It was a rare moment of embarrassment for the young composer, but it seared itself into his memory. And years later, with his characteristic good humor, Haydn, unable to recall little else about his first employer, would still remember this incident.
This is how it came about:
Haydn was but sixteen when he was dismissed from his position as choir-boy at St. Stephen’s. He left, so we’re told, with nothing but the shirt on his back, unable to ask his parents to support him. In the ten years that followed, he lived in extreme poverty, working long hours to support himself and to learn his craft.
Finally, those years of hard work and diligence paid off. A member of the imperial household, Baron Carl Joseph Weber Fürnberg, introduced him to a Bohemian nobleman, the Count Morzin. The young composer had written his first string quartets for the Baron, who naturally quite impressed with his young friend’s talent, had no hesitation in recommending him to the Bohemian Count.
Like the other nobility, the Morzin family spent the winter in Vienna and the summer in their palace in Lukavec. The Morzins were lovers of music, musically proficient themselves, and sufficiently wealthy to command an orchestra of sixteen musicians. Haydn was in his mid-twenties when he took the prestigious position of Kapellmeister and chamber composer of the Morzin orchestra in 1758.
Until this moment, Haydn had primarily been a church musician, his focus almost entirely upon vocal music. The new position brought with it the new challenge of focusing almost entirely upon instrumental music written for and enjoyed by a small audience. But it was not this aspect of his new employment that fazed the young composer.
The reigning Count, Franz Ferdinand Maximilian, had a beautiful daughter-in-law, Wilhelmine. She had an excellent voice, and one of young Haydn’s duties was to accompany her on the harpsichord while she sang.
One day, as she stood over Haydn, she leaned over his shoulder to look more closely at the notes. The motion caused the neckerchief at her neck to come undone, exposing a sight the young man had never seen: the voluptuous swelling of a snow-white bosom.
“It was the first time I had seen such a sight,” Haydn confessed later. His fingers faltered on the keys, then stopped playing altogether. This would have been bad enough. But worse was to follow.
When the Countess, naturally annoyed, reprimanded him—”What is it, Haydn, what are you doing?”—the poor composer was too overcome to fashion an appropriate excuse.
With his eyes still on the fair sight, he blurted out: “But, Your Grace, who would not lose his head over this!”
Fortunately, Haydn was able to laugh at his gauche younger self. So, rather than bury the incident in the recesses of his memory, he recounted the anecdote years later with great relish to his first biographer, Georg August Griesinger.