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Haydn and the Hertfordshire Festival of Music

Joseph Haydn spent a summer holiday in Hertford

In August of 1791 a composer famed and fêted across Europe who inspired and taught the true greats of his era including Mozart and Beethoven, needed a summer holiday.


Franz Joseph Haydn (often known as ‘Papa Haydn’, such is his fame amongst musicians) had arrived in England on New Year’s Day after a very choppy crossing of the English Channel, during which some of his music had been lost overboard. He spent the first part of the year mainly in London, where his celebrity status was such that he was giving many concerts and appearing at the homes of the rich and famous – royalty very much included – on an almost nightly basis.


Haydn had been in the service of the music-loving but less than generous Esterházy Princes in rural Hungary. In his one year in London, he earned as much as he had in more than twenty years as the Kapellmeister at Eszterháza palace. In London he could compose for the thriving market of both professional and amateur musicians, as well as appear at the keyboard in concerts of his own music at Hanover Square, a venue also frequented by Johann Christian Bach, son of JS and known as the ‘London Bach’.

In the little time he had to spare, he was trying to compose from an apartment on Great Pulteney Street in modern day Soho made available by piano makers Broadwood, who were, no doubt, keen to be associated with this mega-star musician. Haydn found London fascinating and stimulating, but the constant noise was wearing and he yearned for peace and quiet. For a while he was able to live in a cottage on a farm which was just outside the city at Lisson Grove, just north of Marylebone - considered in those days as something of a rural retreat. This wasn’t to last as the owner decided to sell the property (some things never change) and he was forced back to the bustle of the West End. 

One of the many acquaintances he had made was with a banker, Nathaniel Brassey**, who had offices on Lombard Street. Brassey knew Haydn’s principal supporter, sponsor and agent Johann Peter Salomon, and had secured keyboard lessons from the great composer for one of his daughters.

Hanover Square in 1787 - as Haydn might have known it

Haydn in London - Hertfordshire Festival of Music

Brassey was from a Quaker family, his father having also been Member of Parliament for Hertford from 1734. Brassey senior had built a home at Roxford, less than three miles from Hertford, in 1700. Standing on the banks of the River Lea in handsome Hertfordshire countryside, the house at Roxford would easily have been within a day’s ride of London, about twenty two miles from the Square Mile.

No other building in which Haydn resided on his several visits to these shores still stands, so Roxford holds a unique place in British musical history.


Brassey knew of Haydn’s desire for a country retreat, and invited him to stay with his family at Roxford for a period of six weeks in August and early September. We know that Haydn spent some of his time walking in the woods nearby, trying to master the vagaries of English grammar. On 17 September 1791 he wrote to his great friend in Vienna Maria Anna von Genzinger :


“I have been living in the country, amid the loveliest scenery, with a banker’s family where I live as if I were in a monastery! I am all right, thank the good Lord! Except for my usual rheumatism; I work hard, and when in the early mornings I walk in the woods, alone, with my English grammar, I think of my Creator, my family and of all the friends I have left behind. How sweet this bit of freedom really is!...”


We also know of an extraordinary incident that took place one evening at dinner with the Brasseys. The composer was relating anecdotes about his life working for the Esterházys, noting the privations that went with it. Suddenly, Nathaniel jumped up and demanded his pistols and swore that he should kill himself on the spot, as he had known nothing of poverty and struggle in his own life and was disgusted by the realisation that he’d grown up surrounded by wealth and possessions. The musical guest managed to calm him, and avert disaster.


Haydn was a prolific composer who probably took few, if any, breaks from writing this huge output  of imaginative, warm, witty and profound music. In six weeks of relative solitude, calm and the inspiration of nature around him, it seems impossible that he wrote nothing whilst on his Hertfordshire holidays. What’s more, it would seem highly likely that a man who was pious (many of his works bear the dedication in nomine Domini - in the name of the Lord) would have visited the local places of worship such as St. Mary’s in Hertingfordbury, All Saints’ in Hertford, and intriguingly the Friends Meeting House that the Brassey family must have frequented. Built in 1670, this is the oldest purpose-built Quaker Meeting House in continuous use in the world, and is a fine venue for music with concerts given throughout the year by Hertford Music Club.

Haydn and the Friends Meeting House - Hertfordshire Festival of Music

The Old Friends Meeting House, built around 1670

What might Haydn have written in Hertfordshire? Research into this is needed but there is an exciting possibility that one of his most famous works, the Surprise Symphony, could have flowed from his fertile imagination whilst staying at Roxford.


HFoM has been fortunate to befriend the current owners of Roxford House, Linda and David Haysey, who are music lovers and proud of their connection to Haydn. In 2017 HFoM was invited to Roxford where pianist Clare Hammond gave a recital in a space more recently built, but adjacent to, the 1700 building in which Haydn resided.

There’s much still to learn about Haydn’s time in Hertfordshire, including the possibility that he visited and performed in Temple Dinsley, a country house near Hitchin that is now home to Princess Helena College and has a recital room bearing his name. Every summer, HFoM will welcome the finest musicians performing today to play the music of this wonderful composer and remind us of this unique heritage, of which Hertfordshire should be proud.

Pianist Clare Hammond  rehearsing for her Haydn recital at Roxford 

**Brassey: There seems to be no consensus on the pronunciation of this surname, although a suggestion of ‘Bracey’ rather than ‘Brassy’ or ‘Brazzy’ has been made. For further reading about Haydn’s time in England, we recommend Christopher Hogwood’s excellent small book ‘Haydn’s Visits to England’ published by The Folio Society in 1980.

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