Clapham Christian Classical School

Clapham Journal

Haydn’s Compelling Vision: Teaching through Beauty

by Margaret Danaher, Class Two Teacher


In a Children’s Literature class at Hillsdale College, I remember reading a portion of Tending the Heart of Virtue by Vigen Guroian, who writes of the great use that stories are in training a child in morality and virtue. I was particularly struck by one of his quotations from Jewish Philosopher Martin Buber. Buber, for a long time had employed a tactic that we adults often use with kids: lecturing them about what is right and wrong, coercing their will without moving their heart.

Buber found that these lectures sometimes do more harm than good:

I try to explain to my pupils that envy is despicable, and at once I feel the secret resistance of those who are poorer than their comrades. I try to explain that it is wicked to bully the weak, and at once I see the suppressed smile on the lips of the strong. I try to explain that lying destroys life, and something frightful happens; the worst habitual liar of the class produces a brilliant essay on the destructive power of lying (qtd. in Vigen Guroian, Tending the Heart of Virtue, 19-20).


Upon reading this I was struck by the suggestion that didactic teaching sometimes produces the opposite effect from what a teacher or parent intends. But, if commanding morality outright may not help and sometimes even hinders, what are we to do? Guroian answers: “Mere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture the virtues…. Instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination” (20). That “compelling vision,” Guroian argues, comes largely through good stories. They give children the opportunity to see goodness in all its beauty and evil in all its ugliness.


When I came to Clapham to teach Class Two, I expected to see this idea at work in good children’s literature, to encounter it in Charlotte Mason’s writings, and to discuss it in staff meetings. I did not, however, expect to find it in the music of Josef Haydn, one of the Composers studied in Class Two. But, in fact, one of his most famous works has something to say on the subject of how to teach through beauty.




During his employment to Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, Josef Haydn ran into a “teaching” problem of his own, yet his problem was particularly delicate: the strong-willed man he had to confront was not his child but his employer. Every summer, Prince Nicholas Estherhazy retired to his summer home at Esterhaza (in modern-day Austria) with a personal orchestra (of which Haydn was the leader) in tow. However, one year, the Prince lingered at the palace long after summer had ebbed away. 


The musicians grew restless to see their families back home. On the musicians’ behalf, Haydn asked the prince to let their families come and stay with them. Prince Nicholas refused. He must have done so absolutely, judging from Haydn’s submissive reply: “I have communicated today,” he wrote to the Prince, “to all the musicians by word of mouth your high order… that none of the wives and children of the musicians are allowed to be seen at Esterhaza. There was no one who did not agree to the terms of that high order” (as qtd. in Anna Celenza, The Farewell Symphony). Apparently, plain asking was not going to work with this prince. Like Buber’s pupils, Haydn’s prince would not be persuaded by mere words. His will wouldn’t and couldn’t be coerced.  If Haydn was going to get the musicians back to their families, he would have to change his tactics.


So Josef Haydn did what he did best—he wrote a symphony.


The result was “The Farewell Symphony” (Symphony in F# minor, Opus 45, Hob II). Most people only mention the last movement as conveying the message, since it is the most daring and unusual of the four movements; however, most of the symphony seems to be calculated to respectfully request a return to Eisenstadt.


The first movement sounds frustrated and angry as the strings descend in a series of minor arpeggios. The second movement, contemplative and wistful, conjures up memories of faraway times and places. The fourth movement, although beginning in a speedy allegro, ends with a pleading adagio. When they performed the fourth movement at Esterhaza, the musicians stopped playing at intervals, extinguished their candles, and left the stage. Only Haydn and the concert master were left by the end. And then they too blew out their candles, leaving only silence and a dark stage.


Haydn’s message was clear. And this time it worked. The whole court left for Eisenstadt the next day.


Why did Haydn’s symphony work? Like the best children’s authors, Haydn wove into his symphony a “compelling vision” of the musicians’ plight. When presented to Prince Nicholas in mere words, the musicians’ request seemed unreasonable. But as Haydn’s symphony unfolded before him, Prince Nicholas could feel the musicians’ frustration, share their longing for home, and, in the plaintive strains of the finale, literally hear their request play out before him. Haydn composed a “compelling vision” indeed.


The story of this symphony should encourage parents and teachers especially that patient effort will produce enduring results. The daily task of educating a child as a whole person is exhausting. Sometimes we wonder if what we do really does make a difference. When we get tired, we are tempted to take short cuts. It is so much easier to tell a children the correct answer than to lead them to it, to flip on the television rather than sit down and read a fairytale with them, to end a problem with a decisive “cut that out!” rather than addressing the attitudes of their heart. 


Truly shepherding a child demands of us time and patience and love. But so does writing a symphony. Haydn poured many hours and real heart into “The Farewell Symphony” for days before he performed it. Then he spent over forty minutes presenting to the Prince a request that would have taken only seconds to speak in words. Yet Haydn did this because he knew it was the best, the only, way to communicate his message.


Those hours spent reading good books with a child, those conversations with your child that reach to the root of their misbehavior, that afternoon spent in a field enjoying God’s creation—all these require much of us but they yield much as well. It is these things that daily unfold for a child what it means to be good, faithful and loving. Despite how much labor they require of parents and teachers, the fruits of such labors are well worth it.


Two hundred years ago, Josef Haydn wrote a symphony to earn his fellow musicians a vacation, and “The Farewell Symphony” still stirs our souls. How much more will the work of our hands, the education of men and women of God and the building up of the body of Christ, prosper and endure?


(Listen/Watch Haydn’s Farewell Symphony here: Haydn Farewell Symphony You Tube)


Celenza, Anna Harwell. The Farewell Symphony. Watertown: Charlesbridge, 2000.

Guroian, Vigen. Tending the Heart of Virtue:  How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination. New York:  Oxford University Press, 1998.


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