Happy Birthday, Joseph Haydn!

Portrait of HaydnFranz Joseph Haydn was born in the village of Rohrau, near Vienna, on March 31, 1732, of humble origins. When he was eight he had received his only formal education at the choir school of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Discarded from the chorus at the age of 17, he was a freelance musician for the next several years. He himself studied standard textbooks and occasionally taught the distinguished Italian singing master and author Nicola Porpora. He also took lessons.  In 1755, he briefly worked for Baron Karl Josef von Furnberg, for whom his first string quartets were composed. Count Ferdinand Maximilian von Morzin hired him as music director in 1759, giving him a more substantial position. The marriage of Haydn to Maria Anna Keller in 1760 proved both childless and unhappy.

Haydn’s fortunes changed in 1761, when he was appointed assistant music director to Prince Pal Antál Esterházy; he was promoted to full director, or Kapellmeister, in 1762. Haydn worked under the patronage of three successive Esterházy princes. Pal Antál’s brother, Prince Miklós Jozsef Esterházy, was an ardent and cultivated music lover. Prince Miklós’ vast summer estate, Esterháza, boasted a musical establishment second to none, the management of which made enormous demands on its director. In addition to the symphonies, operas, marionette operettas, masses, chamber pieces, and dance music that Haydn was expected to compose for the prince’s entertainment, he was also expected to rehearse and conduct performances of his own and other composers’ works, coach singers, maintain the instrument collection and music library, perform as organist, violist, and violinist when needed, and settle disputes amicably. Despite his frequent regrets about the burdens of his job and Esterháza’s isolation, Haydn’s position was enviable by 18th-century standards. One notable feature of his contract after 1779 was his ability to sell his music to publishers and accept commissions.

After Prince Miklós died in 1790, his son, Prince Antál, drastically reduced the Esterházy musical establishment. Although Haydn retained his title of Kapellmeister, he was now free to travel outside of Vienna. Johann Peter Salomon, the enterprising British violinist and impresario, wasted no time in enlisting the composer for his London concert series. Haydn’s two trips to England for these concerts, in 1791-92 and 1794-95, were the catalysts for his final symphonies’ enormous success. The “Salomon” or “London” symphonies contain several of his most popular works, including “Surprise”, “Military,” “Clock”, “Drum Roll,” and “London.”

Haydn turned to writing masses in his later years in Vienna, and he composed his great oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons. His Emperor’s Hymn, which later became Germany’s national anthem, also dates from this time period. On May 31, 1809, he died in Vienna, a famous and wealthy man.

Haydn was a prolific composer in nearly every genre, both vocal and instrumental, sacred and secular. Many of his works, most notably the 125 trios and other assorted pieces featuring the baryton, a hybrid string instrument played by Prince Miklós, were unknown outside the walls of Esterháza. The majority of Haydn’s 19 operas and marionette operettas were written to accommodate the Esterháza company’s talents as well as his prince’s tastes. Haydn openly acknowledged the superiority of his young friend Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operas. In other categories, however, his works were widely circulated, and his impact was profound. His 107 symphonies and 68 string quartets are evidence of his ever-evolving approach to thematic materials and form, as well as his mastery of instrumentation. His 62 piano sonatas and 43 piano trios show a progression from the easy elegance suitable for amateurs’ home music making to the public virtuosity of his later works.

Haydn’s productivity is surpassed only by his boundless originality. His creative technique of transforming a simple tune or motif into surprisingly complex inventions was praised by his peers. His style is characterized by dramatic surprise, which is often turned to humorous effect, as well as a fondness for folkloric melodies. Haydn’s music was characterized as “popular artistry” by a writer of the time, and his combination of directness and daring experimentation transformed instrumental expression in the 18th century.

Tempo Press publishes several of Haydn’s works arranged for string orchestra.

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