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Versailles-inspired palace prompts Haydn’s 35th symphony

Sunday, the Boston Classical Orchestra, conducted by Steven Lipsitt, acknowledges a milestone — the group’s 35th season — with a program including Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 35. The symphony was written in 1767, the first full year Haydn (pictured) spent living at Esterháza, the elaborate palace Haydn’s patron and employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, built on the grounds of a hunting lodge near the Austro-Hungarian border. How elaborate? Work on Esterháza would continue into the 1780s, at the eventual cost of some 13 million gulden. Converting Austro-Hungarian gulden is not the most straightforward task, but a back-of-the-envelope calculation, based on comparisons with average Viennese wages then and now, puts Esterháza’s cost, in modern dollars, well into the billions.

The dean of Haydn scholarship, H.C. Robbins Landon, plausibly speculated that the Symphony No. 35 was composed to welcome Nikolaus Esterházy home following a trip to Paris. That journey, too, involved Esterháza: in search of new and interesting ways to spend lavishly on a residence, Nikolaus and his architect visited Versailles, another hunting lodge expanded into exceptional grandeur. However, the visit may have been somewhat anticlimactic, judging from the impressions of someone else who happened to be at Versailles in fall 1767: Benjamin Franklin.

Having been sent to England by the Pennsylvania Assembly (for a second time) to combat the Penn family’s machinations, Franklin — accompanied by Sir John Pringle (future physician to George III) — made time for a French sojourn. Already renowned for his scientific achievements, Franklin was presented to the current monarch, Louis XV, whom Franklin described to his London friend Mary Stevenson as having “a very lively look.” Versailles itself, though, was less lively. The elaborate waterworks were “out of Repair”; elsewhere, Franklin saw “shabby half Brick Walls and broken Windows.” Versailles and Paris, Franklin concluded, were “a prodigious Mixture of Magnificence and Negligence.”

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The dinginess failed to deter Nikolaus’s ambition; Esterháza’s unrestrained splendor earned it the nickname of the “Hungarian Versailles.” In the end, though, and like Versailles, Esterháza became a museum. After Nikolaus’s death in 1790, Anton Esterházy, his successor, decided that Esterháza was too isolated for his taste. Anton’s hobbies were more geological than musical; the extensive musical establishment Nikolaus had assembled was abruptly dismantled. It worked out well for Haydn, at least — freed from Esterháza’s continuous demands, the composer was fêted in cities across Europe. Haydn, the palace-bound courtier, became Haydn, the musical citizen of the world.

The Boston Classical Orchestra, conducted by Steven Lipsitt, and featuring cellist Meehae Ryo and violinist In Mo Yang, performs music of Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart, Dec. 14 at 3 p.m. at Faneuil Hall (tickets $19-$74; 866-811-4111; www.bostonclassicalorchestra.org).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.