Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

Joseph Haydn rank among the most renowned personalities in music history. During his lifetime he has already been regarded as uncontested doyen among European composers.

His lifetime was directly concerned by a particular phase full of incisive historical changes. Starting from rural homes his musical career began as choir boy in the Saint Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna and continued in his service for the aristocratic houses Morzin and Esterházy.  It was not until the age of 60 that he finally managed to emerge from the shadow of his service at Esterházy court and to initiate an international musical career.

By traveling to England he was finally able to enter the international scene in person which had already been conquered by his works.  In London the royal court official was passed around in the circles of British high society and he also functioned as conversation partner of the king, the heir to the throne and diverse members of aristocracy.  King George IV. And Admiral Nelson appreciated his works with the same passion as King Ferdinand IV. of Naples and Friedrich Wilhelm II., king of Prussia.  His work even led him to the Habsburg court of Empress Maria Theresia and Emperor Franz Joseph II. However, all these exalted acquaintances, international honours and awards during his late years in Vienna have not spoiled his character. Haydn refused to become alienated from his roots and social status and he paid close attention that his straight personality would not become depraved.

His position in music history is prominent and unalterable. His work ranges from baroque music to a specific style which should enter the music history under the name of Viennese Classic. Haydn is regarded as one of its “fathers”. In his position of being the oldest member of the great trio Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven he functions as “pioneer” and “consummator”. He did not only operate innovatively in the field of instrumental music, which has been quite popular at the time, but he is also considered as ground-breaking in the field of the symphony and specifically of the string quartet which significantly owes its existence and characteristic as musical genre to Haydn’s initiative. He often provided compositional models and techniques which helped his younger colleague Mozart and his posterior pupil Beethoven to develop their individual artistic performances.

Next to Mozart and Beethoven other great composers and musicians such as Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Ignaz Joseph Pleyel, Luigi Cherubini rank among Haydn’s friends and admirers.

Joseph Haydn left a sublime oeuvre. In the course of his life and due to his almost infinite productiveness he composed over 1000 works. Haydn has not only set a standard in the field of instrumental music but also in all other aspects of musical art. Especially his German oratory “The creation”, which can be undoubtedly denoted as his main work, has entered the collective memory.

His complete work includes 107 symphonies, instrumental concerts for several solo instruments, trios, piano sonatas, great oratories (“The creation” and “The seasons”), mass and other kind of church music, operas, light operas and much more. 


Childhood and youth in Rohrau and Vienna 

Joseph Haydn was born on 31st March 1732 in Rohrau in Lower-Austria as the oldest among twelve children. His father, Mathias Haydn, was a waggon-maker and judge of the village and his mother Anna Maria served as cook at Castle Rohrau, owned by the counts Harrach. Although Haydn’s father played the harp and sang, he had not enjoyed any musical education and was not able to read music.

The village of Rohrau is situated in today’s Lower-Austria, close to the Slovakian-Hungarian border. At Haydn’s time the river Leitha functioned as frontier between Austria and Hungary. Although Rohrau itself was inhabited by a German speaking population Joseph Haydn got early in contact with the musical tradition of other ethnicities. He internalised the diverse musical elements in such an intense way that the sounds of Gipsy violins and melodies of Croatian, Slovakian and Hungarian folk songs are still noticeable even in his later works.

The musical talent of “little Haydn” was detected rather soon, initially it has been detected in his wonderful treble voice.

At the age of six, in spring 1738, he was sent to Hainburg Lower-Austria where he got a decent education. Haydn learned how to read and write but he also got lessons in singing and playing almost every existing string- and wind instrument. The preoccupation with catechism equally occupied a special place in Haydn’s education since his parents planned his career as a cleric. However, Haydn’s personal interests in this specific kind of employment could not be aroused. Later he would say about the time, when he was accommodated in the house of head master Franck: “I thank this man still in his grave that he has urged me in so many ways even though I received more beating than food.”

Discovered by Georg Reutter, chapel master of the Viennese Cathedral, Joseph Haydn became a choir boy at the St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna in the spring of 1740. The social care as well as the education of the choir boy was rather poor. They received poor lessons in Latin, Religion, Maths and Writing. Nevertheless, the small Joseph was lucky enough to have ambitious teachers who taught him lessons in singing and playing several instruments. Since he had a beautiful treble voice he became soon popular as solo singer in aristocratic circles and even at the imperial court. Due to his voice breaking and also supposedly because of disciplinary difficulties he was dismissed of his service at the St. Stephan’s Cathedral at the end of the year 1749. His younger brother Michael, who has also served as choir boy since 1745, took over the solos from this time on.

After his discharge, at the age of 16, Haydn moved into an unheatable attic room in the Michaelerhaus close to the Viennese Hofburg. Years of poverty followed and Haydn was forced to struggle along in his position of an unknown musician. In spite of such a hard time he never lost courage and even said in a later period of time: “Due to this miserable bread many geniuses perish because of the lack of time for studying. Unfortunately, the experience also struck me and I had never received the few I got if I would not have continued my diligence of composition during the night.”

The fact that he was joyful despite all the deprivations is proven by the following quotation: “I was sitting at my old, worm-eaten piano forte and there was no king that I would begrudge his good fortune.” In the place where he has been living at that time he made his first important contacts such as the court poet Metastasio.

During that time Haydn passionately studied the piano sonatas of C. Ph. E. Bach. His acquaintance with the renowned composer and singing teacher Nicola Porpora revealed specific consequences. He taught him the Italian language and placed Haydn as piano teacher in a Spanish family. Porpora, who equally gave him singing lessons, used the young Haydn as piano accompanist. Haydn was offered an ideal opportunity to learn the Italian method of musically accompanying as well as to acquire the necessary skills for composing operas. In return he accepted the harsh treatment by Porpora who also misused Haydn as his private servant. “It did not lack of Asino, Coglione, Birbante and digs in the ribs; but I put up with it since I benefitted from Porpora concerning singing, composing and learning the Italian language”.

Around 1756 or 1757 Haydn moved into a much more comfortable accommodation in Seilerstätte where he was robbed of the few belongings that he owned. A short-time employment for Baron Fürnberg at Castle Weinzierl in Weichselburg (Lower-Austria) followed where he also took up quarters. On behalf of Baron Fürnberg he composed his first quartet for strings.

In 1758 he entered the service of Count Morzin in Lukavec in the position of composer and music director. This equally implied a regular income and social anchorage but also the opportunity to demonstrate his musical skills at a royal court. During that time he composed trios and his first symphonies.

Before his employment for Count Morzin, Haydn had already met the family of the wig-maker Keller. He gave music lessons to the eldest daughter Maria Anna and married her on 26th November 1760 in the St. Stephan’s Cathedral. Since Count Morzin was forced to reduce his expenses, he dissolved the chapel and arranged a new engagement for Haydn for Prince Paul II. Anton Esterházy. 


Music director at court Esterházy

On 1st May 1761 Haydn entered the service of Paul II. Anton Esterhazy, for the time-being as vice music director who is responsible for the mundane part of the chapel. Finally he has arrived at the court which he was supposed to stay related until the end of his days.  He became member of the royal court society and at the same time a part of a community that shared strict traditions. The employment did not only advance his social career but the annual income of 400 gulden also reinforced his financial situation. The tasks that he had to fulfil ranged from the organisation and maintenance of the instruments and musical sheets over to composing and giving concerts.

After the death of Paul II. Anton in 1762 his brother Nikolaus I., “The Magnificent”, acceded  the leadership.  After the present music director Gregor Joseph Werner died in 1766, Nikolaus I. promoted Haydn to the position of music director who was responsible for all musical areas such as church music, chamber – and theatre music as well as table music. This action initiated the renowned heyday of music and theatre happenings at Esterházy court which were known far across the borders of the Habsburg empire. Nikolaus was called “the Magnificent” for a reason. Next to his already existing estates he had built the glorious Castle Esterháza on the South bank of Lake Neusiedl. He loved the fine arts, but particularly music. Nikolaus I. was musician himself and played the baryton, a viola instrument with additional, free running strings which can also be plucked. On behalf of Nikolaus I. Haydn composed more than 160 works for this instrument.

The sophisticated demand of the Prince incited Haydn to compose numerous symphonies, operas mass and works for chamber music. It frequently occurred that the huge amount of work caught Haydn’s breath. However, he argued: “My Prince was satisfied with all of my works, I raised applause, in my position as director of an orchestra I could experiment, observe what puts forth the impression and what weakens it which means improving, adding, cutting, daring. I was cut off from the world. There was no one to confuse or torment me, and I was forced to become original”.


Castle Eszterháza 

Around 1766/67 Nikolaus decided to convert the Castle Esterházy in today’s Hungarian Fertöd into his summer residence.  The opera house in Esterháza was inaugurated with the premiere of Haydn’s opera “Lo Speziale” in 1768.

Joseph Haydn led an isolated life at Esterházy court.  He suffered from this loneliness which was ideal and necessary for his production. During that time he barely got in contact with other distant European trends. He could rarely visit near cities such as Vienna or Bratislava. Until the year 1775 his main task was to compose instrumental – and church music and to conduct performances at the royal court.

Regular opera performances, the so called summer opera of Esterházy, started to take place from 1776 onwards. Haydn increasingly occupied himself with the genre of the opera which temporarily pushed every other musical activity into the back of the composer’s mind. In a year he conducted about 125 performances of 17 operas and his fame as conductor and composer of operas advanced with every single work.  

Nikolaus I. supported Haydn not only because of his music but also for the reason that Haydn’s compositions served for his own representation. Haydn himself was clever enough to adjust to the exterior basic conditions which have been offered at the royal court and to come up to the expectations of his employer.

After the death of Nikolaus I. in 1790 the successor Prince Anton dissolved the court chapel for financial reasons. Although Joseph Haydn retained his employment as music director in a titular form, he was retired with a salary of 1400 gulden and was not obliged to fulfil his service at court anymore. At this time he was 58 years old and was longing for living satisfying years in Vienna.

Joseph Haydn’s career was initiated at the Esterházy court under the service of Prince Paul II. His social status was formally hierarchically structured.  He served as official at an aristocratic court with all his functions and tasks including little free space. In the course of the following years and due to his rising fame his social status at court changed significantly.  Haydn increasingly tended to socialize in specific circles that belonged socially and intellectually to the upper class. The death of Prince Nikolaus I. in 1790, the dissolution of the chapel and Haydn’s retirement by Prince Anton forwarded the composer to a completely new period of life.  The relocation of his residence to Vienna provided entirely new opportunities concerning artistic as well as economic aspects.  

Travels to England and international career 

At the time of his retirement Joseph Haydn has already been known and popular far across the borders of the Habsburg empire. His works were published and presented in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and other European metropolises. The Russian and particularly the Spanish court admired and desired his compositions. In 1782 a symphony by Haydn was presented for the first time in the United States of America. Count Anton Grassalkovics attempted to engage the now “unoccupied” composter as director of his court chapel in Bratislava. Another highly attractive offer was made by King Ferdinand IV. who invited Haydn to his illustrious court in Naples.

Nevertheless, in 1791 Haydn accepted the offer by Johann Perter Salomon, a significant impresario and concert manager at that time, to go to London. A conversation between Salomon, Mozart and Haydn about the upcoming travel created one of the most popular quotations by Joseph Haydn.

When Mozart was trying to restrain Haydn from his journey by arguing to “Papa Haydn” that he did not speak enough languages for this kind of undertaking, Haydn answered: “My language is understood throughout the whole world”.  Haydn and Salomon travelled over Munich to Bonn and then to Calais, where they ferried the canal on 1st January 1791.

Soon Haydn became the leading centre of the musical life of London. He was fascinated by the large city which was enthusiastically celebrating him. The English loved and admired his music. A great number of new inspirations induced various new compositions. During that time, he produced a range of outstanding works, among them the infamous 12 London symphonies. The “London Newspaper” wrote in 1792: “We have never had a greater musical enjoyment. Certainly, there is no question that Haydn is the object of worship, yes even admiration for those whose hearts are susceptible to music, because similar to our Shakespeare he guides and rules the passion according to his will.”

In total Haydn accomplished two journeys to London. On his first trip in 1791/92 he arrived at the Händel festival in Westminster Abbey which had been organised in commemoration of Georg Friedrich Händel. Haydn was enthusiastic about the size of the English orchestra which was much larger than those in his home country. His second journey to London in 1794/95 is equally considered to be the climax of his symphonic work.

Next to his musical production Haydn also had an intense focus on social and formal friendships with personalities of the English royal court and church. His social contacts reached a completely new level. He became acquainted with King George III. and the King of England, the Prince of Wales,  the Duke and Duchess of York and a great number of other aristocrats and members of the upper class. He was treated with a lot of respect and was additionally bestowed with various honours.  In 1791 the University of Oxford awarded him with the title of honorary doctor of music. In London he led a free, comfortable life as an independent artist:  “How sweet does a certain amount of freedom taste, I had a good Prince, but at times I have been depended on inferior souls, I have sighed for release, but now I anticipate it to some degree.”

Retirement and European fame 

In 1794 Prince Anton died and his oldest son Nikolaus II. came into his inheritance.  One year later he re-installed the court orchestra and re-engaged Haydn as music director. Haydn accepted the offer of Prince Nikolaus II. Esterházy.  Castle Esterháza in Fertöd was abandoned and they exclusively resided in Eisenstadt and Vienna. Haydn, at that time most famous composer of the continent, finally settled in Vienna.

From 1802 onwards he was freed from all official duties. His last performance as conductor took place on 26th December 1803 at the church consecration festival in the St. Stephan’s Cathedral.

When his disability for service became increasingly evident from 1804 onwards, the well-known piano virtuoso and composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel was set on his site in the position of concert master. The man who caused a transition in music history, finally retired from public life. Various publishers made an effort to produce a collective edition of his works and were highly interested to publish Haydn’s biography. During Haydn’s last days on earth the city of Vienna experienced a difficult time. Napoleon had sieged and occupied the city. After Vienna’s capitulation Joseph Haydn began to grow weaker.

On 31st May 1809 Haydn died peacefully in his apartment in Vienna when he was 77 years old. On 1st June he was buried at the Hundsthurmer cemetery.  On the next day a requiem was celebrated in his honour in the church of Gumpendorf. Two weeks later a commemoration was held in the Schottenkirche in Vienna where Mozart’s “requiem” was raised. Vienna’s entire population turned up, most of them in mourning.  


Haydn’s lost skull

Since Haydn had served the Princes Esterhazy for a major part of his life, Pirnce Nikolaus II. Esterházy decided, however not before 1820, to bury Haydn’s mortal remains in the Bergkirche of Eisenstadt. During the following eleven years the confusing story about Haydn’s skull occurred.

When Haydn’s grave was opened, it was discovered with great surprise that the skull of the composer was missing. It has been learned that the royal secretary at the Esterházy court Joseph Carl Rosenbaum, (an artistic personality but also a fanatic supporter of phrenology who held the view that ingenious human skills are located in the skull) opened the grave eight days after Haydn’s funeral and removed the head from the body.

So for the time being, the body of Joseph Haydn was transferred to Eisenstadt without cranium and buried in a crypt underneath the Bergkirche. A skull which had been subsequently committed to the police by Johann Peter by declaring it to be the “Haydn-skull , turned out be a fake.

On his deathbed, Joseph Carl passed the real skull to his friend Peter by instructing him to leave the relic to the conservatory of music. However, it took a long time until the skull of Joseph Haydn turned into a museum object. Neither Peter himself nor his widow dared to hand over the skull. Via the doctor Dr. Karl Haller and the anatomist Rokitansky the skull finally arrived at the society of music friends in Vienna who preserved it as precious object of their museum for decades.

In 1932, on occasion of Haydn’s 200th birthday, new attempts were made to unite the skull and the body of the composer. The society of music friends seemed to be willing to part with the relic and on that occasion the house of Esterházy built a mausoleum in the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt where Joseph Haydn was supposed to find his final resting place 123 years after his death.  However, this attempt also failed in the last minute.

The sarcophagus remained empty until 1954 when the province of Burgenland finally managed to retrieve its great son to the city, where he worked for more than three decades and where he also produced a greater part of his everlasting work. Burgenland gave Joseph Haydn a triumphant welcome. The path of the skull led through Eisenstadt and past his former residence and the castle and in a ceremonial act in the Bergkirche Gustinus Ambrosi united the skull with the remains of the composer. 


His work 

Haydn’s work includes almost ever genre of vocal- and instrumental music. However, the instrumental music and especially the symphony and the string quartet shifted from the beginning to the main focus of the composer. His soubriquet “father of the string quartet” can be attributed to the fact that he defined the essential pattern of a cyclic multi-movement form. He developed the set of four movements characterised by the sequence of fast movement, slow movement, minuet and again fast movement. His first classical string quartets took shape by the order of Count Fürnberg who invited Haydn and other musicians to his castle Weinzierl and then demanded of the composer to write some music for “four art lovers” to play.

Haydn accepted the order and as a result he composed the early string quartets op No. 1-4 and 6, as well as op 2, No. 1,2, 4 and 6 which were still followed by more than 70 string quartets. The “Sun” quartets, the “Prussian” quartets and the “Emperor” quartet count among the best-known and most frequently played compositions. A specific rank is attributed to the melody as main motive of the anthem “Gott erhalte den Kaiser” which became widely known and spread under the title of “Imperial anthem”.  Concerning the compositional aspect the publishing of his six “Prussian” quartets in 1781 set up a milestone. By composing these quartets Haydn qualified for stylistic mastery and he even argued himself that they were composed of a “very special kind”.

Next to the string quartets, the piano sonata and the piano trio, it has been particularly the genre of the symphony that set a phenomenal boost in Viennese classicism. The symphonic work by Joseph Haydn has not only been essential for the cultivation of courtly music but it also appeared in the form of order compositions for foreign concert enterprises.  It received enthusiastic response in European aristocratic as well as bourgeois  music circles. Haydn wrote his first symphonies around 1758 until 1761. Over the course of his life he composed 107 symphonies. His first symphonies for the Esterházy court No. 6 until 8 were written in 1761. The choice of the names “Le matin” (The morning),” Le midi” (The noon) “Le soir” (The evening) is probably owed to the suggestion of the Prince.

In the aftermath a great number of Haydn’s symphonies have been added by epithets such as No. 94 “The Surprise”, No. 48 “Maria Theresia” or No. 92 “Oxford” as well as No. 93-104, his renowned “12 London symphonies”. The symphony No. 45, “Farwell” as well as some others are connected to specific anecdotes that entwine around their origin.

Two of the triggers that contributed to Joseph Haydn’s rise to celebrity are the oratories “The Creation” and “The Seasons”.  At the height of his career both of Haydn’s works laid down a pattern for the “modern” instrumentation of symphonic music that has lasted for almost one century. He determined the size of the orchestra which applies almost every instrument from piccolo to contrabassoon. Other well- known works of  this genre are ”Stabat Mather” from 1767 as well as “The seven last words of our saviour on the cross” which was set to music in 1786.

Additionally, Haydn’s extensive creative work gave birth to 14 mass, 21 string trios, 126 baryton trios, 29 piano trios, 47 piano sonatas and a wide range of operas and musical comedies as well as individual piano pieces, trumpet concerts and minuets.  In 1802 he wrote his last finished composition, the “Mass in B” or the so-called “Harmony mass”.  One year later, in 1803, he began to work on his string quartet op. 103 which should remain his last work and which was left to posterity in unfinished form.