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Haydn’s Women: Henpecked Husband or Philanderer?

I’m often asked to what extent the portraits I’ve drawn of Haydn’s younger brothers and his wife in my mysteries are true-to-life. After all Michael—Franz Michael— and Johann—Johann Evangelist—did indeed exist. Were they anything at all like the men I’ve portrayed? And what was Haydn’s relationship with them?

Unfortunately, although there’s quite a bit written about Haydn, we don’t have much about either of his brothers or his wife. That is to say, no historian or musicologist appears to have devoted themselves solely to a study of these people or to an account of their lives.

We know Haydn didn’t get on well with his wife. She wasn’t the woman of his choice to begin with. He’d been in love with her younger sister, Therese—whom you’ll encounter in Aria to Death, the second Haydn mystery (yet to be released). But Therese was promised to the convent of St. Nikolai, and her parents suggested Haydn marry their older daughter Maria Anna Aloysia Appolonia Keller. I call her Maria Anna.

She was born in 1729, a couple of years older than our Joseph. His earliest biographers tell us that Haydn found her flighty and inclined to be a spendthrift. She frequently gave his money to the Church. Of course, she might have found him equally careless with money. Haydn frequently gave his to anyone in need.

Unlike her younger sister, she wasn’t particularly interested in music or indeed in Haydn’s music. That obviously cannot have made for a good relationship. Imagine never being able to discuss the one thing you’re most passionate about with the one human being you’re likely to be most intimate with.

The strain must have been greater when their efforts to produce a child yielded no fruit. I suppose you have to experience something like this to understand the strain it puts upon a relationship, in particular one not based upon a strong foundation of love to begin with.

Haydn’s wife took a lover—perhaps to prove her own fertility? Later, he followed suit. Like any modern-day celebrity, Haydn attracted quite a bit of female attention. He was a short, pock-marked fellow, with a rather pronounced nose. Not ugly. But certainly not handsome in the conventional sense of the term.

But any woman deeply interested in music was sure to gain his attention. He wrote frequent letters to Marianne von Genzinger, the wife of the Esterházy court physician. And, later when he went to England, became close to Anne Hunter, a poet in her own right, and wife of the more famous Scottish surgeon John Hunter.  (Incidentally, a biography of John Hunter and his dissections helped me flesh out Herr Hipfl, the barber-surgeon in A Minor Deception.)

These were platonic relationships. Haydn wasn’t sleeping around, but he had a deep affection for both these music-loving women.

There was apparently one woman that he was sleeping with, however: Luigia Polzelli, an Italian mezzo-soprano who was part of the Esterházy opera troupe. She was hired and kept on despite not being a particularly good singer. The character of Frau Dichtler in the soon-to-be-published Aria to Death is loosely based on Polzelli.

Luigia was nineteen when she arrived at the Esterházy court with her husband, Antonio, a violinist. Like Frau Dichtler in Aria to Death, she lacked any facility with ornaments and required the accompaniment to double up her vocal part when she sang. As you can imagine, keeping her on necessitated a great deal of re-writing and revising arias to suit her limited capabilities.

Unlike Frau Dichtler, however, she did manage to capture Haydn’s fancy. When she arrived at the Esterházy court, she already had a two-year-old son. Later, she gave birth to another. How anyone can be sure of the matter in an age that lacked the means to test for paternity, I don’t know, but it’s widely believed that this second child, Antonio, was Haydn’s son. Certainly, Luigia herself believed it.

Haydn was fond of both her sons. But then he was of fond of Marianne von Genzinger’s children as well, sending frequent advice on their musical training. How could he not be? He was childless, probably with a deep yearning to have children of his own.

Haydn himself apparently said that the fact that his wife was barren had thrown him into the arms of other women. Had it? We don’t know. I’m sure he was tempted. But whether he actually yielded to temptation or had any mistresses other than Luigia we don’t know. I, at any rate, have read nothing that conclusively suggests this was the case.

And that’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to re-write Haydn’s relationship with Maria Anna. Yes, she’s shrewish. Have you noticed just how much fun it is to write a character like that? My husband says she seems to speak her mind quite without any consideration as to the appropriateness of her remarks.

There’s nothing to suggest that Maria Anna really was quite so shrewish, although there are some interesting tales—rumors, to be more precise—about how she used her husband’s sheet music to line her pie tins!

At the end of the day, however, my Maria Anna is quite fond of my Haydn, and perhaps just a little insecure about being his second choice. And while he may not like having her sharp, unbridled tongue constantly directed at him, he, too, is fairly fond of her.

I’ll talk a little bit about Haydn’s younger brothers in my next post. For now, farewell.

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Aria to Death, Haydn, Haydn mysteries, Haydn's women, Maria Anna, Minor Deception

  1. Kaye George says:

    Another fun, informative post! Thanks, Nuput.

  2. Kaye George says:

    Sorry about the error–I did that on my phone, which I should NOT do. NUPUR, thanks for the post!

    1. Nupur says:

      Oh, no problem, Kaye! Glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Jane Gorman says:

    Love this! Thanks for sharing this. Jane

    1. Nupur says:

      Thanks, Jane! I do love Maria Anna — writing her, I mean. I’d hate to meet her in person.

  4. cjpetterson says:

    cj Sez: You really know how to make your characters leap off the page. Loved the post.

  5. Nupur says:

    Thanks, CJ!

  6. KB Inglee says:

    I think Maria Anna may have been my favorite character. She knew exactly what he should be doing and pushed him into it when he lacked gumption. The best marriages aren’t necessarily the most loving.

    1. Nupur says:

      You know, I’ve heard a lot of people say they really like her character as well. My critique partner for an early draft of the novel suggested I add more of her into the story, and I’m glad I took that advice. I do enjoy writing her scenes.

  7. CT Collier says:

    Fascinating, Nupur!

    1. Nupur says:

      Thanks, Kate!

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