MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Hunt for Haydn’s Skull


In time for Halloween, here’s one of my favorite weird stories from the often very weird world of classical music: the story of Haydn’s missing skull.

Haydn was the longest-lived of the great triumvirate who perfected “the Classical Style” (with a life twice as long as that of Mozart and a good two decades longer than Beethoven’s). But he happened to die in 1809, just when the quack movement known as phrenology was suddenly becoming popular in Europe.

Among the leading phrenologists (if not its founder) was one Franz Joseph Gall, and his disciples included a former employee of the aristocratic Esterházy household, Joseph Carl Rosenbaum, who had known Haydn when they shared the same boss. Rosenbaum and a fellow phrenologist follower, Johann Nepomuk Peter, obtained possession of Haydn’s skull from a corrupt gravedigger — it had begun decomposing in the sultry Vienna June — and the skull eventually ended up spending time in both gentlemen’s collections.

Meanwhile, in 1820, over a decade after Haydn’s death, the composer’s patron of old, Nikolaus Prince Esterházy, decided to transfer his former kapellmeister’s remains from the environs of Vienna to his estate in Eisenstadt next to the Hungarian border. Of course as soon as the exhumation took place, they discovered the fact that Haydn was now missing his skull.

The blogger David Nelson has even more juicy details here:

After the skull was discovered missing, the authorities unsuccessfully searched Rosenbaum’s home. Mrs. Rosenbaum had hid the skull under her mattress, and then lay down on it. She claimed that it was “that time of the month.” Then after Prince Esterhazy paid Rosenbaum for the skull, one skull and then another—neither belonging to Haydn—were presented. This meant that on December 4, 1820, a stranger’s skull was placed on Haydn’s remains.


This bizarre story was finally resolved in 1954. In a ceremony at the Musikverein, the skull “was placed in an urn decorated with a golden laurel wreath surrounded by red and white peonies.” Then a large procession (100 cars!) drove past Haydn’s birth house in Rohrau and to the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt, where the skull was finally returned to its body.

However, because Rosenbaum had given the Prince another skull, with the lie that it was Haydn’s, and even though the ruse was soon discovered, this mismatched skull was reunited with Haydn’s body in the reinterment. So come 1954, when the real skull was at last laid to rest amid much ceremony, it had a mate, and the two have remained in the tomb since then.

More on the skull story

Haydn's crypt in the Bergkirche  in Eisenstadt

Haydn’s crypt in the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt

Filed under: miscellaneous, musical oddities

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