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The First Performance: An Excerpt

“Is the music to her taste?” Get a glimpse of an 18th-century performance—conducted by Haydn!

In 1766, the Wienerisches Diarium, the Habsburg court newspaper, had published an article hailing Haydn as the “darling of our nation.” A popular composer in his own time, it’s not surprising that Haydn received frequent requests from other princely courts and dukedoms for his works.

Naturally, Haydn needed his employer’s permission to send off his works; by the terms of his contract every piece he composed was the property of the Esterházy family, for whom he worked.

But Haydn was never inclined to just send a piece by the post and be done with it. A conscientious man, he made an effort to find out more about the musical tastes and inclinations of the individual making the request. It was also important for him to discover the musical resources available to the person. What kind of orchestra would play the work? What instruments were available? What were the particular skills and limitations of the musicians in question?

These questions enabled him to tailor his works to the orchestra that would be playing it.

Why, you might wonder, did he go to all this trouble? Shouldn’t any orchestra worth its salt have been able to play whatever the composer put in front of its musicians?

Incredible though it may seem, not every member of an eighteenth-century orchestra was a virtuoso. (It’s a fact that never ceases to amaze me!) This was likely because music and musicians were in such great demand at the time, it was possible for even a relatively mediocre performer to find a position.

It was common for singers not to be able to read music; for instrumentalists not to be able to perform trills or other types of ornamentations; and for only the most skilled musicians to possess the ability to perform a cadenza—a spontaneous improvisation.

That’s why from Monteverdi to Haydn, composers took the trouble to ensure their music could be handled by the musicians and singers slated to perform them. They knew that in the hands of a less than capable talent, the work would suffer. In such an event, there would be little enjoyment of the music and even less praise for its composer.

A well performed work was likely to earn its composer tremendous accolades. A poorly performed piece, on the other hand, would do nothing to enhance the composer’s reputation and might even harm it.

Much of this research informs every scene—in the Haydn Mysteries—in which Haydn performs or is found rehearsing with his singers and musicians.

Here’s an excerpt from Death of a Soprano. Haydn is performing for Maria Beatrice D’Este, the reluctant bride:


Dressed in lacy white with a crown of pale pink flowers upon her dark bronze ringlets, Maria Beatrice D’Este stood stiffly upon the prow, clutching the golden handrail as though her life depended upon it.

No smile played upon her lips. She might have been a stone statue for all the effect the music had on her.

“She looks even more morose than the Archduke did when he arrived,” Luigi whispered to Haydn.

 “She might be at a funeral, listening to a dirge, she looks so solemn,” Haydn agreed in dismay. It took an effort not to let his bow falter.

Was the music not to her taste? Haydn pursed his lips. It was too late to change that now. No one had bothered to acquaint him with the lady’s predilections.

Or was it something else?

He discreetly craned his neck, trying to observe the atmosphere on the barge.

His Serene Highness, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, was trying valiantly to engage the bride in conversation. But Maria D’Este, looking stonily out over the placid lake, barely opened her mouth. Her chin was thrust out at a stiff angle, and her mouth was compressed into an adamant line.

It seemed to get thinner every time she had occasion to glance at the voluptuous figure clinging to her father.

“Is that his mistress?” Luigi followed Haydn’s gaze. “I can scarcely believe he brought her.”

“It must be.” Haydn eyed the woman. At least, she appeared to be enjoying his music. “Chiara,” he said, recalling her name.

She was a famed opera singer, although her singing days were long behind her. She was better known now for being the Duke of Modena’s constant companion—the woman with whom the Duke openly snubbed his wife, the Duchess of Massa.

“She makes no effort to conform to decency, does she?” Luigi was gazing at the ageing beauty in open fascination. Her scarlet and black dress was entirely inappropriate to the occasion, revealing as it did every curve of her exquisite form and exposing a vast area of golden-brown bosom.

Oblivious to his surroundings, the Duke of Modena had his head bent low to his mistress’s ear, his hand stroking her rump. And every so often Chiara burst into loud, gay laughter, drawing the bride’s contemptuous gaze toward her.

“If the bride’s eyes were daggers, the Duke’s mistress would be dead a thousand times over,” Luigi declared.

“One can hardly blame her. Her father behaves as though he were in his bedchamber.” But what could be done, Haydn wondered, to amend the situation?

In her current mood, Maria Beatrice D’Este seemed determined to disapprove of everything. And that did not bode well for the Archduke’s prospects—or his own, for that matter, should the marriage fail.

excerpts, Haydn mysteries, music history