Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)

Joseph Haydn was one of the leading composers of the Classical Era and was the primary developer of the symphony, string quartet, piano trio, and piano sonata, as well as “Sonata” form. He was also a good friend to Mozart, (with whom he sometimes played string quartets together), and an early teacher of Beethoven.

Born in Rohrau, Austria, his parents recognized his musical talent, (along with his younger brother, Johann Michael), and sent him to a nearby town to apprentice with the village schoolmaster, who also served as the choirmaster. He excelled on the harpsichord and violin, as well as a singer in the church choir. He was discovered by the music director of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna and moved there to sing in the church choir, where he completed his education. He later served as an assistant to composer Niccolò Porpora, who taught him some basics in theory and composition. He also supplemented his training through an exercise book of counterpoint and studying the scores of C.P.E. Bach. He worked for a time as a court musician in Vienna and served as organist at a small chapel.

As Haydn’s reputation as a composer grew, he eventually was named Kapellmeister for the Esterházy princes, one of the wealthiest families in Austria. His duties included composing, performing chamber music, directing the court orchestra, and producing operas. The family dearly loved music and was very supportive of Haydn’s work for almost thirty years. He wrote a number of his symphonies and string quartets while in their employ, including the “Paris Symphonies” and the original orchestral version of the Seven Last Words of Christ, which he later arranged for both string quartet and vocal quartet with orchestra.

After the death of Prince Nicolas Esterházy in 1790, the next prince had no love of music and dismissed Haydn, (although providing him with a generous pension) and the entire orchestra. This left him free to travel to Vienna and accept an invitation to England. He made two highly successful trips to London, staying each time for over a year. While there, he wrote many of his most famous symphonies, including the “Surprise,” “Drumroll” and “London” symphonies. He also wrote his famous Trumpet Concerto, “Gypsy” Piano Trio, and the oratorio The Seasons in his later years. His last works had a large influence on Beethoven.

Haydn had been a faithful and devoted Christian throughout his life. His later years included a number of important sacred pieces, such as the “Lord Nelson Mass,” “Mass in Time of War,” and the oratorio, The Creation. Of it, Haydn remarked,

“Never was I so devout as when I composed “The Creation”. I knelt down each day to pray to God to give me the strength for my work… May it inspire the adoration and worship of the Creator.”

Haydn was an extremely prolific composer, (out of necessity during his employ by the Esterházy family). He wrote over 100 symphonies, including the “Hornsignal” and “Farewell” symphonies, 52 piano sonatas, 45 piano trios, 15 operas, at least 35 concertos (among others attributed to him), around 80 string quartets, (including the “Emperor” quartet, whose slow movement was adapted into the hymn tune “Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken”), and 14 masses, including his final work, the Harmoniemesse for winds. His fame and cheerful nature were so great in his last year that even Napoleon, who had invaded and taken Vienna, assigned an honor guard to his home to protect him and sent his highest officers to attend Haydn’s funeral in 1809. Haydn was extremely generous in his will, even to friends he hadn’t seen for years. His life was marked by his dedication to God:

“I know that God has favored me, and recognize it thankfully. I also believe that I have done my duty and have been of use to the world through my works. Let others do the same!” 

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Viewing:

The Seasons

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