Like his much younger contemporary, Mozart, Haydn met the Empress Maria Theresa while still a young boy. Unlike the young Wolferl, however, young Sepperl impressed the young queen with neither his singing voice nor his abilities on the violin or keyboard.
The imperial family spent summer at Schönbrunn—literally, beautiful well—about four miles from Vienna. Consequently, so did the choir-boys of St. Stephen’s.
The summer palace was originally a hunting lodge, the building of which was commissioned by the Empress’s grandfather, Leopold I. When the 23-year old Maria Theresa ascended the throne, the summer palace became the focal point of Habsburg imperial life, and the new queen ordered a number of renovations.
One Whitsuntide shortly after the new queen had ascended the throne, the choir-boys were required to be at Schönbrunn. Pleased with their singing, the Empress gave them permission to play in the vast grounds surrounding the palace.
But the next morning when she went on her usual walk to check on the progress of the ongoing renovations, what should she see, but a group of young boys clambering all over the scaffolding, swinging and dangling from the scaffolds like a troop of mischievous monkeys.
Horrified, Maria Theresa, a young mother herself, rushed over, ordered the boys down, and roundly scolded the leader of the naughty troop. Yes, it was Sepperl.
“Don’t do that any more,” she said. “And next Sunday, I will give you a new gold gulden. You understand me, you little rascal?”
Little Sepperl nodded, but clearly had no intention of obeying the Empress’s command for the next morning she saw him yet again climbing up the scaffolds with his little group of friends.
The Empress was furious. She called a guard over and had him bring young Sepperl over.
“Give the Dummheit a full gulden’s worth of spanking,” she ordered. “He who will not hear and obey, must feel!”
And, so the new gold gulden promised to young Haydn for good behavior went to the guard instead. Years later when Haydn, now Kapellmeister to the powerful Esterházy family, was presented to the Empress, he reminded her of the story.
“Are you that little Dummheit, then?” she responded, peering at him. She had just heard his music, and had been suitably impressed. “Well, well, it was really worth a gulden to save you from breaking your neck, after all.”
Apparently, she sent the composer a gold snuffbox covered with diamonds and filled with gold guldens—a reward he would cherish to the end of his days.