Musicologists have long held that the two composers might have “met” at Vivaldi’s funeral, the young Sepperl accompanying the corpse to the burial site in the cemetery next to the Karlskirche beyond the city walls. A surprising piece of evidence provides a definitive answer to this question.
I’ve spent the past month researching funeral practices in Vienna for my second novel. Not finding any books on the subject—things were different enough in Austria that relying upon research on the German states, which tended to be Lutheran, would not suffice—I turned to the Austrian National Library. My German, I said, wasn’t up to reading any research in the language, but I hoped someone would be able to answer specific questions I had.
I wasn’t expecting to hear back, but not only did I get a response, the librarian, Solveigh Rumpf-Dorner answered my questions, and referred me to an account of Vivaldi’s death and funeral. The Italian composer had spent his last years in Vienna hoping for a position at the imperial court of Charles VI. Unfortunately his hopes never came to fruition. The emperor died to be succeeded by his 23-year old daughter. Vivaldi himself died in 1741.
His death and funeral had taken place some twenty years prior to the setting of my novel, but practices, Rumpf-Dorner said, had largely remained stable, and the account might prove useful.
Having heard, as has almost anyone who’s interested in Haydn, that young Sepperl may have accompanied the aged Italian composer’s body to his burial place in the cemetery of the civic hospital, I was quite eager to read the material Rumpf-Dorner had referred me to.
When it comes to Haydn’s possible participation in Vivaldi’s funeral, the operative word is “may.” Haydn, as an old man, mentioned a number of childhood incidents and experiences to his early biographies, Dies and Griesinger, but Vivaldi’s funeral never came up for discussion. Still Haydn was in the city at the time, and it is tempting to think he was in attendance. Furthermore, Vivaldi’s death was recorded in the register of the St. Stephen’s Cathedral where Haydn was a choir-boy.
Vivaldi died on July 28, 1741. A coroner came to inspect the body and certify death. The same day since it was summer, after the tolling of the small bell, he was taken to the burial ground accompanied by a sexton, a sacristan, and, according to the still extant list of expenses incurred, six altar boys. The expenses for the funeral which cost slightly over 19 gulden include the bier, the pall, pallbearers, the burial fee, the bells, and, of course, fees for the sacristan and sexton.
One expense, however, is notable by its absence: the six gulden fee that would have been required for the performance of the funeral song, Der grimmige tod. If no song was performed, there would have been no need for Haydn’s presence at the funeral. Why then do musicologist a still persist in thinking that Haydn may have sung at Vivaldi’s funeral? The funeral expenses are quite clear. No music was performed.
The answer came via British musicologist and Haydn scholar David Wyn Jones who directed me to a blog kept by Michael Lorenz, a Viennese musicologist whose posts are devoted to correcting common musical misconceptions.
Lorenz discusses this particular misconception in a post that also counters the common perception that Vivaldi was given a pauper’s funeral. The confusion seems to have arisen from the presence of six altar boys, or kuttenbuben. There were six choir-boys at St. Stephen’s, and somewhere along the line “kuttenbuben” was mistranslated as “choir-boy,” an error that has perpetuated itself in Haydn scholarship.
To a mystery writer, the fact that a record of Vivaldi’s death and his funeral expenses are still extant is as fascinating as knowing that a small piece of saliva found on a victim’s body provided the crucial DNA evidence needed to bring a criminal to justice.
Even more fascinating is the fact that a piece of unrelated evidence—Vivaldi’s funeral expenses—provides an essential clue to a question regarding Haydn’s life. That’s like using evidence from one cold case to solve another!