Meister or Servant? – Musical Misconceptions

One of the more pervasive misconceptions about the Viennese School of Classical Composers is that Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave. The other is that Haydn was little better than a servant at the Esterházy court.

And although Hollywood is responsible for the Mozart story taking hold in popular imagination, the belief about Haydn’s supposed status—or lack thereof—in the princely household of the Esterházys continues to crop up in far more respected sources.

Yale Professor and music historian Craig Wright, for instance, writes in The Essential Guide to Listening that “Haydn and Mozart…served and [were] treated as domestics in the houses of the great lords of Europe.”

Yet nothing could be farther from the truth.

Preeminent Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon is quite emphatic on that point. As is David Wyn Jones, another well-known Haydn scholar.

The source of Mozart’s status as a servant comes from his letters to his father, Leopold, at a time when the young Mozart was trying to justify his decision to leave the Archbishop of Salzburg’s employ and try his fortunes in Vienna. The source of Haydn’s status might quite possibly have been his greatest fan during his lifetime, the scholar Charles Burney, father of Fanny Burney.

In the 1780s, Haydn’s music was so popular in the musical capital of London, several attempts were made to bring the composer over to the city. Burney, who regarded Haydn as the greatest living composer, was largely responsible for these endeavors. Haydn, unfortunately, was never able to accept, giving rise to the view expressed by the Gazetteer & New Daily Advertiser that the composer was “doomed to reside in the court of a miserable German Prince, who is at once incapable of rewarding him, and unworthy of the honour” (From David Wyn Jones. The Life of Haydn, p. 127). 

But until the late eighteenth century when someone like Mozart could earn a living as a Ditters von Dittersdorffreelance musician, patronage—secular and sacred—was the most secure source of income and employment for a musician. From Handel and Bach to Leopold Mozart and Joseph Haydn, musicians sought the emoluments and honor that came from employment with either a noble family wealthy enough to have an orchestra or a church position.

Haydn’s contract still survives in the Esterházy family archives, and seems not very different from the kind of contract a modern-day employee might have with a corporate employer. Like any employee, Haydn would have had to request a leave of absence from his employer in order to travel. Whether such leave would be granted or not depended upon the Esterházy court’s musical requirements and whether or not its Director of Music could be spared.

That is to say, it depended upon current work load. As a former journalist, this is something I can relate to. Despite having paid vacation days, I wouldn’t have had much hope of getting a day off at busy times such as elections. I might even have been asked to pull a double shift.

Haydn’s work was owned by the Esterházy family. I can remember a clause in my contract with Reuters that suggested something similar, which resulted in my writing nothing more than a blog while I was with them.

Haydn also needed Esterházy permission to compose for anyone else. This must have been granted for Haydn did write a cantata for a monastery in Zwettl, an oratorio for a Viennese musicians’ society that raised funds for the widows and orphans of its deceased members, and an opera that might have been written for the imperial court. I, on the other hand, would certainly not have been permitted to use my employer’s resources to write a piece for a rival news organization!

Haydn was an officer of the Esterházy court, and as the court’s Director of Music had the kind of administrative responsibilities that a managerial position calls for.

If you’re interested in reading Haydn’s contract for yourself, David Wyn Jones’ The Life of Haydn includes the document in its entirety along with comments. And Haydn’s friend, Karl von Dittersdorf—a renowned virtuoso violinist and composer in his own day—provides fascinating details about the typical duties of a Kapellmeister in his memoirs.

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