Divorce a la mode: The Schwellenberg Affair and Haydn’s Engagement with English Caricature

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Explaining Haydn’s failure to come to London in the 1780s contemporary newspapers sporadically embroidered from the composer’s matrimonial difficulties a narrative of the hen-pecked husband. When Haydn eventually arrived in London in 1791, without his wife, one newspaper immediately extended the earlier fiction by reporting that Haydn was about to marry Madame Schwellenberg, a leading personality in royal service, mercilessly caricatured in contemporary prints as an overweight, avaricious woman, lacking conscience. Other prominent figures repeatedly targeted by caricaturists were also spuriously associated with Haydn.

Haydn, who regularly perused the London newspapers, certainly knew these reports. The respect he quickly commanded and his personal discretion saved him from joining the ranks of the visually caricatured. The article argues, however, that the whole experience stimulated new creative impulses in Haydn, the principles of caricature, then a distinctively English preoccupation, suggesting innovative musical possibilities.

The article investigates Haydn’s relationship with English caricature, and what he learned from it to enhance his already secure reputation as a composer of wit. Clear evidence that Haydn engaged directly with techniques of English caricature – particularly double entendre, mockery, exaggeration, and a fixation with scatological humour – comes from a passage in his London journal (subtitled Divorce a la mode) in which the composer used English conventions of caricature to satirise fellow musicians. With reference to his London compositions and to examples of caricatures in his own collection, the paper demonstrates Haydn’s compositional interest in such devices developed with a view to expanding his appeal to English audiences.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMusic in Art: International Journal for Music Iconography
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2017


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