Haydn conducting a string quartet
Haydn conducting a string quartet

It can be tough to give the boss a hint, but it was even more difficult back in the days of domestic servitude when the boss was a nobleman. Such was the case with Franz-Joseph Haydn, master of the symphony and court composer to Prince Esterházy, when the Prince took his orchestra along with him when he went to the cottage for the summer. This is what one did in the days before iPods if one’s summer cottage happened to be a palace.

The musicians grew less and less happy as the summer stay dragged on… and on… and on. Their wives had remained back home at Eisenstadt, and the Prince was acting like the guest who just wouldn’t leave⁠—except that since he owned the place, there was no one to suggest that it was really getting to be time to pack his bags.

Haydn, who could knock off a symphony in a few weeks, took up the challenge of getting the point across, and soon the Esterházy family was sitting down for the performance of a new work. This turned out, however, not to be an ordinary performance: during the final slow movement, one by one the musicians stood up, blew out the candles lighting their music stands, and walked out, until at the very end only two muted violins remained on stage, played by Haydn himself and the concertmaster.

The Prince is reputed to have commented ‘Well, if they all leave I suppose we had better leave too.’ Given that they all returned to Vienna the next day, it appears that the hint was successful⁠—and the ‘Farewell’ Symphony has remained a staple of the repertoire to this day.