by Jack El-Hai, Wonders & Marvels contributor
Today people admire the Austrian-born composer Franz Joseph Haydn for many reasons: his output of 107 symphonies, many of them jolly and playful; his countless other compositions for all kinds of instrumental and vocal combinations; his friendship with Mozart and his encouragement of the young Beethoven; and his modest bearing in an age when other musical celebrities had egos far bigger than their talents.
Away with His Head
During the decades after his death in 1809, however, the notorious theft and lengthy disappearance of the composer’s head at times overshadowed Haydn’s accomplishments. For nearly 150 years, Haydn’s corpse and skeleton remained headless while various parties — including members of a rogue gang of phrenologists and some of Europe’s most respected educational and musical institutions — bickered over the ownership of the skull.
The surprising tale of Haydn’s wandering head began just a week after the maestro’s death at the age of 77. Due to the Napoleonic wars that still raged in Austria, Haydn’s royal patron and employer, Nikolaus II, Prince Esterhazy, temporarily buried the composer’s body not in the still-contested land of the Esterhazy estate outside Vienna, but in Hundesturm Cemetery, within the city limits. Vienna was rife with phrenologists — people who believed that the shape and bumps of a skull can reveal insights into the intelligence and character of its owner. Joseph Carl Rosenbaum, a former secretary to Prince Esterhazy, followed this dubious science, and he conspired with a fellow enthusiast, a prison official named Johann Peter, to take possession of Haydn’s head. They hoped to study the skull and thus learn the secrets of Haydn’s musical genius.
Bribery & Theft
Rosenbaum and Peter bribed a cemetery caretaker to break open Haydn’s casket and cut off the head. In the dead of night, the caretaker did so and delivered a wrapped bundle to the anxious conspirators. Rosenbaum could not resist taking a peek into the bundle as he took his carriage home. He saw that the enterprise had been successful, but had mixed feelings. “I had to vomit — the stench had overcome me,” he later wrote in his journal. “The head was already quite green, but still completely recognizable.” Rosenbaum wasted no time in having the head dissected, de-brained, bleached, and macerated at Vienna General Hospital, and he later designed a specially draped display case for the skull, which received a place of honor in his home.
And there Haydn’s head rested for the next eleven years. If Rosenbaum and Peter learned the secrets of Haydn’s genius, they never shared them with anyone. In 1820, however, Prince Esterhazy belatedly decided to transfer Haydn’s mausoleum to its permanent place in the Eisenstadt City Church on his own estate outside Vienna. In the course of moving the body, Esterhazy’s officers found the head missing. Only a wig occupied the space above the shoulders. Outraged, Prince Esterhazy notified the police, who uncovered rumors of Peter’s involvement in the theft.
Peter squealed on Rosenbaum. The police searched Rosenbaum’s quarters, but his wife feigned illness and hid Haydn’s skull in bed with her. Meanwhile, Rosenbaum surrendered another skull from his collection, and this wrong part joined Haydn’s body and was buried with him in Eisenstadt City Church.
For years, Rosenbaum kept sole possession of what was left of Franz Josef Haydn’s head. But when Rosenbaum died in 1829 (and it is not known whether he took special measures to keep his own skull from the prying fingers of fanatical phrenologists), he bequeathed Haydn’s skull to Peter — with the proviso that Peter must in turn will the skull to Vienna’s Society of the Friends of Music, an archive and professional organization for musicians. When Peter passed on, he had made good on this commitment, but unfortunately he had loaned the skull to another phrenologist, a Dr. Karl Haller, who did not respect Peter’s will and gave Haydn’s head to an anatomist, Professor Karl Freiherr von Rokitansky of the University of Vienna.
A Strange Journey Home
Years passed, and the skull remained at the University even though the Society of the Friends of Music knew of Peter’s bequest and tried to gain possession of the boney prize. Finally the Society filed suit against the University. The Esterhazy descendants, astonished to learn that Haydn’s body has been attached to the wrong head, filed their own suit to seize the skull. In 1895 — 86 years after Haydn’s death — the legal wrangle concluded when an Austrian court awarded the skull to the Society of the Friends of Music. For several generations, the skull sat on a pedestal in the Society’s building in Vienna.
In 1932, the bicentennial of Haydn’s birth, the Esterhazy family made another attempt to restore the skull to its family estate, which now lay within the redrawn borders of Hungary. Duke Paul Esterhazy built a fancy new mausoleum for Haydn at the Eisenstadt Hill Church. The Society of the Friends of Music offered to sell the skull to Esterhazy, but the hardships of the Great Depression had hit even noble families. The price for the skull was too high.
During World War II, Haydn’s head remained on its pedestal in Vienna. At the end of the war, however, the Society of the Friends of Music had a change of heart. It offered to give the skull to the Esterhazy Estate.
On May 30, 1954, the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir celebrated the upcoming rejoining of Haydn’s skull with the rest of his skeleton with a performance of the composer’s oratorio The Creation. On July 5, the skull was blessed by Cardinal Theodor Innitzer; it was then carried in a small leather casket from the Society’s building in a hearse on a bed of ferns and flowers. The hearse transported the skull through the town of Rohrau, Haydn’s birthplace, where roadside musicians played the composer’s Emperor Quartet. Then the skull arrived at the Esterhazy castle in Eisenstadt. Along with the rest of Haydn’s bones, the skull was set within a new copper coffin, the old coffin having long since deteriorated. Finally intact, Haydn’s remains were laid to rest at the Haydn Mausoleum of Eisenstadt Hill Church.
Dickey, Colin. Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius. Unbridled Books, 2010.
Geiringer, Karl with Irene Geiringer. Haydn: A Creative Life in Music. University of California Press, 1982.
“Haydn’s Skull is Returned.” LIFE Magazine, June 28, 1954.
Lovejoy, Bess. Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses. Simon and Schuster, 2013.