(Franz) Joseph Haydn (31 March 1732–31 May 1809) was a prominent and prolific Austrian composer of the Classical period. He was instrumental in the development of chamber music such as the piano trio and his contributions to musical form have earned him the epithets “Father of the Symphony” and “Father of the String Quartet.”

Haydn spent much of his career as a court musician for the wealthy Esterházy family at their remote estate. Until the later part of his life, this isolated him from other composers and trends in music so that he was, as he put it, “forced to become original.”  At the time of his death, aged 77, he was one of the most celebrated composers in Europe.

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Joseph Haydn was the brother of Michael Haydn—himself a highly regarded composer—and Johann Evangelist Haydn, a tenor. He was also a friend of Mozart and a teacher of Beethoven.

Early Life

Joseph Haydn was born in Rohrau, Austria, a village that at that time stood on the border with Hungary. His father was Mathias Haydn, a wheelwright who also served as “Marktrichter”—an office akin to village mayor. Haydn’s mother Maria, née Koller, had previously worked as a cook in the palace of Count Harrach, the presiding aristocrat of Rohrau. Neither parent could read music; however, Mathias was an enthusiastic folk musician, who during the journeyman period of his career had taught himself to play the harp. According to Haydn’s later reminiscences, his childhood family was extremely musical, and frequently sang together and with their neighbors.

Haydn’s parents had noticed that their son was musically gifted and knew that in Rohrau he would have no chance to obtain serious musical training. It was for this reason that they accepted a proposal from their relative Johann Matthias Frankh, the schoolmaster and choirmaster in Hainburg, that Haydn be apprenticed to Frankh in his home to train as a musician. Haydn therefore went off with Frankh to Hainburg 12 kilometers (7.5 mi) away and never again lived with his parents. He was about six years old.

Life in the Frankh household was not easy for Haydn, who later remembered being frequently hungry and humiliated by the filthy state of his clothing. He began his musical training there, and could soon play both harpsichord and violin. The people of Hainburg heard him sing trebleparts in the church choir.

There is reason to think that Haydn’s singing impressed those who heard him, because in 1739 he was brought to the attention of Georg von Reutter, the director of music in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, who happened to be visiting Hainburg and was looking for new choirboys. Haydn successfully auditioned with Reutter, and after several months of further training moved to Vienna (1740), where he worked for the next nine years as a chorister.


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The Morzin palace in Dolní Lukavice, Czech Republic.


With the increase in his reputation, Haydn eventually obtained aristocratic patronage, crucial for the career of a composer in his day. Countess Thun, having seen one of Haydn’s compositions, summoned him and engaged him as her singing and keyboard teacher. In 1756, Baron Carl Josef Fürnberg employed Haydn at his country estate, Weinzierl, where the composer wrote his first string quartets. Fürnberg later recommended Haydn to Count Morzin, who, in 1757, became his first full-time employer.

The Years As Kapellmeister


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View of Eszterháza


As a “house officer” in the Esterházy establishment, Haydn wore livery and followed the family as they moved among their various palaces, most importantly the family’s ancestral seat Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt and later on Esterháza, a grand new palace built in rural Hungary in the 1760s. Haydn had a huge range of responsibilities, including composition, running the orchestra, playing chamber music for and with his patrons, and eventually the mounting of operatic productions. Despite this backbreaking workload, the job was in artistic terms a superb opportunity for Haydn. The Esterházy princes (Paul Anton, then from 1762–1790 Nikolaus I) were musical connoisseurs who appreciated his work and gave him daily access to his own small orchestra. During the nearly thirty years that Haydn worked at the Esterházy court, he produced a flood of compositions, and his musical style continued to develop.


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Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, Haydn’s most important patron.


1779 was a watershed year for Haydn, as his contract was renegotiated: whereas previously all his compositions were the property of the Esterházy family, he now was permitted to write for others and sell his work to publishers. Haydn soon shifted his emphasis in composition to reflect this (fewer operas, and more quartets and symphonies) and he negotiated with multiple publishers, both Austrian and foreign. Of Haydn’s new employment contract Jones writes,

This single document acted as a catalyst in the next stage in Haydn’s career, the achievement of international popularity. By 1790 Haydn was in the paradoxical, if not bizarre, position of being Europe’s leading composer, but someone who spent his time as a duty-bound Kapellmeister in a remote palace in the Hungarian countryside.

The new publication campaign resulted in the composition of a great number of new string quartets (the six-quartet sets of Op. 33, 50, 54/55, and 64). Haydn also composed in response to commissions from abroad: the Paris symphonies (1785–1786) and the original orchestral version of The Seven Last Words of Christ(1786), a commission from Cadiz, Spain.

The remoteness of Esterháza, which was farther from Vienna than Eisenstadt, led Haydn gradually to feel more isolated and lonely. He longed to visit Vienna because of his friendships there. Of these, a particularly important one was with Maria Anna von Genzinger (1754–93), the wife of Prince Nikolaus’s personal physician in Vienna, who began a close, platonic, relationship with the composer in 1789. Haydn wrote to Mrs. Genzinger often, expressing his loneliness at Esterháza and his happiness for the few occasions on which he was able to visit her in Vienna; later on, Haydn wrote to her frequently from London. Her premature death in 1793 was a blow to Haydn, and his F minor variations for piano, Hob. XVII:6, may have been written in response to her death.

Another friend in Vienna was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whom Haydn had met sometime around 1784. According to later testimony by Michael Kelly and others, the two composers occasionally played in string quartets together. Haydn was hugely impressed with Mozart’s work and praised it unstintingly to others. Mozart evidently returned the esteem, as seen in his dedication of a set of six quartets, now called the “Haydn” quartets, to his friend. For further details see Haydn and Mozart.

The London Journeys

In 1790, Prince Nikolaus died and was succeeded as prince by his son Anton. Following a trend of the time, Anton sought to economize by dismissing most of the court musicians. Haydn retained a nominal appointment with Anton, at a reduced salary of 400 florins, as well as a 1000-florin pension from Nikolaus. Since Anton had little need of Haydn’s services, he was willing to let him travel, and the composer accepted a lucrative offer from Johann Peter Salomon, a German violinist and impresario, to visit England and conduct new symphonies with a large orchestra.


The choice was a sensible one because Haydn was already a very popular composer there. Since the death of Johann Christian Bach in 1782, Haydn’s music had dominated the concert scene in London; “hardly a concert did not feature a work by him” (Jones). Haydn’s work was widely distributed by publishers in London, including Forster (who had their own contract with Haydn) and Longman & Broderip (who served as agent in England for Haydn’s Vienna publisher Artaria). Efforts to bring Haydn to London had been undertaken since 1782, though Haydn’s loyalty to Prince Nikolaus had prevented him from accepting.

After fond farewells from Mozart and other friends, Haydn departed Vienna with Salomon on 15 December 1790, arriving in Calais in time to cross the English Channel on New Year’s Day of 1791. It was the first time that the 58-year-old composer had seen the ocean. Arriving in London, Haydn stayed with Salomon in Great Pulteney Street, working in a borrowed studio at the Broadwood piano firm nearby.


It was the start of a very auspicious period for Haydn; both the 1791–1792 journey, along with a repeat visit in 1794–1795, were greatly successful. Audiences flocked to Haydn’s concerts; he augmented his fame and made large profits, thus becoming financially secure. Charles Burney reviewed the first concert thus: “Haydn himself presided at the piano-forte; and the sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever been caused by instrumental music in England.” Haydn made many new friends and, for a time, was involved in a romantic relationship with Rebecca Schroeter.

Musically, Haydn’s visits to England generated some of his best-known work, including the Surprise, Military, Drumroll, and London symphonies; the Rider quartet; and the “Gypsy Rondo” piano trio.


Listen: Haydn Symphonies

Listen to the “London” symphony, No. 104, as played by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Listen to the “Military” symphony, No. 100, as played by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.


The great success of the overall enterprise does not mean that the journeys were free of trouble. Notably, his very first project, the commissioned opera L’anima del filosofo was duly written during the early stages of the trip, but the opera’s impresario John Gallini was unable to obtain a license to permit opera performances in the theater he directed, the King’s Theatre. Haydn was well paid for the opera (300 pounds) but much time was wasted. Thus only two new symphonies, no. 95 and no. 96 “Miracle“, could be premiered in the 12 concerts of Salomon’s spring concert series.


The end of Salomon’s series in June gave Haydn a rare period of relative leisure. He spent some of the time in the country (Hertingfordbury), but also had time to travel, notably to Oxford, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University. The symphony performed for the occasion, no. 92 has since come to be known as the Oxford Symphony, although it been written in 1789.


While traveling to London in 1790, Haydn had met the young Ludwig van Beethoven in his native city of Bonn. On Haydn’s return, Beethoven came to Vienna and during the time up to the second London visit was Haydn’s pupil. For discussion of their relationship, see Beethoven and his contemporaries.

Years of Celebrity in Vienna

Haydn returned to Vienna in 1795. Prince Anton had died, and his successor Nikolaus II proposed that the Esterházy musical establishment be revived with Haydn serving again as Kapellmeister. Haydn took up the position on a part-time basis. He spent his summers with the Esterházys in Eisenstadt, and over the course of several years wrote six masses for them.


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Haydn’s signature on a work of music: di me giuseppe Haydn (“by me Joseph Haydn”). He writes in Italian, a language he often used professionally.


James Webster writes of Haydn’s public character thus: “Haydn’s public life exemplified the Enlightenment ideal of the honnête homme (honest man): the man whose good character and worldly success enable and justify each other. His modesty and probity were everywhere acknowledged. These traits were not only prerequisites to his success as Kapellmeister, entrepreneur and public figure, but also aided the favorable reception of his music.” Haydn was especially respected by the Esterházy court musicians whom he supervised, as he maintained a cordial working atmosphere and effectively represented the musicians’ interests with their employer; see Papa Haydn and the tale of the “Farewell” Symphony. Haydn had a robust sense of humor, evident in his love of practical jokes and often apparent in his music, and he had many friends. For much of his life he benefited from a “happy and naturally cheerful temperament,” but in his later life, there is evidence for periods of depression, notably in the correspondence with Mrs. Genzinger and in Dies’s biography, based on visits made in Haydn’s old age.


Haydn was a devout Catholic who often turned to his rosary when he had trouble composing, a practice that he usually found to be effective. He normally began the manuscript of each composition with “in nomine Domini” (“in the name of the Lord”) and ended with “Laus Deo” (“praise be to God”).

Haydn’s primary character flaw was greed as it related to his business dealings. Webster writes: “As regards money, Haydn was so self-interested as to shock contemporaries and many later authorities …. He always attempted to maximize his income, whether by negotiating the right to sell his music outside the Esterházy court, driving hard bargains with publishers or selling his works three and four times over; he regularly engaged in ‘sharp practice’ and occasionally in outright fraud. When crossed in business relations, he reacted angrily.” Webster notes that Haydn’s ruthlessness in business might be viewed more sympathetically in light of his struggles with poverty during his years as a freelancer – and that outside of the world of business, in dealings, for example, with relatives and servants and in volunteering his services for charitable concerts, Haydn was a generous man.

Haydn was short in stature, perhaps as a result of having been underfed throughout most of his youth. He was not handsome, and like many in his day he was a survivor of smallpox; his face was pitted with the scars of this disease. His biographer Dies wrote: “…he couldn’t understand how it happened that in his life he had been loved by many a pretty woman. ‘They couldn’t have been led to it by my beauty"”.

His nose, large and aquiline, was disfigured by the polypus he suffered during much of his adult life, an agonizing and debilitating disease that at times prevented him from writing music.


Works

James Webster summarizes Haydn’s role in the history of classical music as follows:

He excelled in every musical genre… He is familiarly known as the ‘father of the symphony’ and could with greater justice be thus regarded for the string quartet; no other composer approaches his combination of productivity, quality and historical importance in these genres.

Structure and Character of His Music

A central characteristic of Haydn’s music is the development of larger structures out of very short, simple musical motifs, often derived from standard accompanying figures. The music is often quite formally concentrated, and the important musical events of a movement can unfold rather quickly.

Haydn’s work was central to the development of what came to be called sonata form. His practice, however, differed in some ways from that of Mozart and Beethoven, his younger contemporaries who likewise excelled in this form of composition. Haydn was particularly fond of the so-called “monothematic exposition”, in which the music that establishes the dominant key is similar or identical to the opening theme. Haydn also differs from Mozart and Beethoven in his recapitulation sections, where he often rearranges the order of themes compared to the exposition and uses extensive thematic development.

Haydn’s formal inventiveness also led him to integrate the fugue into the classical style and to enrich the rondo form with more cohesive tonal logic (see sonata rondo form). Haydn was also the principal exponent of the double variation form—variations on two alternating themes, which are often major- and minor-mode versions of each other.

Perhaps more than any other composer’s, Haydn’s music is known for its humor.The most famous example is the sudden loud chord in the slow movement of his “Surprise” symphony; Haydn’s many other musical jokes include numerous false endings (e.g., in the quartets Op. 33 No. 2 and Op. 50 No. 3), and the remarkable rhythmic illusion placed in the trio section of the third movement of Op. 50 No. 1.

Much of the music was written to please and delight a prince, and its emotional tone is correspondingly upbeat. This tone also reflects, perhaps, Haydn’s fundamentally healthy and well-balanced personality. Occasional minor-key works, often deadly serious in character, form striking exceptions to the general rule. Haydn’s fast movements tend to be rhythmically propulsive and often impart a great sense of energy, especially in the finales. Some characteristic examples of Haydn’s “rollicking” finale type are found in the “London” symphonyNo. 104, the string quartet Op. 50 No. 1, and the piano trio Hob XV: 27. Haydn’s early slow movements are usually not too slow in tempo, relaxed, and reflective. Later on, the emotional range of the slow movements increases, notably in the deeply felt slow movements of the quartets Op. 76 Nos. 3 and 5, the Symphonies No. 98 and 102, and the piano trio Hob XV: 23. The minuets tend to have a strong downbeat and a clearly popular character. Over time, Haydn turned some of his minuets into “scherzi” which are much faster, at one beat to the bar.

Evolution of Haydn’s Style

In the late 1760s and early 1770s, Haydn entered a stylistic period known as “Sturm und Drang” (“storm and stress”). This term is taken from a literary movement of about the same time, though it appears that the musical development actually preceded the literary one by a few years. The musical language of this period is similar to what went before, but it is deployed in work that is more intensely expressive, especially in the works in minor keys. James Webster describes the works of this period as “longer, more passionate, and more daring.” Some of the most famous compositions of this time are the “Trauer” (Mourning) Symphony No. 44, “Farewell” Symphony No. 45, the piano sonata in C minor (Hob. XVI/20, L. 33), and the six string quartets of Op. 20 (the “Sun” quartets), all from c. 1771–72. It was also around this time that Haydn became interested in writing fugues in the Baroque style, and three of the Op. 20 quartets end with a fugue.

Following the climax of the “Sturm und Drang”, Haydn returned to a lighter, more overtly entertaining style. There are no quartets from this period, and the symphonies take on new features: the scoring often includes trumpets and timpani. These changes are often related to a major shift in Haydn’s professional duties, which moved him away from “pure” music and toward the production of comic operas. Several of the operas were Haydn’s own work (see List of operas by Joseph Haydn); these are seldom performed today. Haydn sometimes recycled his opera music in symphonic works, which helped him continue his career as a symphonist during this hectic decade.

In 1779, an important change in Haydn’s contract permitted him to publish his compositions without prior authorization from his employer. This may have encouraged Haydn to rekindle his career as a composer of “pure” music. The change made itself felt most dramatically in 1781, when Haydn published the six string quartets of Opus 33, announcing (in a letter to potential purchasers) that they were written in “a new and completely special way.” Charles Rosen has argued that this assertion on Haydn’s part was not just sales talk, but meant quite seriously; and he points out a number of important advances in Haydn’s compositional technique that appear in these quartets, advances that mark the advent of the Classical style in full flower. These include a fluid form of phrasing, in which each motif emerges from the previous one without interruption, the practice of letting accompanying material evolve into melodic material, and a kind of “Classical counterpoint” in which each instrumental part maintains its own integrity. These traits continue in the many quartets that Haydn wrote after Opus 33.

In the 1790s, stimulated by his England journeys, Haydn developed what Rosen calls his “popular style”, a method of composition that, with unprecedented success, created music having great popular appeal but retaining a learned and rigorous musical structure. An important element of the popular style was the frequent use of folk or folk-like material. Haydn took care to deploy this material in appropriate locations, such as the endings of sonata expositions or the opening themes of finales. In such locations, the folk material serves as an element of stability, helping to anchor the larger structure. Haydn’s popular style can be heard in virtually all of his later work, including the twelve London symphonies, the late quartets and piano trios, and the two late oratorios.

The return to Vienna in 1795 marked the last turning point in Haydn’s career. Although his musical style evolved little, his intentions as a composer changed. While he had been a servant, and later a busy entrepreneur, Haydn wrote his works quickly and in profusion, with frequent deadlines. As a rich man, Haydn now felt that he had the privilege of taking his time and writing for posterity. This is reflected in the subject matter of The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801), which address such weighty topics as the meaning of life and the purpose of humankind, and represent an attempt to render the sublime in music. Haydn’s new intentions also meant that he was willing to spend much time on a single work: both oratorios took him over a year to complete. Haydn once remarked that he had worked on The Creation so long because he wanted it to last.

The change in Haydn’s approach was important in the history of classical music, as other composers were soon following his lead. Notably, Beethoven adopted the practice of taking his time and aiming high.

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Identifying Haydn’s Works

Haydn’s works are listed in a comprehensive catalogue prepared by Anthony van Hoboken. This Hoboken catalogue provides each work with an identifying number, called its Hoboken number (abbreviation: H. or Hob.). The string quartets also have Hoboken numbers, but are usually identified instead by their opus numbers, which have the advantage of indicating the groups of six quartets that Haydn published together; thus for example the string quartet Opus 76, No. 3 is the third of the six quartets published in 1799 as Opus 76.