A friend who worked for Margaret Thatcher once told me the story of a London dinner where waitstaff accidentally spilled soup into the lap of a senior official. Said official chewed out the waitress. Mrs. Thatcher chewed out the senior official—and went to the kitchen to reassure the waitress. It was not the only such example, my friend said; the Iron Lady was one of those rare figures in politics who sucked down and kicked up.
I’m listening to Haydn and have been reading about the great classical composer’s patron, Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy (1714–90), who was apparently cut from a similar cloth. Nikolaus, too, had a feel for the rank and file.
The Viennese prince employed twenty-nine-year-old Franz Joseph Haydn at a moment when transition at court was afoot. It was time to ease Gregor Werner out as Kapellmeister. Baroque and sacred music were falling out of fashion. Nikolaus favored instead the new classical, secular style, and instrumental music in particular. But Nikolaus also wanted to do right by Werner.
Werner was retained as Kapellmeister, but in name only. Nikolaus granted Haydn the real musical authority. Haydn recruited and rehearsed the musicians daily. He served as librarian, was responsible for instruments, and composed the music. Not surprisingly, Werner and Haydn feuded. At one point, the former wrote a letter to the prince about the latter. The semi-retired Werner complained about Haydn’s sloppy administration, excessive spending, and lazy musicians—“[Haydn] lets them get away with everything.” Haydn was indeed stretched thin at the time and the criticism was not entirely baseless.
As a result, Nikolaus held Haydn accountable. He clarified the composer’s responsibilities—there was a letter of reprimand—and tasked a horn player named Josef Dietzl to provide administrative assistance and start taking better care of the musical instruments. As for the two men, Haydn and Werner, they never made peace.
Nikolaus irked fellow royalty. Rather than spending his fortune entirely on himself—and the prince did like his palace, parties, and extravagant clothes—he paid pensions to his employees. He provided decent sums to the widows of men who had worked for him. The prince also supported two hospitals available to court staff, covering the medical bills of ailing employees. This was a century before social security took hold in Europe.
All of which brings us to the story of Haydn’s Farewell Symphony—Abschiedssinfonie—a work composed in the summer of 1772. Nikolaus was spending time at his favorite getaway in Esterháza, a stunning palace he had built in the countryside, northwest of Budapest and south of Vienna. The prince may have reveled in the excursion, but for his musicians the stay had grown longer than expected. They wanted to return back home and appealed to Haydn as their advocate.
Haydn stood by his troops. During the final movement of the Farewell Symphony, the composer had each musician stop at a certain point. Each player snuffed out the candle on his or her music stand and left the stage, the players gradually peeling off, so that by the end there were just two violins left. This was Haydn’s hint. Nikolaus got the message. The next day, orchestra members were on their way home.
The team at American Purpose is taking a well-deserved break starting next week. Acting editor-in-chief Carolyn Stewart and colleagues will be back in September. Watch for newsletters in August. You’ll have a chance to revisit outstanding material from the first half of the year. Watch for a robust agenda in the fall, too. There are already new articles, podcasts, and in-person events in the pipeline.
I’m still on temporary assignment in Prague as acting president and CEO of RFE/RL. Look for an invitation for a virtual event on August 23, a discussion with Ukrainian and Russian colleagues. They’ve uncovered documents on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine pertaining to a private Russian military organization (not Wagner). Look for my report from Georgia at the end of August. I’ll be in Tbilisi for meetings with the RFE/RL bureau, the Georgian government, and opposition. I’ll also attend in Tbilisi an RFE/RL-Reuters Institute conference on digital innovation. There will be more to share on a number of fronts by then.
Jeffrey Gedmin, co-founder of American Purpose, is currently in Prague on temporary assignment as acting president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Views expressed in this article are solely the author’s.
Image: Eszterháza palace in Fertőd, Hungary. Built by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, It served as the home to Joseph Haydn and his orchestra from 1766 to 1790. (Esterházy-kastély)
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe