Haydn's imperial anthem

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Monday, February 12, 2018

Just to show that political spin and media manipulation is nothing new, consider this little tune by Franz Joseph Haydn…

It was first heard on today’s date in 1797. Now, February 12th happened to be the birthday of Franz II, the Hapsburg Emperor, and the Austrian poet Lorenz Leopold Haschka was commissioned to write some verses that would inspire a feeling of patriotic support for Franz II, who just happened to be at war with France and Napoleon Bonaparte at the time. Haydn was asked to set the verses into music.

The premiere took place in the Emperor’s presence at Vienna’s Burgtheater, between a comic opera and a tragic ballet. But contemporary spin-meisters saw to it that copies of Haydn's song had been sent to all playhouses, opera houses and concerts halls in the Hapsburg Monarchy, so that it could be heard there, too, during any performances occurring on February 12. After the defeat of Napoleon, Haydn’s little tune became the Austrian national anthem.

Long before that happened, Haydn recycled his hit tune into one of his String Quartets—a work that to this day is called the “Emperor” Quartet. And long AFTER that happened, 40 years after Haydn's death, in fact, the German nationalist poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben wrote verses to the tune, which began “Deutschland, Deutschland, ueber alles.”

But THAT’s another story entirely…