A love of decapitation

November 22nd, 2010 · 1:34 pm @ admin  -  No Comments

Among those present at Haydn’s funeral in June, 1809 was a contingent of French officers who had been granted leave to attend, including a young commissary named Henri Marie Beyle. Beyle loved Haydn’s music and would shortly publish a biography of the composer (which, it turned out, was largely plagiarized); he also had an abiding interest in phrenology, having been one of Gall’s patients back in Paris.

Beyle’s connection to Haydn might have resonated in other ways, had he been aware of what had lately happened to the composer’s corpse. Beyle, after all, was fascinated by the story of Marguerite de Navarre and her lover Boniface de la Mole: Boniface had been guillotined for high treason during the height of the French terror, and his head had been impaled on a spike as a warning to other dissidents. Marguerite had put herself at some risk by taking down the head and then, according to legend, had had it embalmed and placed in an ornate jeweled case that she would show off to friends. In 1830, when Beyle was writing his masterpiece under the pseudonym “Stendhal,” he would be reminded of the story of Marguerite and Boniface and would incorporate a version of it into the final scene of the book that was to become The Red and the Black. In that novel, after Julien Sorel’s death, his lover Mathilde (whose family name, de la Mole, was itself an homage to Boniface) goes alone to his crypt the night before his burial and decapitates his corpse, spending a night alone with the head before interring it in a separate, private ceremony.

Paying his respects to Haydn that day, Beyle scarcely could have imagined that life was busy imitating art some twenty years in advance and that, while he and the other mourners had gathered to honor the composer, Haydn’s decapitated, stolen head was soaking in limewater at a nearby hospital.

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