I recently received an email from a reader wanting to know why I always refer to Haydn as Joseph Haydn. His name was Franz Joseph Haydn, after all. So why do Haydn’s friends in the Haydn Mysteries address him by his middle name Joseph?
The simple answer, of course, is that this was how Haydn himself and his contemporaries referred to him. The two earliest biographies of Haydn were written by men who knew him personally.
G.A. Griesinger, who was sent to meet Haydn through the German publisher Gottfried Härtel, entitled his biography, Biographische Notizen über Joseph Haydn. The artist A.C. Dies called his biography Biographische Nachrichten von Joseph Haydn.
Look up any biography of Haydn, and you’ll notice that the composer is referred to as Joseph Haydn and not Franz Joseph Haydn.
This is how Griesinger’s biography begins:
Joseph Haydn has ended his glorious career. By his death Germany again suffers a national loss; for Haydn was founder of an epoch in musical culture. . .
On letters and documents, Haydn frequently used the Latin form of his name, Josephus, rather than Joseph. His music was frequently signed using the Italian form, Giuseppe.
This is the name Mozart uses when dedicating a set of quartets (opus 10, also known as the Haydn Quartets) inspired by Haydn’s op. 33: “Composti e Dedicati al Signor Giuseppe Haydn . . . Dal Suo Amico W.A. Mozart.”
Was Haydn unusual in preferring his middle name to his first name? But then what about his middle brother, Michael? Why did he prefer his middle name, Michael, to his first name, Johann?
As we consider other names and other people from the same time period, other questions arise. Why did the Empress Maria Theresa name all of her daughters Maria? Maria Antonia, the youngest, became the tragic Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Her parents and her siblings called her Antoine.
Then there was Maria Carolina. Closest in age to Antoine, she became the Queen of Naples. Her granddaughter went on to become Napoleon’s second wife.
Maria Amalia became the Duchess of Parma. Maria Josepha succumbed to smallpox. Maria Christina—Mimi—lived in Pressburg and married, thanks to her mother, a man she loved: Albert of Saxony. Mimi was the Empress’s favorite daughter and Albert, her most favored son-in-law.
Farther north, what about Johann Sebastian Bach? To name one son Johann might have sufficed. But why did Bach give three of his sons the same first name? Didn’t that add to much confusion in a home already crowded with children?
We have Johann Christian Bach, the man whose melodious music influenced Mozart a great deal. This Bach became known as the London Bach. His older brother Johann Christoph Friedrich found a well paying job in Bückeburg and is known as the Bückeburg Bach.
Johann Gottfried Bernhard died at the young age of twenty-four. He served first as an organist, then went to Jena to study law. He was deeply in debt and gave his father the most trouble.
What does all this tell us about first names in Germany and Austria?
If you’re getting the impression that first names weren’t particularly important, that people went in general by their second name, you’re on the right track.
Musicologist David Wyn Jones confirms this for us. “As was frequently the practice in Austria,” he writes, “Haydn’s parents gave their children two Christian names, the second of which was routinely used. . . following practice, Haydn hardly ever used Franz.”
Now, if you’re wondering why Haydn’s youngest brother, Johann Evangelist, is always referred to as Johann in the Haydn Mysteries, it’s for two reasons. The first is that David Wyn Jones refers to him as Johann as well. This suggests to me that documents pertaining to Johann Evangelist, such as his contract with the Esterházy family as a tenor, probably use his first name.
Dies, Haydn’s first biographer, refers to Johann Evangelist in the same manner. Five years after Haydn joined St. Stephen’s as a choirboy, his father, Dies informs us, “dedicated Joseph’s brother Michael and still later Johann to the musical muse.”
Later still, Dies tells us that on his sixth visit to Haydn, he found the aged composer most distressed:
Haydn had received the sad news of the death of his brother Johann in Eisenstadt and was most grievously concerned.
Johann at the time was sixty-three.
My second reason is more trivial. I don’t particularly like the name, Evangelist. I’m quite glad to go along with history and use the youngest Haydn brother’s first name, Johann.
All this, of course, goes to show that we can’t extrapolate on the basis of what we know—or think we know. When it comes to historical novels, we really must get close to our sources and immerse ourselves in them.