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Rick Jones joins composers from around the world
to celebrate Haydn’s legacy – and see his two skul

Because the town of Eisenstadt in Austria was home to the composer Franz Joseph Haydn for most of his life, it has become the focus of some attention in this, the bicentenary of the composer's death. The proud authorities there have marked the occasion in two ways. First, they have commissioned 18 new piano trios from composers all over the world, which the Haydn Trio Eisenstadt, having performed them there, will bring to London in September. Second, they have mounted a display of Haydn's two heads, which, for the cost of a euro, visitors may view in the church where he is entombed.

Readers may be surprised to learn that Haydn had two heads. Between performances of the new piano trios, I paid to see them. They are both skulls. One is clean and white and has a strong, prominent jaw. This is the head Haydn used when he was alive. Phrenologists - students of the now-discredited science that believes character is determined by skull shape - cut it off and stole it shortly after Haydn died in Vienna. The opportunity to study the head of a genius clearly overcame their misgivings about either the legality or the morality of their action.

The other skull is small and brown and has a broken jaw. This was the substitute obtained when Haydn's erstwhile employer Prince Nikolaus Esterházy discovered that the corpse he had fetched for reburial in Eisenstadt was headless. "Better any head than none," he said. The provenance of the replacement is unknown, but it remained Haydn's head for 130 years, as the original was not reunited with the body until 1954.

The phrenologists believed the skull would provide evidence for Haydn's genius. More reliable proof was available from the sheer volume of work he produced: the 104 symphonies; 84 string quartets; operas, oratorios, masses, piano sonatas; other chamber pieces including those for long-obsolete instruments such as the flute-clock; and about 600 songs, 400 of them arrangements of Scottish folk songs commissioned by publishers in London, where he had become something of a superstar. Unlike Bach and Handel, Haydn almost never repeated himself, so effortlessly did he compose.

“String quartets would have been too obvious," says Walter Reicher, artistic director of the Haydn Festival 2009, of the decision to commission the piano trios. Haydn's own output in this genre, numbering 30 works, takes the form on from its modest beginnings where the cello doubles the piano's left hand and the violin merely embellishes the right, to a tight-knit but com­bative meeting of three independent voices. In music history, the piano trio is second only to the string quartet as the ideal chamber group.

Every one of the 18 composers has been gathered for the so-called Triothlon: six from Austria, six from Europe and six from the rest of the world, all presenting themselves on stage before the premiere of their eight-to-ten-minute, Haydn-inspired composition. There are 13 concerts to attend in four days and the sight of groups of composers taking the kilometre walk from the hotel to the concert hall in the Esterházy Palace and back becomes familiar. The custard-yellow palace is impressive. The outer wall is decorated with terracotta ancestral busts, one of which is Attila the Hun. "He wasn't really in the family," says Reicher. "The Esterházys didn't go that far back, so they made up their history. One of the family trees includes Adam and Eve."

“I used to play the early piano trios," boasts the American composer William Bolcom in his introductory talk, "but the cellist always complained!" Bolcom's contribution is a witty web of rondo themes that Haydn might have dreamed up. The German Dieter Schnebel takes a similarly light-hearted line and bases his composition on a single phrase from the Joke Quartet (Opus 33 No 2). Unexpected harmonies underpin the skittish theme. Some people snigger. With the original, Haydn won a bet that he could make the audience talk before the end.

Lalo Schifrin, the wealthy Argentinian film composer (Dirty Harry, Mission: Impossible, etc) arrives in time for the photograph. He wears two-tone shades and a shiny blue suit. His coiffed wife towers over him like a bodyguard in a pencil skirt. His piece romances Haydn in gentle tango rhythms and an introspective coda. The Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye comes with a posse of sinister minders. He wrote the piece that Lang Lang played at the Beijing Olympics, but his Haydn inspiration is bitter and lacks charm. He says the Cultural Revolution kept Haydn from him until he was 33. Japan's Yui Kakinuma, his wife trotting behind in a kimono, takes a jaunty theme that spells out Haydn's name, running it repeatedly, varying it minimally and cutting it off abruptly when the time runs out.

The South African Bongani Ndodana-Breen hears jazzy rhythms and singable harmony in Haydn. The Australian Elena Kats-Chernin is a live wire, dressing like a flamboyant hippie and expressing the thrill of the festival in infectious laughter. Haydn, too, made Eisenstadt happy, not even thinking of a minor key until Symphony No 26. Kats-Chernin has had more success than most since turning away from intellectual complexity and scoring a hit with "Eliza's Aria" in a Lloyds TSB commercial. Her Haydn piece opens the Triothlon with a flowing stream of excited quavers that seduces everyone into an accessibly contemporary sound-world.

The Briton John Woolrich teams strings with piano in an aggressive, inward-looking dialogue that sounds both loud and private, like an argument eavesdropped on through the keyhole of a castle chamber. Haydn was a congenial sort, but he didn't get on with his wife. The 83-year-old French composer Betsy Jolas studied with everyone from Milhaud to Messiaen, replacing the latter at the Paris Conservatoire in 1970. Her heartfelt, searching work is the first to mourn abstractly the passing of Papa Haydn. She says her starting point was the country-dance theme from the last movement of the last symphony, No 104 (the "London Symphony"). It comes to us through mist and with the saddest steps.

The six Austrian composers - Doderer, Everhartz, Hödl, Harnik, Krammer and Schedlberger - devise the most extreme works, as if they
alone are determined to rescue Haydn from his pit of classical gentility. Pure, high dissonance matches the mightiest belly hammerings and grotesque, angular dances contrast with the serenest dreamscapes.

Haydn came to London in the 1790s and so does the entire Triothlon experience next month, taking over the new chamber venues at Kings Place for a week. The Haydn Trio Eisenstadt will perform the 18 new works along with a selection of Haydn's own piano trios. To have performed so many premieres in such a short space of time, even rehearsing them on the internet for the benefit of the composers, is a phenomenal achievement, and to repeat it in one of the world's great cities will be no less so.

They will not be the only performers. The Esterházy Baryton Ensemble is to bring a selection of the dozens of works that Haydn composed
for Prince Nikolaus, an amateur exponent of the cello-like baryton, while the singers Lorna Anderson and Jamie MacDougall will perform some
of the aforementioned Scottish songs. Many of them are settings of Robert Burns, whose 250th birthday, let us not forget, we celebrate in 2009. It's a double-header, in a sense.

The Eisenstadt Haydn Festival is at Kings Place, London NW1, 7-13 September. For more information, visit: www.kingsplace.co.uk