Two Heads Are Better Than One!

Research for our Sounds Imperial concert revealed a somewhat bizarre story about one of the composers which sounded like something out of the Hammer House of HorrorJoseph Haydn was buried with two heads!

Haydn passed away in Vienna on the 31st May, 1809 after a long illness. The Austrian capital was at the time occupied by Napoleon’s army, so after a simple funeral, the composer was quietly buried in a local cemetery. His mortal remains however soon fell prey to body snatchers.

Two of his friends – Joseph Rosenbaum, a former secretary to the Esterházy family (Haydn’s patrons) and a local prison governor, Johann Peter – bribed the gravedigger to dig up the body to allow the men to sever and remove the dead man’s head. They were fascinated by the now-discredited science of phrenology which linked the shape of a skull to mental capacity, and the skulls of geniuses such as Haydn were of particular interest.

Even though the deed was done only days after Haydn’s death, the summer heat meant that the head had already partially decomposed. So the skull was bleached and kept in a handsome display case as part of Rosenbaum’s gruesome collection.

Eleven years later, Haydn’s old patron Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II, was reminded of his intention to have the composer reburied at his palace at Eisenstadt near Vienna. When the headless body was revealed suspicion soon fell on the two thieves. The skull was hidden in a straw mattress, on which Rosenbaum’s wife lay pretending to be ill. So the Prince’s men, not wishing to disturb her, failed to find it. Nevertheless, in order to appease the Prince, Rosenbaum presented him with another skull from his collection.

Rosenbaum died in 1829, bequeathing the genuine skull to his partner-in- crime, Peter. By 1895 it had found its way to the celebrated Viennese music society, the Musikverein, and was occasionally shown to visitors.

In 1932 a descendant of Prince Nikolaus finally fulfilled his ancestor’s wish to bury Haydn’s body in the palace chapel but it was not until 1954, 145 years after Haydn’s death, that his skull was transferred – with suitable pomp and ceremony – to this marble tomb. But the substitute (and unidentified) skull was not removed and thus to this day Joseph Haydn’s coffin contains two heads!

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