This article takes as its starting point the little-noted attempt of the composer Luigi Cherubini to become the new Esterházy Kapellmeister following Joseph Haydn's death. I use the episode as a prompt for a broad reconsideration of Haydn's reputation in the 1790s–1800s, and of what it meant to follow in such footsteps. Rather than just a matter of capitalizing on the celebrity of a widely respected composer, I discuss Haydn's image and legacy as entailing a god-like aura of immortality, which he shared with personalities such as Washington, Nelson, or Peter the Great of Russia, all hailed for abilities that transcended known standards and inspired multitudes. This turn-of-the-century cult of greatness centered, in Haydn's case, on what seemed an unlimited number of symphonies and unlimited variety of orchestral effects in his oratorios The Creation and The Seasons. Haydn's ceaseless creative vein was a spectacle in itself. It evoked the same sublime, overpowering feeling that Kant described in facing things too vast to be grasped, such as the number of stars in the universe or God's eternity. Remaining in awe of a sublime subject like Haydn brought masses of people together in the aesthetic experience of someone immeasurable, thus immeasurably above them. Sounds that signified to this kind of collective deferential behavior had, I argue, a key role in canon formation across genres (symphonies, masses, operatic overtures, occasional pieces etc.), one often overlooked in scholarship prioritizing genre-inspired purviews. Cherubini, Beethoven, and many others were keen to receive “from Haydn's hands” the gift of invoking a mass audience, even well beyond their death, prompting the communal, attentive and on-repeat listening that reveres great composers, generation after generation.

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