Now it always pleased Haydn to hear his music performed. If he were walking or driving by, and heard a minuet or a quartet of his being performed, he would stop, and listen to the performance. Once when he and Dittersdorf were roaming the streets of Vienna, they passed by a pub performing a Haydn minuet, and so in they went.
That, of course, was when he was a young, relatively unknown composer. But the delight of hearing a performance never left him. The incident that Haydn’s biographer Dies shares with us took place some fifteen years after Haydn had joined the Esterházy orchestra and was already a famous man.
It so happened, that one winter Haydn had to travel to Vienna on business. He put on an old suit, over which he wore a worn old fur coat. His wig was unkempt and his hat was as old and worn as his coat. Few people, Dies tells us, would have recognized the usually neatly dressed Haydn in this outfit. But he was traveling, and there was little reason to dress in his best suit for the purpose.
His carriage entered Vienna through the Carinthian Gate, and on Kärntnerstrasse at the home of a certain count he heard one of his own symphonies playing. The orchestra seemed excellent, and was performing the work so well, Haydn was bewitched.
He stopped the carriage, rushed up to the second floor, and into an antechamber adjoining the concert room. There he pressed his ear against the closed door to listen to the performance. But soon a servant entered the room, and outraged to see what seemed like a ruffian in the room, roared: “What are you doing here?”
“I only wanted to listen a little,” Haydn replied.
“This is no place to listen,” the servant countered. “Be on your way.”
Haydn, at first, pretended he hadn’t heard. But then the servant came up behind him, and grabbed hold of his fur coat.
“Off you go! Now!”
So, Haydn felt in his pocket, and handed over a few coins to the servant. The small gift placated the man, and Haydn was allowed to remain until the Allegro movement finished.
When the movement was over, the servant insisted he leave. Haydn was about to furnish him with a few more coins to be allowed to listen to the Adagio when suddenly the door opened. One of the musicians within noticed the great composer, and recognized him.
The entire concert room was abuzz. Haydn, the composer of the work they were listening to, was here, people whispered excitedly to one other. They poured out of the door, surrounded the Kapellmeister, and drew him into the concert room.
The servant could not have been more aghast had he realized the man he had been so uncivil to was the Emperor himself. An Italian priest who had only heard of Haydn, but never met him, was equally astonished.
“That’s not Haydn—it can’t possibly be!” he cried. “Haydn must be a fine, big, handsome man, not the insignificant little fellow you’ve got there.”
The priest was so convinced his own impression of Haydn must be correct, he continued to contest Haydn’s identity, a fact that caused the composer himself and everyone else a great deal of amusement.
I’m rather fond of this anecdote because it illustrates something of the great composer’s character for us.
It would have been so easy for Haydn to let the servant know exactly who he was, to take such exception to the treatment he had received at his hands that he insisted the poor misguided fellow be dismissed. But Haydn, even at the height of his fame, considered himself just a simple, hardworking man. And that is one of his most endearing qualities.
As a mystery writer, however, there’s another reason I like this anecdote. It shows that Haydn could blend in a crowd so easily, he’d get lost in it, and that, if I wanted him to, he could travel incognito, or even go undercover! The perfect operative.
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