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Haydn and the New World

Benjamin Franklin

It’s amazing how many of the most significant years of Haydn’s life dovetail with events in the lives of the founding fathers of a country as yet unborn.

In May, 1761, Haydn signed a contract with Prince Paul Anton Esterházy. He had just been hired to the post of Vice-Kapellmeister, and would remain with the Esterházy family for some thirty years.

He must have been aware of the New World, and yet those lands miles across the Atlantic Ocean would have held no more significance to a Viennese musician trying to make his mark on the world than faraway India or China.

In the New World, about the time that Haydn was signing his contract, Benjamin Franklin was designing a couple of chairs. The writing chair had a small desk attached to one arm of the chair and the library chair converted to a stepladder.

Franklin may, of course, have been in England at the time. In 1757, he’d crossed the Atlantic to meet with English lawmakers and would spend most of the next eighteen years in that country.

In the 1750s, Haydn was still finding his way. It may have been 1757 that he received his first appointment as Kapellmeister to the Morzin family. In the early 1760s, financial constraints forced the Morzins to disband their orchestra—no doubt, a most stressful circumstance for Haydn. But his music had begun to attract the notice of the Austrian nobility.

Ben Franklin’s Armonica

Symphonic music had recently gained popularity, and Haydn’s particular skills in the genre meant that he was quickly offered a position in the Esterházy court. Prince Paul was especially fond of French baroque pictorial music, so Haydn’s first symphonies composed for his new employer were naturally programmatic: Le matin (morning); Le midi (noon); and Le soir (evening).

In 1762, Prince Paul died quite suddenly. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Prince Nikolaus, a man of expensive tastes and as passionate about music as his older brother. It was at this time that Haydn began composing Italian operatic music.

In the same year, Franklin developed his armonica—a row of spinning glass bowls mounted on an iron rod. A wheel turned the bowls and a foot pedal caused the wheel to turn. Thirty years later, Mozart was to compose a couple of pieces that included the glass armonica. He’d heard the blind but extraordinarily accomplished Marianne Kirchgessner play the instrument and been fascinated by its sounds.

It’s tempting to think that Haydn may have heard tell of Franklin’s instrument and that Franklin, in the midst, of his negotiations with the British might have encountered Haydn’s music. Charles Burney, a huge Haydn fan, says in his General History of Music that it was in 1763 that he first heard of Haydn and saw his name in the German catalogues of music.

It was in 1766 that Haydn, upon the death of his predecessor Gregor Werner, was appointed Kapellmeister. In the same year, he bought a house with a small garden outside the town walls in Eisenstadt.

Monticello, Jefferson’s House in Virginia

Across the ocean, a year later, Thomas Jefferson was making plans for his own house in Virginia, Monticello. It was built on a small mountain not far from where he was born. A year later, Jefferson would be elected to the Virginia Legislature.

For Haydn, the sixties were a time of fruitfulness, of experimenting with new musical forms, and of gaining the recognition not just of Austria, but of the rest of Europe as well. The Empress’s visit to Eisenstadt in 1766 that forms the basis of the plot of A Minor Deception is a figment of my own imagination. But it could have taken place. Haydn was already at the height of his career.

But for the American colonies, the sixties only brought greater burdens in the form of extremely unpopular taxes: the Sugar Act of 1764, the Stamp Act of 1765, and the American Import Duties Act of 1767. These would later be repealed in the 1770s, but the damage had already been done. The colonists were clamoring for their freedom.

Thomas Jefferson

What Haydn thought of the New World, if he gave it any consideration at all, we’ll never know. What we do know is that his music traveled—in his own lifetime—all the way across the Atlantic to the Americas.

His music circulated in the Spanish and Portuguese Americas as well as North America. In 1785, the Venezuelan military leader, Franciso de Miranda, visited Eszterháza, attending an opera and discussing music with Haydn.

A year earlier, in 1784, Thomas Jefferson encountered Haydn’s music on a trip to Paris and became a fan. An accomplished musician, Jefferson bought copies of Haydn’s music for his library.

So popular was the composer that a Haydn Society was formed in New York City in 1798 to be followed by one in Philadelphia in 1809, the year of the great composer’s death.

Armonica, Franklin, Haydn, Jefferson, New World

  1. Vicki Batman says:

    I found the part of the blog about the armonica so interesting. The only thing close I could think of was a glass and a finger circling the top. Have you heard one?

  2. Nupur says:

    I think that’s what gave Franklin the idea. There’s a YouTube video of the Sugar Plum Fairy player on the armonica and it sounds beautiful! I shared it on my Facebook page.

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