The Boy Who Nearly Became A Singer

Wien_-_Stephansdom_(1)It was in the year 1740 that the young Sepperl left Hainburg to join Kapellmeister Georg Reutter as one of his choristers in the twelfth-century Viennese cathedral, St. Stephen’s. Later in life, he would recall receiving no more than two lessons on music theory; an anecdote that his middle brother, Michael, who later joined him at St. Stephen’s, would confirm.

How, then, did young Sepperl gain the knowledge he would need to become, as the court newspaper phrased it in 1766, “the darling of the Austrian nation?”

In the melting pot that was cosmopolitan Vienna at the time, young Sepperl was exposed to a multitude of breathtaking experiences that must have shaped him as surely as did his formative years singing with his parents.

The Emperor Charles VI had recently passed, and was succeeded by his young daughter, the twenty-three-year-old Maria Theresa. The young Haydn likely sung at the commemorative service for the former Emperor and the ceremonial service at the Oath of Fealty to his young successor.

In February of the following year, the young Joseph sang at the requiem service of a man who lives on today through his seminal text on counterpoint, Johann Joseph Fux. And later in July, he was one of the meager troupe of six choirboys who sang at the funeral of Antonio Vivaldi, a baroque composer who had come to Vienna in the hope of a position at the imperial court, but died a pauper.

Along with his fellow choristers, Haydn sang music composed by contemporary composers such as his choirmaster Reutter as well as  those of the past: the aforementioned Fux, Alessandro Scarlatti, Antonio Caldara, and even the sixteenth-century composer, Palestrina.

Of what use was this rich performance history to young Sepperl? It exposed him to evolving musical styles. But more importantly, it must have enabled him to absorb ideas of musical form. That music calls for variation is obvious. What may not be quite so obvious is that its aural nature also requires repetition to ground the listener. It is this balance of repetition and variation that enables a composer to create a work of music.

The ideas of form the young Haydn absorbed may well have guided his own development of two forms of the two forms of instrumental music he is credited with pioneering, the string quartet and the symphony.

The budding composer, especially one who aspires to compose orchestral works, must also have a degree of familiarity with the capabilities and limitations of a wide range of instruments. And in this regard, too, the training that Sepperl received at the Parish School in Hainburg continued in Vienna.

“I learnt the art of singing, the harpsichord, and the violin from very good masters,” Haydn wrote in a letter in 1776. Singing lessons were provided by the tenor, Ignaz Finsterbuch, and violin lessons came from the double-bass player, Adam Gegenbauer.

Some rudimentary instruction in theory came from Fux’s primer, Singfundament ( Foundation of Singing). But although Reutter did not provide much in the way of music theory, he did provide an early introduction to composition by encouraging the young Haydn to improvise variations to the motets and salves he had to sing.

And so the young Sepperl presented Reutter with a Salve Regina in twelve parts!

“I used to think then,” Haydn later said, “that it was all right if only the paper were pretty full.” He recalled Reutter laughing at “my immature output, at measures that no throat or instrument could have executed. . .”

“Aren’t two voices enough for you, you little blockhead?” he is reported to have asked the young boy.

But Reutter had brought Haydn with him to Vienna to launch him in a career in singing, not to become a composer. When Haydn’s voice broke, the solution seemed obvious: a procedure to transform him into a castrato and thus preserve his soprano singing voice.

The proposal so upset Haydn’s father, he rushed to Vienna.

“Sepperl, does anything hurt you? Can you still walk?” the distraught father enquired upon his arrival, afraid it might already be too late. Relieved the operation had not been undertaken, Mathias Haydn insisted his son dismiss the idea forever.

Before long young Joseph would be dismissed from St. Stephen’s, forced to consider another means of earning a livelihood; compelled by destiny to take that final step toward Parnassus.

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One Response to The Boy Who Nearly Became A Singer

  1. Kaye George says:

    Good for his father! Whew!

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