Haydn, Franz Joseph

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Haydn, Franz Joseph (1732-1809): Austrian Composer.

Born to parents of modest means and little musical interest in lower Austria, young Joseph was initially sent to school to train for the priesthood. But his natural musical talents combined with a delicate voice soon attracted attention, and he was recruited to join the famed choir at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. There he received instruction in voice, violin and keyboard. When his voice finally broke and Haydn was dismissed from the choir at age 16, he remained in Vienna and earned a precarious living as a free-lance musician. During this period, he undertook self-study in composition, reading major theory treatises, and eventually receiving tutelage from Nicola Porpora, one of the most renowned composers of Italian opera then living in Vienna.

By 1753, Haydn began earning commissions, and we have the first extant compositions from his pen. Haydn’s talent as a composer along with his generally cheery disposition soon earned him a number of patrons and students. In the genre of the keyboard sonata, he was able to make his first original mark as a composer, extending brilliantly the Italian models then in vogue. Around this time, he also began experimenting with the new genres of the string quartet and symphony, almost immediately adding his own distinct stamp upon them. His fascination with these three genres of music continued until the end of his life; together, his 58 keyboard sonatas, 90 odd string quartets, and 107 symphonies constitute the epitome of the Viennese classical style, and the touchstone upon which Mozart and Beethoven, Ludwig van modeled their own music.

Another fortunate turn of events for Haydn occurred in 1761 when Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, one of the most generous and avid patrons of music, invited the young composer to help direct music at his homes in Vienna and Eisenstadt. In 1762, Prince Anton died suddenly; but fortunately for Haydn, his successor, Prince Nikolaus, was if anything, even more of a music fan. Over the next 30 years, Haydn remained employed in the Esterházy household–moved in 1766 to the oustskirts of the Hungarian village of Esterháza--producing on regular commission hundreds of sonatas, trios, divertimentos, quartets, masses and symphonies for the prince’s band, with himself the leader. While the isolation at Esterháza was at times vexing for Haydn, he later claimed that it worked to his advantage, in that it forced him to become original as a composer, ignorant of developments in more cosmopolitan centers of musical activity.

Despite his relative isolation in Esterháza, Haydn’s fame as composer grew markedly over the ensuring decades. He soon tried his hand at opera composition–then the sine qua non of a composer in the 18th century. But unlike his younger colleague Mozart, whom he had come to know in the 1780s, Haydn never possessed the dramatic spark to thrive in this theatrical genre. (Similarly, the virtuosic concerto in which Mozart also excelled was a genre that did not seem to inspire his best music.) It was the instrumental genres of the sonata, string quartet and symphony in which Haydn felt at home, and copies of his music were soon circulating widely throughout Europe, often in pirated publications.

By 1779, Prince Esterházy had granted Haydn the right to accept commissions from whomever he pleased, and he was allowed considerable freedom to travel widely to accept performance engagements that were offered in increasing numbers. In 1791, Haydn undertook one of his most successful journeys, arriving in London at the invitation of the entrepreneur Johann Peter Salomon. Haydn’s stay in London (complemented by a second visit in 1794) was one of the most celebrated and lucrative in musical history. He was wildly acclaimed by English audiences and invited by the King to remain in the country. For his two London visits (for which Haydn composed his twelve “London” Symphonies), he received in excess of 24,000 gulden–an extraordinary sum, even by the standards of well-paid opera singers. Perhaps inspired by the music of Handel, George Frederick, which Haydn heard during his residency in London, Haydn composed a series of masterful choral works in his last years, including the oratorios Die Schöpfung and Die Jahreszeiten, and several masses for the Esterházy chapel.

By the time of his death in 1809, Haydn was far and away the most famous composer in Europe. His works were published and performed in every country, and he was the first composer who can be said to have truly attained complete public favor. Part of this appeal no doubt was due to the generally accessible qualities of his music, which many listeners heard as possessing characteristics of folk-music, humor, and wit.

Unfortunately, this led after his death to the tenacious and misleading caricature of the composer as the genial “papa Haydn,” his music full of mirth and folk-appeal, but lacking the classical sophistication of Mozart or the romantic profundity of Beethoven, Ludwig van.

Yet more sober studies of his influence upon composers such as Mozart and Beethoven, Ludwig van (the latter briefly studied with Haydn in the early 1790s) suggest that he was a far more radical and innovative composer than this picture suggests. At the same time, recent studies have suggested that Haydn’s understanding of contemporaneous aesthetic thought and rhetorical theories discussed by many philosophes was more extensive than hitherto surmised. Yet he always remained a beloved and popular composer in the public sphere. Despite his long service to the Esterházy household, Haydn was ultimately the first musical artist to translate the approbation of public opinion into complete commercial success.

Further Reading:

H.C. R. Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works, 5 vols., 1976-80.

D. Schroeder, Haydn and the Enlightenment: The Late Symphonies and their Audience, 1990.

E. Sisman, Haydn and the Classical Variation, 1993

G. Wheelock, Haydn’s “Ingenious Jesting with Art” : Contexts of Musical Wit and Humor, 1992

Thomas Christenson