Wednesday 26 November 1760 should have been a happy day for Joseph Haydn, and perhaps it was. Aged 28, he already had a good job working as music master for an aristocrat, and had recently written the first of his 104 symphonies. Romantically, he had seemingly hit the jackpot too – that November day he married Maria Anna Keller in St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, where two decades previously he had been a chorister. Years of happiness, both personal and professional, seemed to stretch out before him.


Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way. While Haydn continued to flourish as a musician – a career-defining appointment with the Esterházy family was just around the corner – his marriage to Maria Anna quickly crumbled to an untidy mess that would come to an end only with her death nearly 40 years later.

Who was Haydn's wife, Maria Anna Keller?

What went wrong? The clue probably lies in how the relationship first got started. Maria Anna was the daughter of a wigmaker, whose brother introduced Haydn to the Keller family. But Maria Anna was not the daughter who first attracted Haydn’s eye. That was Therese, her younger sibling, to whom Haydn taught piano and with whom he fell in love. Therese, however, had been earmarked by her family for the religious life, and eventually joined a nunnery.

And there the matter might have ended, had not a bright idea occurred to her father Johann Keller. If Haydn couldn’t marry Therese, what about her older sister? Might Maria Anna be a suitable replacement? Haydn was not exactly enthusiastic about the idea – it took five years of prompting by Herr Keller, plus the influence of what one acquaintance coyly dubbed ‘a young man’s natural urges’, for him to finally name the wedding day.

Who was to blame for their disastrous marriage?

Haydn’s initial reluctance to act on Johann Keller’s masterplan proved prescient. Virtually from the outset, he and Maria Anna proved drastically incompatible. She had no empathy for music, he claimed, and didn’t care whether he was ‘a cobbler or an artist’. Haydn’s friend and biographer Georg August Griesinger expanded on the list of the hapless Maria Anna’s alleged deficiencies. She had ‘a domineering, unfriendly character’, he wrote. She was a spendthrift, and also a religious bigot. It was even rumoured that she used her husband’s music manuscripts to line pastry tins or curl her hair.

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But what of Haydn himself? Was he blameless in the disintegration of his marriage? Likely not, as Haydn himself appears to indicate in a remark he made to Griesinger. ‘My wife was incapable of having children,’ he said, ‘and thus I was less indifferent to the charms of other women.’ His partner’s infertility suggested as a reason for his own infidelity? It hardly paints a flattering picture of the composer. Or was Maria Anna simply averse to any sexual contact with her new husband?

We will never know for sure. What is certain is that both Haydn and Maria Anna had extra-marital dalliances – he with the Italian singer Luigia Polzelli, a mezzo-soprano with the Esterházy company.

How long was Haydn married for?

Today, the Haydns’ unhappiness with one another would probably have ended in divorce court. But that was impossible for a Catholic couple in 18th-century Vienna and the pair were still officially married – though leading largely separate lives – when Maria Anna died in 1800, aged 69, of arthritis. Haydn outlived her by nine years, but did not re-marry.

‘Papa Haydn’ is the beneficent image of the composer passed down to posterity through oil paintings and his genial, life-enhancing music. But his dysfunctional marriage is a sharp reminder that beneath the magnificent accomplishments of an artistic career, personal failures and imperfections can linger as a discomfiting blemish.


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