Esterháza-kastély: the Hungarian Versailles


Esterháza palace in Fertőd, Hungary, is a large Rococo building built by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy.

In 1762 Nikolaus Esterházy succeeded to the family title after the death of his older brother Prince Pál Antal. Before his brother’s death, Nikolaus had generally lived apart from the court preferring to stay at his hunting lodge near the Neusiedlersee in Hungary.

In 1766, Nikolaus began the construction of a magnificent new palace on the site of his old hunting lodge.
The architects Johann Ferdinand Mödlhammer and Melchior Hefele both worked on the palace. The design of the palace was complex, incorporating elements from the palace at Versailles which the Prince had visited in 1764, and took several years to complete. The palace’s opera house was completed in 1768 (the first performance was of Joseph Haydn’s opera Lo speziale) followed shortly afterwards by the marionette theatre in 1773, and the fountain in front of the palace was finally completed in 1784. It is estimated that the construction costs topped 13 million Austro-Hungarian gulden.

Nikolaus Esterházy died in 1790 and was succeeded by his son Anton. Despite the obvious magnificence of the palace neither Anton nor any of his later successors had any interest in living in the palace. This may well have been due to the palace’s location. The palace was built near the south shore of the Neusiedler See, on swampy land, in a somewhat isolated location. The political advantage to the Esterházy’s of the existence of such a magnificent palace was lost as its isolated location rendered it almost invisible to the ruling families of the other European powers. The display of wealth and power involved in the construction and maintenance of large palaces remained an important element in European realpolitik. However, unlike in the medieval period when courts were mobile, the modern era had seen the great buildings of European power and wealth increasingly built in or near capital cities; Versailles, after all was situated within a day’s ride from Paris. Esterháza palace was just too far from Budapest and the centre of the court’s activities. In addition Esterháza was not the primary or ancestral home of the Esterházy family; that was Schloss Esterházy, a palace nearby, in Eisenstadt.

Despite its limited appeal to the Esterházy family the palace for several years had a leading role in European music as the home of Joseph Hadyn. In 1761, Prince Pál Antal offered Haydn the job of Vice-Kapellmeister, but he was quickly promoted to be in charge of the Esterházy musical establishment. In 1766, Haydn was elevated to full Kapellmeister.
Hadyn’s role was that of a ‘house officer’ within the Esterházy establishment and followed the family as they moved among their various palaces. Hayden lived on the palace estate at Eszterháza between 1766 to 1790 and wrote the majority of his symphonies for Prince Nikolaus’ orchestra.

Due to the isolated nature of Eszterháza many of the palace musicians, who were separated from family during their time there, suffered from loneliness and boredom. Hadyn had to contend with the prince’s demands for new and diverting music while attempting to support his increasingly frustrated musicians. Matters came to a head in 1772 when Prince Nikolaus, decided to remain at Eszterháza for the season. Not only did he intend to prolong his stay at Eszterháza by several weeks but Nikolaus’ announcement had come when the musicians had expected to hear that they would shortly be leaving.

Angry and upset by the news, the musicians approached Haydn. They were desperate to return to their wives in Kismarton but as servants of the prince could not leave without his permission. Haydn, recognised the delicacy of the situation and decided to appeal to the prince’s intelligence through a musical demonstration of the situation. Hadyn wrote a symphony during which each instrument stopped playing in turn. Each musician was ordered to snuff out the candle on his musical stand, pick up his sheet music and leave with his instrument in his hands after finishing with his phrase. Nikolaus understood the meaning behind the ‘farewell symphony’ and the day after the performance left Eszterháza much to the relief of the musicians.

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