Franz Joseph Haydn

In the Viennese tradition of ingenious court composers, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) was the first real darling of the classical era. He grew up poor in the Austrian town of Rohrau to a laborer father. His aptitude for music was apparent even as a young boy, and at age eight he became a choirboy at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.

From 1759 to 1761, Haydn worked in the court of Count Morzin, a low-level nobleman who went bankrupt and had to fire all his musicians. By that time, however, Haydn had attracted enough attention to be hired by a Hungarian prince named Paul Anton Esterházy. He spent most of his life at the house of Esterházy, composing for eight hours a day and managing all of the estate’s musical activities, which included multiple opera and symphonic performances each week.

If Haydn’s schedule sounds arduous, his career output is equally amazing: he wrote 104 symphonies, 68 string quartets, 47 piano sonatas, 26 operas, 4 oratorios, and hundreds of other pieces that have since been lost. He is credited with establishing the standard structure for a symphony—three or four movements of varied tempos, scored for strings, four or five wind parts, and timpani—which he developed from the ideas of several Italian, Rococo composers. He is also credited with modernizing the string quartet format. Instead of making his quartets solo exercises for the first violinist, he moved his melodies and important themes around among the violin, viola, and cello parts.

Haydn spent the latter part of his life traveling between London and Vienna, while composing his most mature and lasting symphonies and string quartets. He met with, and provided inspiration for, the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), his most talented contemporary. He retired and eventually died in Vienna at the age of seventy-seven.

ADDITIONAL FACTS

  1. In most baroque compositions, each movement is limited to one mood or emotional texture (sad, wintry, joyful, etc.). Haydn was one of the first composers to write pieces, namely his symphonies, that shifted through multiple expressive settings. He also eliminated the baroque continuo part and replaced it with more complex orchestrations using the many instruments in an orchestra.
  2. While staying with Esterházy, Haydn lived for two decades in servant’s quarters, wearing a footman’s uniform and having to deal with the humiliation of being chastised for not powdering his servant’s wig properly.
  3. When Haydn’s voice changed in 1749, he was kicked out of St. Stephen’s boys’ choir to the streets with nothing but the clothes on his back, another indication of a musician’s station in life. He survived by giving lessons, composing diversion music for the wealthy of the city, and working as a servant and apprentice to the Italian composer Nicola Porpora (1686–1768).
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