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Surprisingly Conscious: Laurence Sterne and Franz Joseph Haydn

Updated on August 30, 2011

Mark Evan Bonds points out that “there is always a danger [...] of reading too much into comparisons [...],” (Bonds, Haydn 58) especially when the elements being compared deal with two distinctly different art forms, such as music and literature. But, the correlation between author Laurence Sterne and composer Franz Joseph Haydn has been drawn on numerous occasions both by their contemporaries and modern critics (Bonds, History 305). With this kind of history, there must be some merit to looking further into such a comparison—and doing so will, hopefully, provide some interesting insight into the methods employed by Laurence Sterne in his novels. Before delving into this relationship, it is important to understand at least a little of the individuals involved.

Laurence Sterne; By Joshua Reynolds (died 1792) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Laurence Sterne; By Joshua Reynolds (died 1792) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne was born on November 24, 1713, in Ireland at Clonmel (County Tipperary) to a soldier and his wife, Roger and Agnes Sterne. Due to varying military assignments, the family often moved around within Ireland and England during Laurence’s childhood. At ten years old, he was sent to school in Halifax. There he learned Latin and Greek, and consequently developed an interest in Classic literature. Unfortunately, his father was wounded in a duel at the defense of Gibraltar (1727). Though not initially fatal, Roger Sterne never fully recovered from his wound, and he died in March of 1731 (Perkins n.p.).

Laurence left school soon after his father’s death, but resumed his studies at Jesus College in Cambridge (where his grandfather, Richard Sterne, had been Master) in 1733. During these years, Sterne fell into a great deal of debt and also suffered a lung hemorrhage caused by the consumption that would plague him for the rest of his life. He received his Bachelor of Arts in 1736 and continued his studies until he got Masters of Arts four years later. Once his education was completed, Laurence acted on his uncle’s advice and took holy orders. He was ordained in 1738 and became the vicar of Sutton-in-the-Forest (eight miles north of York). Laurence’s temperament was not suited to be a member of the clergy and he never met with much success in that profession, though he spent over twenty years living the life of a rural parson (Perkins n.p.).

In 1741, Laurence married a woman named Elizabeth Lumely, and six years later (after several miscarriages and stillborns), they had a daughter named Lydia. Though the couple had their ups and downs, and were never very well off monetarily, life seemed to go relatively smoothly for the next several years. It was not until the year 1758 that disaster hit. Mrs. Sterne caught her husband in an affair with a maidservant (and consequently became aware of several other probable affairs), suffered a mental breakdown, and believed herself to be the Queen of Bohemia (Ross 205-208). At the same time, Laurence’s health was getting worse and Lydia also suffered from asthma. Sterne fell into a state of melancholy, and it was out of this that the beginnings of his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy emerged (Perkins n.p.).

The first two volumes of Tristram Shandy were published in early 1760 and earned the author instant recognition. As Elizabeth’s health was improving, the Sternes moved back to Yorkshire (to their home that they had rechristened “Shandy Hall”). By 1761, the two more volumes of Tristram Shandy were published and the next two were finished before Christmas of the same year. Shortly after this writing spurt, Laurence suffered another sever hemorrhage in his lungs and was advised to travel to France for his health, which he promptly did. When his health began to show signs of improvement, Sterne sent for his wife and daughter. As a family they traveled to Toulouse where he set to work on the seventh volume of his novel. The following year they traveled around, but in 1764, Sterne returned to England, leaving Elizabeth and Lydia in France, where they remained while Lydia finished school (Perkins n.p.).

In early 1765, the seventh and eighth volumes of Tristram Shandy were published. In October of the same year, Sterne took a tour of France and Italy, visiting cities like Paris, Lyons, Milan, Parma, Florence, Rome, and Naples. This trip became the impetus for a later novel, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (Perkins n.p.).

Sterne returned to England and finished writing Tristram Shandy in 1766. He was able to use this final installment to get himself out of debt, and then returned to his family, who were back in Yorkshire by this time. In 1767, Elizabeth and Lydia returned to the southern France, while Laurence worked on and completed A Sentimental Journey . Not long afterwards, Sterne developed influenza, and with his already weakened lungs, was not able to resist the disease. He died on March 18, 1768, at the age of fifty-four (Perkins n.p.).

An illustration from Tristram Shandy; By George Cruikshank (17921878) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
An illustration from Tristram Shandy; By George Cruikshank (17921878) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tristram Shandy

Tristram Shandy is, without a doubt, Stern’s most well known novel, and the beginning of his fame and popularity. The novel was generally well received, especially the earlier installments, but the reception was not without critics. Those who lived near him (the Yorkshire area) faulted his “often scurrilous portraits of well-known local figures,” like Dr. Slop (the male midwife that attends to Mrs. Shandy and ruins poor Tristram’s nose with his forceps) (Perkins n.p.; Sterne 156). But most of the dissent rose from those who disapproved of the bawdiness and innuendo evident in the book. Interestingly, most of these critics did not voice their opinions until after they found out that Tristram Shandy (which was originally published anonymously) was written by a clergyman (Ross 221-222).

On a more personal level, the novel came at a very poignant time in Laurence’s life. Though he began to write Tristram Shandy while in a “state of gloom and despondency,” it takes on an extremely light-hearted and humorous mood. He explains himself by saying that the book was “every word of it wrote in affliction; & under a constant uneasiness of mind. Cervantes wrote his humorous Satyr in a Prison—& Scarron his, in pain & Anguish—such Philosophers as will account for every thing, may explain this for me (Ross 215).” Besides being an outlet for his “uneasiness of mind,” the book provided a venue for Sterne to bring to life several characters from his life. Dr. Slop has already been mentioned, but characters like loquacious Uncle Toby and his comrade (servant) Corporal Trim emerged directly from Sterne’s experience with military life as a child (Perkins n.p.). Another figure that appears in the novel is Tristram’s “dear, dear Jenny,” who is traditionally associated with the French singer Catherine Fourmantelle, who Sterne fell in love with while his wife was mentally ill (Ross 211). Then, of course, Sterne himself is seen in the character of Parson Yorick, who later produces a volume of sermons and shows up in A Sentimental Journey (Perkins n.p.).

Haydn Portrait by Thomas Hardy
Haydn Portrait by Thomas Hardy

Franz Joseph Haydn

Turning the page for a moment, Franz Joseph Haydn was born nearly two decades after Laurence Sterne in 1732. He was born in Rohrau, Austria, to a wheelwright and a cook, Matthias and Maria Haydn. While neither of his parents were musically trained, Haydn grew up surrounded by folk music, and when his own musical talent began to show itself, he was sent to Hainburg to live with his uncle and receive more formal training. While there, he was taught to play harpsichord and violin, as well as sing in the church choir. Only a couple of years later, he auditioned with the director of music in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. He passed his audition and traveled to Vienna where he spent the next nine years as a chorister (Franz n.p.).

In 1749, Haydn was released from the chorus (as he was unable to sing the high range voice parts), and struggled for the next several years as a freelancer. He spent his time taking odd jobs and trying to complete his musical training. It was not until the late 1750s that Haydn was offered a more permanent job—Kapellmeister for Count Karl von Morzin. In this capacity, he directed a small orchestra and began to write his first symphonies. With the security that the position provided, he found himself able to marry a woman named Maria Anna Keller. The two did not get along well and never had children together (Franz n.p.).

A few years past, and the Count was in a state of financial instability. Fortunately, Haydn was swiftly offered another job as the assistant Kapellmeister for the Esterházy family (one of the wealthiest families in Austria). Five years later, in 1766, he was made full Kapellmeister. In the Esterházy household, Haydn’s duties included composition, running the orchestra, playing chamber music, and putting on operatic productions. Though busy, Haydn was able to produce an incredible amount of compositions during these years (Franz n.p.).

In 1790, Prince Nikolaus died and was replaced by a new prince who did not share the same appreciation for music. Because of his relaxed duties, Haydn had the opportunity to travel to London with the German impresario, Johann Peter Salomon. Here Haydn composed some of his best music, much of which is still commonly known today—the London symphonies, the Rider quartet, the Gypsy Rondo piano trio, etc. Though he considered staying in England permanently, Haydn ended up returning to Vienna where he focused on composing “large religions works for chorus and orchestra.” It was at this time that his two oratorios (The Creation and The Seasons) and his last nine string quartets were composed (Franz n.p.).

Finally, in 1802, illness overtook him and prevented him from composing any further. He lived in failing health for several more years, but died in 1809 (Franz n.p.).

Haydn is credited with being the “father of the classical symphony and string quartet,” but he wrote in a great many different genres. Though in many senses Haydn’s music evolves from his early to later years, the bulk of his music can be described in this way:

"A central characteristic of Haydn’s music is the development of larger structures out of very short, simple musical motifs, usually devised from standard accompanying figures. The music is often quite formally concentrated, and the important musical events of a movement can unfold rather quickly. Haydn’s musical practice formed the basis of much of what was to follow in the development of tonality and musical form. He took genres such as the symphony, which were, at that time, shorter and subsidiary to more important vocal music, and slowly expanded their length, weight, and complexity (Franz n.p.)."

A Comparison of Humors

With that general knowledge of both figures in mind, it is time to bring the two together. An important thing to note is that while Haydn has repeatedly been compared to Sterne, this is not meant to reflect any kind of direct or indirect influence that one may have had over the other. Both men spent significant time in London, but there is no evidence that their paths crossed or that they were ever in contact with one another. And, while “Sterne’s writings were enormously popular on the continent, especially in Germany and Austria,” it was not until later in his life that Haydn added A Sentimental Journey to his library (Bonds, Haydn 58-59).

The majority of the comparisons drawn between Sterne and Haydn center around the use of wit and humor. Even when Haydn is associated with Parson Yorick (who, as noted earlier, directly correlates with Sterne himself), which occurs in some of the earliest examples of these comparisons, the idea communicated is about the humor that the composer and writer employ. One anonymous entry speaks of the humor that Yorick uses as “of the high comic,” instead of based in trivialities (Bonds, Haydn 59). A similar article speaks of Haydn’s and Yorick’s writings as employing “good-natured, ingenious humor” mixed with “learnedness” (Bonds, Haydn 60-61).

Another aspect of this shared humor is something that has been termed “annihilating humor.” In his Vorschule der Ästhetic, Jean Paul explains:

"Sterne, for example repeatedly speaks at length and weightily about certain phenomena before finally concluding that not a single word of it all, in any case, has been true.

One can sense something similar to the audacity of annihilating humor—and at the same time an expression of disdain for the world—in certain music, e.g., Haydn’s, which annihilates entire key-areas through on that is foreign, and which storms along between pianissimo and fortissimo, presto and andante (Bonds, Haydn 63)."

Mark Evan Bonds explains that there are two sides to this type of humor. The annihilation occurs to “that which precedes an abrupt change” and also to “the reader’s anticipation of what is to follow” (Bonds, Haydn 63) In Sterne’s case, evidence of this pervades Tristram Shandy. A specific example occurs soon after Corporal Trim has read aloud one of Parson Yorick’s sermons. The reader is set up to expect some sort of deep moral or lesson learned, but instead the passage is concluded with the following reasons for publishing the sermon in Tristram Shandy:

"The First is this, That, in doing justice, I may give rest to Yorick’s ghost;—which, as the country people,—and some others, believe,—still walks.

The second reason is, That, by laying open this story to the world, I gain an opportunity of informing it,—That in case the character of parson Yorick, and this sample of his sermons is liked,—that there are now in the possession of the Shandy family, as many as will make a handsome volume, at the world’s service,—and much good may they do it (Sterne 101)."

In other words, the reader soon finds the entire sermon was little more than a publicity stunt for Yorick (Sterne). Haydn also pulls disconcerting tricks like this one. Among the most famous would have to be his aptly nicknamed, “Surprise Symphony.” The symphony begins with several measures of quiet, trite melody—lulling the listener into a false security—then a sudden, blasting sforzando from the orchestra creates the “surprise.”

Sterne and Haydn have been compared for their mutual “willful violation of generic convention” (Bonds, Haydn 65). One example of this would be the annihilating humor mentioned above. But, another way they violate convention is in their preoccupation with form (or the abuse of said form) (Bonds, Haydn 70). Sterne’s challenge of conventional forms can be easily seen in his use of punctuation alone (the odd use of dashes, asterisks, demonstrative squiggles, etc.), but is also displayed in his use of time, plot, and diversion. Here Haydn differs a bit. While he did push and stretch conventions a little (especially in his later years), Haydn is known not so much for challenging and changing within musical forms, but rather for solidifying them. Sonata-Allegro form (exposition-development-recapitulation) is often attributed to Haydn’s sonatas (Franz n.p.).

Tristram Shandy is known as one of the first metafictional novels in the West. Metafiction is defined as “fiction which refers to or takes as its subject fictional writing and its conventions” (Merriam-Webster). Similarly, Haydn’s music draws attention to it’s own “structural rhetoric,” whether it is through blatant jokes like the surprise or through less obvious structural elements like unexpected key modulations, dynamic contrasts, repetition of specific themes or ideas, etc. These ideas tie in closely with increasing awareness of the reader (listener) and author (composer). Sterne constantly addresses his readers directly or inserts his voice into the narrative, and odd as it may seem—Haydn does the same thing. Returning to previously mentioned ideas, Bonds argues that humor and wit, in a sense, betray the presence of the composer or author (Bonds, Haydn 78). A “growing self-consciousness” can be recognized in both Sterne and Haydn here as they sit on the brink of the coming Romantic period. Bonds questions, though, whether or not the effect of this authorial presence (or perhaps authorial intrusion) makes the writer/composer run the risk of not fulfilling their goal—especially if that goal is to create an illusion (Bonds, Haydn 82-83).

Though Laurence Sterne and Joseph Haydn were never acquainted and they worked with very different art forms, some distinct similarities can be drawn between them—and have been seen by critics from their time to now. Among these similarities are their use of humor, form, and authorial awareness. Hopefully through looking at the two men side by side, some of these ideas and techniques have been explored in a way that promotes clarity and understanding.


Bonds, Mark Evan. A History of Western Culture: The Classical Era through the Present. 3rd ed. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2010. Print.

Bonds, Mark Evan. “Haydn, Laurence Sterne, and the Origins of Musical Irony.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 44.1 (1991): 57-91. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.

Franz Joseph Haydn biography., n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.

Perkins, Alex. Laurence Sterne. Jesus College, Cambridge, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2010.

Ross, Ian Campbell. Laurence Sterne: A Life. Oxford UP: New York, 2001. Print.

Sterne, Laurence. Tristram Shandy. Norton: New York, 1980. Print.


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