On Haydn’s Trail: Eszterháza Palace, Hungary

Posted in anniversaries, on site by yonanm on July 27, 2009



Thomas Hardy, "Portrait of Joseph Haydn," 1791 (London: Royal College of Music) – click on the image for more information

2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of composer Joseph Haydn (1732–1809), a musical titan and key figure in the modern development of the string quartet and symphony. Musical significance aside, Haydn’s biography is a compelling one. Born into humble circumstances in the eastern Austrian village of Rohrau, he accomplished an internationally significant career without the benefit of birthright or privilege. Nor, for that matter, was he a shooting star: His career developed slowly over decades, and for much of it he lived and worked in relative isolation, a fact he himself credited with stimulating his creative impulses. From 1766 to 1790 he was resident at Eszterháza, the summer palace of the Esterházy noble family located in the village of Fertöd, 7 kilometers from the Austrian border in western Hungary. Seeing this palace has been a decade-long desire of mine, not just because I love Haydn’s music, but also because its architecture is grand enough to have earned it the epithet “The Hungarian Versailles.” In June I finally made it there, fittingly enough in the Haydn anniversary year.

Eszterháza Palace, from the courtyard

Eszterháza Palace, from the courtyard

Though not far from Vienna, Eszterháza is hard to reach without a car. Train access to Fertöd is nonexistent, and anyone wishing to brave the rural Hungarian bus system is bolder than I. Comparisons to Versailles notwithstanding, the building’s obvious inspiration is Schönbrunn, the Habsburg summer palace in Vienna, a legacy one notices in the bright yellow used for the palace’s exterior color.

Visiting this palace, I was reminded of the great difficulties facing cultural sites in former communist nations like Hungary. Whereas Austria approached the Haydn celebratory year with multiple aggressive tourist-centered advertising campaigns, at Eszterhaza, probably the most important extant building associated with Haydn, there was little visible indication of 2009’s importance. One small exhibition devoted to Haydn’s patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy (1714–1790), was on display, but it contained few artifacts of the composer and in fact barely mentioned him! Lack of resources is certainly the reason for this.

Detail from Ceremonial Hall, Eszterháza

Detail from Ceremonial Hall, Eszterháza

The palace’s greatest glories for me were its rococo rooms. One enters the grounds via a large square forecourt, notable for its curved corner facades, and walks past sculptures glorifying the Esterházy family’s conquests over the Ottomans. Inside, visitors are treated to a breathtaking succession of rooms treating varied subjects through intelligently designed rococo ornamental programs. The most impressive to me was the Ceremonial Hall, a large two-storied space at the palace’s center that was the site for large festivities. Here, the polychrome rocaille boiserie amazed with its elegant beauty and complex melding of forms. The room’s tonalities are built upon a white and pink base, with gold and silver ornamental filigree, and the decoration likewise featured putti, emblems, and multicolored flowers. The color scheme reminded me of certain Sèvres porcelains. Each ceiling corner featured a differently colored standard–orangey red, blue, green, and yellow—and overhead hung a Tiepolo-like ceiling painting.


Detail from first-floor salon, Eszterháza

On the ground floor, a semi-open garden space contained more rococo rooms, here in matte textures and featuring horticultural themes. There were frescoes too, one particularly funny one depicting putti twisting a garland of flowers into an ‘E’, for Esterházy of course. In several of the palace’s apartments, the prince’s artists created amazing chinoiserie frescoes modeled obviously on prints by Lajoue and Audran. Not all of the palace’s rooms have retained their original decoration, and the degree of repainting and alteration is an open question. The grounds certainly are much simplified over their likely eighteenth-century appearance. The tours were available in Hungarian only (!), but even with some sleuthing in the palace bookstore and elsewhere, it became clear that this building’s decorative history desperately needs additional study.

Chinoiserie wall decoration, Prince's apartments, Eszterháza

Chinoiserie wall decoration, Prince's apartments, Eszterháza

Ironically, in this place that was so central to Haydn’s activities, I found few traces of him and little official recognition of his accomplishments. But I did glean a vital sense of setting, and I understood how the dichotomies of a place like this could be conducive to creativity. Eszterháza is distant yet chic, quiet yet busy, and filled with abundant beauty both artistic and natural. Some lovely things came out of this obscure Hungarian place, and I am delighted to have finally seen it for myself.

♦ HECAA Member, Michael Yonan, is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He’s a great fan, as well as a scholar, of Central European rococo
palaces. Email:
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