Joseph Haydn | Biography


Joseph Haydn wore the livery uniform of a court servant for most of his career, composing and performing to order. When he was eventually granted a measure of freedom, he became one of the first composers to write for a mass audience. The result was adulation, and it was richly deserved. Almost single-handedly, Haydn established the formats on which classical music would be based for more than a century. Two titles are regularly bestowed upon him: ‘Father of the Symphony’ and ‘Father of the String Quartet’. But his influence was equally important on the concerto, the piano sonata and the piano trio. Haydn was a wheelwright’s son and a natural self-improver. Not only did he make every effort to learn and perfect his musical craftsmanship, he acquired the social skills to be welcome in any company. But he did have to learn those skills. He spent nine years as a chorister at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna until he was suddenly ejected and left homeless and without income. His voice had broken, but cutting off the pigtail of another choirboy had hastened his exit. He survived through busking and teaching. He was briefly employed in Vienna with the Italian opera composer Porpora and a Bohemian nobleman, Count Morzin, but real financial security did not come until 1761. From then and for the next 30 years, Haydn was an employee of the Esterházy family. Haydn’s first years of composing for the Esterházy family have been called his period of Sturm und Drang (‘storm and stress’). It is an apt description of music that was highly dramatic, musically adventurousness and emotionally unrestrained. However, it was soon replaced by a more characteristic steadiness and civility. As his Hungarian employers moved between their winter and summer palaces, Haydn followed. He was in effect a servant and his duties were considerable. They included running the orchestra, composing to entertain the court and its guests and presiding over the chapel choir and musicians. For good measure, he also had to produce a few new operas. By the standards of the time the Esterházy princes were benevolent masters. They appreciated Haydn’s genius and found him easy to get on with. That genius is best illustrated by his symphonies, of which he wrote 104. Haydn wasn’t the first symphonist, but he was the one who established the genre’s definitive four-movement design. He also gave sonata form the proportions that saw it become the musical foundation of both Classical and Romantic eras. The features of Haydn’s symphonies are mirrored in most of the other genres in which he wrote. And yet they are not short of innovation. Touches of folk music are often present. His third-movement minuets frequently mix the courtliness of the formal dance with more rustic tones. His finales are notable for their jocularity. Haydn’s humour is less arcane than Mozart’s and less aggressive than Beethoven’s. Perfectly timed and always appropriate, his musical wit reveals much of his personality. By the mid−1770s his fame was spreading, partly because of the newly developing infrastructure of music publishing. Commissions began to come from outside the Esterházy court, and Haydn’s employers allowed him to take them on. His chamber music sold well. The 1781 publication of the six string quartets op.33 marked a significant new phase, both in Haydn’s career and in the establishment of the genre. The quartets show an ideal combination of intimate detail and sweeping total effect.  Until recently Haydn’s concertos, piano trios and piano sonatas were neglected but recordings have revealed their considerable worth. His operas may one day be similarly re-evaluated, though for all their attractiveness they suffer from comparison to Mozart’s psychologically perceptive inventions. The oratorios remain perennially popular. The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801) date from Haydn’s return to Vienna after two triumphant visits to London. There he had been inspired by hearing Handel’s oratorios. Eventually releasing him from court duties, the Esterházys allowed Haydn two visits to England (1791–92 and 1794–95). There he conducted new symphonies in subscription concerts organised by the entrepreneur Johann Peter Salomon. By now he was composing on a grand scale, giving starring roles to wind and brass and allowing slow introductions to his first movements. The wheelwright’s son who had charmed court circles had mastered the art of writing for a large and diverse public. He was adored in London and feted in Vienna when he returned for his final few years. Such was his international reputation that Napoleon, whose forces were attacking the Austrian capital as Haydn lay dying, placed an armed guard around the composer’s house.