stunning marble tomb at the entrance of the church. And the “other” skull that lay with Haydn’s body for well over a century? No one knows who it belongs to but it is buried too in the crypt of the church. Since 2008 there has been a plaque in the floor in honor of the “skull of the unknown person”.
A strange tale it is: but all of it is true. Visit Eisenstadt and discover it for yourself!
About the Author
Peter Ede has been an ACIS Tour Manager since 1993. He speaks 5 languages, has traveled to 65 countries around the world, and has a passion for history. His specialty at Encore is leading off the beaten tracks through Central and Eastern Europe.More Content by Peter Ede