Inside Hadyn’s Head

During a press trip to Austria’s Burgenland region, we visited Eisenstadt, a town billed as Haydn’s Graceland.  Being a non-disciple of Elvis, I’ve never possessed a desire to tour Graceland. But I can attest that both sites  glitter with the ethos of their respective musical icons, be it in the sequined styles of Las Vegas or the gilded paintings that defined the Baroque era.

During our whirlwind tour of the town, I learned the story behind the literal disappearance of Haydn’s head. Shortly after Joseph Haydn’s death in 1809, Karl Rosenbaum, secretary to Haydn’s employers, the Esterhazy family, assisted some phrenologists who wanted to study Haydn’s head. During this era, phrenology, the belief that one could find links between intelligence and skull size, captured the public’s imagination. Since most of the skulls they could study were those of criminals and others of presumed limited intelligence, they had a very strong interest in analyzing the skull of a bona fide genius like Haydn.


Over the years, this head (well, skull, actually, to be precise) had quite a history, including being displayed for years in a head-size black wooden casket at the Gesellschaft für Musikfreunde in Vienna. Finally, in 1954, body and head were reunited and all of Haydn now rests in a marble tomb in the Bergkirche, otherwise known as Haydn Church. One can no longer view the head, but visitors can sample Haydn’s visage, as displayed on various confections available for sale throughout the town.

Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).