On 10 May Napoleon Bonaparte arrived outside Vienna. His French forces had been at war with Austria since mid-April and, with successes at Abensberg, Landshut and Eckmuhl under his belt, the Emperor now had the capital city in his sights.


He had been here before, of course – in November 1805, when the city had given itself up to him without a fight (leading to an audience consisting almost entirely of French soldiers at the premiere of Beethoven’s Fidelio that same month). On this occasion, too, he promised that, should his army meet no resistance, he would show lenience in victory. However, Archduke Maxmilian, commander of the Austrian forces, fancied his chances of holding out and declined the offer.

Stationing 20 howitzers around the city, Napoleon began his bombardment in the early hours of 12 May. As shells fell around them, Vienna’s residents were sent into panic. One of them, Ludwig van Beethoven, headed to the basement of his brother Carl’s house where, fearing further damage to his already declining hearing, he covered his ears with pillows. Another, Joseph Haydn, proved a more reassuring presence. ‘Children, don’t be frightened,’ he told those close to him; ‘where Haydn is, nothing can happen to you.’

The great man was correct – for all the chaos, the bombardment caused relatively little damage. Maximilian nonetheless saw sense and surrendered, and within 24 hours French forces were again occupying the city.

Haydn knew that he himself had little time left to live, though. Now aged 77, he was in poor health and, just weeks earlier, had gathered his nearest and dearest for a reading of his will. His last major appearance in public had been over a year earlier when, on 27 March 1808 at Vienna’s University Hall, Salieri had conducted a grand concert of The Creation in his honour.

It was a much lower-key performance of music from The Creation that would bring pleasure to the dying Haydn as his home city endured its darkest days. On 17 May 1809, Clément Sulemy, an officer of the Hussars, was sent over to the composer’s house – outside which Napoleon had stationed a guard of honour – to sing the tenor aria ‘Mit Würd’ und Hoheit Angetan’ (In Native Worth and Honour Clad).

Sulemy sang in ‘so manly, so sublime a style, and with so much truth of expression and real musical sentiment,’ wrote the composer and pianist Andreas Steicher in a letter, ‘that Haydn could not restrain his tears of joy and assured the singer as well as the people in his house that he had never before heard the aria sung in so masterly a manner. After half an hour’s visit the officer mounted his horse in order to go against the enemy.’

Haydn was not quite done with music. Just over a week later, he summoned enough strength to sit at the piano and perform his ‘Emperor’s Hymn’ (better known today as the Deutschlandlied), not once but three times in quick succession and, as reported by his copyist Johann Elssler, ‘with an expressiveness that surprised even himself’. They would be the last notes he played as, soon after midnight on 31 May, he breathed his last. With Vienna still in turmoil, his death went largely unheralded – it would only be the following month that, accompanied by Mozart’s Requiem, the great father of Austrian music received the proper state send-off he deserved, attended by the great and good.

By then, Clément Sulemy was also probably dead. He is believed to have been killed on 22 May at the Battle of Aspern where, in trying to cross the Danube, the French suffered a surprise defeat. Just days after his most famous moment, in which he brought serenity to a great composer in his final days, Sulemy became yet another victim of an increasingly bloody conflict.


Main image: The bombardment of Vienna by Napoleon's troops in 1809. © Photo by Imagno/Getty Images