A very special Christmas concert: Joseph Haydn and the Russian grand duchess

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At Christmas 1781 the Vienna Hofburg was the setting for a very special concert that was to go down in the annals of musical history. At the invitation of the Russian grand duchess Maria Feodorovna, who was residing in the city at the time, Joseph Haydn presented his newly completed ‘Russian Quartets’.

The Russian grand duke and grand duchess were on an extended journey round Europe during which they visited Vienna at the end of 1781. A son of Catherine the Great, Grand Duke Paul was heir to the Russian throne, later ruling as Tsar Paul I. He and his wife Maria Feodorovna had an apartment in the Vienna Hofburg placed at their disposal for the duration of their visit by their host, Emperor Joseph II.

Joseph also organized a varied programme for his guests, including a visit to the Vienna Porcelain Manufactory, Schönbrunn Palace and St Stephen’s Cathedral. The princess was known for her enthusiasm for music, and Joseph made sure that her interests were catered for. On 24 December in his apartments in the Leopoldine Wing of the Hofburg he arranged a contest between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Muzio Clementi, which incidentally ended without a clear victor.

Just one day later another concert was held in the Hofburg. However, the initiative for this event was taken by the Russian grand duchess rather than the emperor. With Joseph Haydn himself attending, at least parts of his recently completed Russian Quartets (op. 33) were performed. It is highly likely that this was in fact the first time the cycle of quartets had been performed. The Wiener Zeitung featured an account of the concert, reporting that ‘the most distinguished musicians of both sexes currently residing here were heard’. From this we may infer that in addition to Haydn and the quartet performing his work (Luigi Tomasini, Franz Aspelmayr, Thaddäus Huber and Joseph Franz Weigl) other musicians were also present at the grand duchess’s concert.

It is also possible that Mozart attended the concert, as he had performed for Joseph and the grand duchess at the Hofburg only the previous day. However, this is pure speculation. What is certain is that Haydn’s Russian Quartets had a powerful influence on the younger composer. Deeply impressed by these works, Mozart himself composed a cycle of quartets dedicated to his fatherly friend which are today known as the Haydn Quartets.

The concert seems to have been a great success for Haydn. The composer and the four musicians were rewarded with lavish gifts. Years later the grand duchess, by then tsarina of Russia, still spoke enthusiastically about the event, and Haydn’s Russian Quartets were to occupy an important place in the history of music.

The apartments in which the quartets were performed on 25 December 1781 still exist: later occupied by Empress Elisabeth, they can be seen today as part of a tour of the imperial apartments in the Hofburg.

Bernhard A. Macek