Haydn and his terrible, no good friend

Despite my best efforts, I have occasionally been a bad friend. I often miss birthdays. I can’t remember the last time I sent a Christmas card. Sometimes I forget to respond to text messages for several days. The friends that have stuck with me this far may report other more egregious insults of which I am unaware. Rightly or wrongly, this doesn’t keep me awake at night, and if you’re like me, I hope you won’t be too hard on yourself either. The somewhat gruesome deeds of one Joseph Carl Rosenbaum—perhaps history’s worst friend—should, by comparison, alleviate much of the guilt you may be carrying around about your selfish ways.


Rosenbaum was a close friend of the great Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn. When Haydn died in 1809, he was one of the most celebrated musicians in Europe and was buried with appropriate pomp and circumstance. Four days later, Mr. Rosenbaum hired a professional gravedigger to go down after poor old Haydn and steal his head. In a small wooden box lined with black satin and decorated with a golden lyre, Haydn’s skull was put on display in Rosenbaum’s front yard. Eventually, the authorities got wind that something sketchy was going on, and as the investigation circled in on Rosenbaum, the skull mysteriously went missing. Incredibly, it was not until 1954, nearly one hundred and fifty years later, that Haydn’s head was returned to the rest of his earthly remains.


As for motive, Rosenbaum claimed he couldn’t stomach the notion of Haydn’s brain ending up as worm food. Haydn was one of the greatest musical minds the world had seen to that point, and surely, thought Rosenbaum, he deserved a better fate. The road to hell, it seems, really always has been paved with good intentions.


Although frightfully misguided, Haydn’s devoted friend was not wrong about the master’s genius. Haydn was a formidable creative force, and his role in shaping the history of music deserves equal consideration to those of Mozart or Beethoven. He is still known today as the “Father of the Symphony” (he wrote an astounding 106 of them) and the “Father of the String Quartet”.


Writing a string quartet is no mean feat. With a symphony, a composer has the full range of sonic possibilities that comes with the vast array of instruments in an orchestra. With a string quartet, the tonal options are severely more limited: two violins, a viola and a cello. Haydn took up the challenge and elevated the form to be a vehicle for some of the greatest music ever written. He created sixty-eight quartets of astonishing variety and unparalleled mastery.


Firmly established by Haydn, the string quartet has become an essential part of music making in the 200-plus years since his messy demise. Masterful contributions to the repertoire come from all the greats, including Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and Shostakovich.


If you’re the type that subscribes to the theory that all’s well that ends well, you might be inclined to forgive Mr. Rosenbaum. After all, Haydn did eventually get his head back. For me, I take it as justification to hold my head high as, yet again this year, I don’t send you a Christmas card.