First Encounters: When Joseph Haydn met Lady Emma Hamilton

Illustration by Edward Sorel Text by Nancy Caldwell Sorel Next week: Blaise Pascal and Rene Descartes
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
By the summer of 1800, Napoleon had made travel about Europe precarious in the extreme. Sir William Hamilton, the seasoned British ambassador to Naples, his wife, Emma, and Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, en route as a threesome from Sicily to England, found themselves deflected to Vienna. They were feeling their age and condition. The Lord Admiral had lost an arm, most of his upper teeth, and the use of one eye; Sir William was chronically ill; and the once classically beautiful Emma - painted by Romney, Lawrence and Reynolds - had put on weight, only partially as a result of her being (secretly) five months pregnant with Nelson's child. From Vienna they went to join the Prince and Princess Esterhzy at nearby Eisenstadt.

The chief attraction of Eisenstadt was, of course, that Haydn lived there. Kapellmeister under a succession of Esterhzys, he conducted his little orchestra, mothered his young musicians and created his rich harmonies and buoyant melodies. He also had enjoyed two highly satisfactory sojourns in England - the London symphonies attest to that. Now he welcomed the score of his cantata Arianna a Naxos, in which Emma had expressed particular interest.

Not since her early days in Naples, when the singing master came three times a day and household servants doubled as fiddlers, had Emma been so completely surrounded by music. Esterhzy provided a partridge shoot, fireworks and a ball as well, but music reigned. At one concert, to Haydn's accompaniment, Emma sang the alto aria from Arianna; critical assessment of her voice varied, but the audience was ecstatic. Haydn rewarded her with the manuscripts of two of his songs. Clearly, he was taken with her beauty; perhaps, too, her presence recalled a certain London romance still warm in his memory. If he knew of her dubious past, or suspected her unconventional present, he gave no sign