Who was Joe the Busker?

Who was Joe the Busker?

by Christopher Anderson
article from Wednesday 8, November, 2017

ONE BLEAK DAY in November 1749, a serious musical crisis occurred, which disrupted the serene and cloistered world of the famous St. Stephen's Cathedral Choir and Music School of Vienna. Two of the pupils, Joe and Hans were very good friends and had been members of the establishment from an early age. Sadly, they were now at the heart of the problem and, as a result, their musical education hung in the balance. Joe and Hans, as with all of the children in the school, had been cherry-picked and enrolled at a very young age, because of an obvious natural gift for music.

As is not uncommon with choirboys, the butter-wouldn't-melt-in-the-mouth demeanour of the boys hid the fact that they were, underneath all of the po-faced pomp, ceremony and well-scrubbed imposed dignity, just normal mischievous lads. Joe and Hans were no exception to the rule and vied with each other in thinking up all kinds of practical jokes and general devilment.

The veteran choirmaster Max Gruber, though an able musician of vast experience, as well as being an expert tutor, was no great disciplinarian and most of the pranks occurred when he was in charge of the boys. There already had been murmurs and rumblings of some disapproval from the congregation at some of the antics and unusual sounds emanating from the otherwise immaculate music of the choir.

Down through the ages, the sound of a loud fart has always been a spontaneous and infectious source of mirth on a solemn occasion and not only to teenagers, until, with some effort, normal decorum is regained. So, with that type of humour wearing a bit thin with their elders, Joe and Hans already were batting on a sticky wicket when Joe tried to pull one stroke too many.

During one important instrumental and choral recital, when all of the proud parents and cathedral administrators were in attendance Joe ducked down in the choir stall, crept along behind Hans, who was in the row in front of him, and with a pair of sharp scissors snipped Hans's pigtail clean off.

Later that evening, when this came to light and the scissors were found in Joe's surplice, Hans's parents were livid and complained bitterly and volubly to the school committee. The members of the committee, who by this time were well aware that Hans himself was no angel, nevertheless felt that an example had to be made of Joe.

An emergency meeting was hastily convened and Joe was summarily expelled from the school, a previously unheard of punishment. A most distressed Herr Gruber protested that he was losing his best pupil, a boy of real musical ability and potential, but to no avail. The red card had been shown, Joe had to go.

Predictably, Joe's parents, who felt that they had made every effort to give him a first class musical education, were furious at his irresponsible behaviour and felt very let down by a son who had shown such great promise. After all, they reasoned, he was nearly seventeen years of age and surely should know better.

Like teenagers before and since, Joe had plenty of the arrogance of youth. He had a bitter, severe and prolonged quarrel with his father. Many harsh words were spoken on both sides. The upshot was that Joe stormed out of his home with only a very small amount of money in his pocket, the clothes he stood up in and, as it turned out, most importantly his violin. It was both an angry and a sad parting. A family wound never to be healed.

When he had cooled down somewhat, Joe still felt that he could not swallow his pride, go home and make his peace, so he basically opted to live rough as a vagrant, busking with his violin on the streets of Vienna for loose change from passers-by. He endured this dire existence for years, the one consolation in his misery being his music, the standard of which he never let slip and refused to compromise.

Another turning point in Joe's life occurred one sunny afternoon in the springtime. This time it was to be for the better. A music publisher, who was out strolling with his wife in the fine weather, happened to come across Joe busking in the street. His wife asked him what the beautiful and haunting melody was that Joe was playing and he realised with some surprise that he had not heard it before. When he asked Joe, he was astonished to find that it was one of Joe's own compositions and was only one example of several more in his repertoire. The publisher, who was intrigued, gave Joe his card and asked him to come to his office the very next morning. Joe, who was still a young man, jumped at the chance to improve his situation.

From that time Joe's fortunes changed as his natural musical genius gradually asserted itself, just as he himself became more mature in his outlook on life.

In 1755 he published the first of his astonishing eighty-four string quartettes and by the end of his long and prolific career Joe had written no less than one hundred and four symphonies, many piano sonatas and chamber works and two famous oratorios "The Creation" and "The Seasons". A phenomenal amount of superb masterly work. Max Gruber, sadly long gone, would have been proud of his pupil.

Had Joe not been ejected from the Cathedral Music School, he might well have drifted into anonymity and relative obscurity with Hans and his other pals. Joe certainly did not and when he died in 1809 he left the world the legacy of his wonderful and original music.

So who was the prankster and busker Joe ? Have we heard of him and his great music? May I present from the hall of eternal fame the musical genius Joseph Haydn. 

PC 30B Chris Anderson served in the Edinburgh City Police (1954-84) and was a valued member of its Pipe Band that won the Grade 1 World Championships in 1963, 1964, 1971, 1972 and 1975. In his eightieth year (2012-13) he wrote many articles for ThinkScotland.org based upon his wealth of policing and piping anecdotes and following his passing in September we are pleased to publish as a tribute a mixture of unpublished stories and old repeats every Wednesday for readers to enjoy.

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