Famous Composers: Joseph Haydn

Famous Composers Joseph Haydn  Sonatica Blog

JOSEPH HAYDN was born on 31st March, 1732 at the village of Rohrau, thirty miles east of Vienna on the verge of that low-lying region round the Neusiedlersee (Ferto Tava) which has always been a bone of political contention between Austria and Hungary. Rohrau, although typically Hungarian in lay-out (single-storied cottages set far back from the grass-lined road), was - and is - on Austrian territory, but the border was not far away and the inhabitants were of mixed racial descent; nor were the elements exclusively Austrian and Magyar, for during the seventeenth century there had been a surge of immigrants to this indeterminate no-man’s-land

both from ‘high Germany’ (Baden, Württemberg, Bavaria) and from Croatia (now part of Yugoslavia). It is probable that two at least of Haydn’s great-grandparents came from high Germany and that he also bad Croatian blood in his veins; be that as it may he was Austrian by birth. Since the local landowner employed his father as a coach-repairer (later as a bailiff) and his mother as a kitchenmaid (later as a cook) he enjoyed, in the words of Hubert Parry, the advantages of a thoroughly plebeian extraction.


When he was six he was sent to live with an uncle (schoolmaster and choirmaster at the nearby town of Hainburg overlooking the Danube) who in 1740 arranged for him to enter the cathedral school of St Stephen’s, Vienna; a few years later he was joined there by his younger brother Michael.1 They sang in the cathedral choir and meanwhile received a sound education, but Joseph’s boyish exuberance continually led him into stupid pranks and as soon as his voice broke - at the unusually late age of seventeen - he was summarily dismissed under a cloud of official disapproval. During the difficult years that followed he scraped a bare living by singing and playing in the streets of Vienna, but was eventually befriended by the stage comedian Joseph Kurz for whom he composed a comic opera (The Crooked Devil), by the versatile Niccola Porpora (composer, singer, pedagogue) for whom he acted both as valet and accompanist, and finally by two grandees named Baron von Fitrnberg and Count Morzin who in turn engaged him as ‘private musician’; between-whiles he augmented his meagre earnings by giving singing lessons. The excellence of Count Morzin’s private music brought Haydn to the notice of Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy, wealthiest of all wealthy Hungarian noblemen, who promptly offered him the post of assistant musical director at his court at Eisenstadt (twenty five miles south of Vienna) with a good prospect of presently taking complete control; Haydn jumped at the chance and thereafter his livelihood was assured.

In domestic affairs he was less fortunate: in 1760 he married one of his pupils, Maria Anna Keller, and for the next forty years (she died in 1800) both bitterly regretted it. Haydn, who had little experience in such matters, seems to have been trapped into marriage with a woman who had no intention of giving him wifely help or encouragement and even, by one account, used his scores for curl-papers; in course of time his frequent infidelities (for boyish exuberance never deserted him) drove her to devote herself to good works, which according to his biographer Rosemary Hughes (with whom I cannot claim kinship) consisted mainly of ‘entertaining at their house a continuous and distracting procession of clergy’.

Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy, as it happened, died a few months after Haydn took up his appointment at Eisenstadt, but his brother Nicolas (who succeeded to the title and estates) was an equally enthusiastic patron; the expected promotion to full directorship of the musical establishment coincided with the building of a magnificent new palace, known henceforth as Esterhaza, on the site of a former shooting-lodge at Süttor in the desolate marshland south-east of the Neusiedlersee. Haydn’s position in the household was no easy one, for his time was divided between Eisenstadt and Esterhaza, he had entire charge of a valuable collection of musical instruments and was furthermore responsible for the behaviour (both on and off duty) of a motley crowd of resident singers and players - to say nothing of guest artists. The routine duties were indeed so onerous that at first he found it a hard struggle to fulfil the clause in his contract which stipulated that he ‘should compose at all times whatever works His Highness might require’, but he soon evolved a satisfactory modus vivendi and over the ensuing period of years no one could have made better use of such golden opportunities. Prior to entering the service of the Esterhazy family in 1761 he had produced The Crooked Devil and perhaps three dozen instrumental works including string quartets and miniature symphonies. By the time he left it in 1790 (with a generous pension) the number of his operas had grown to fifteen, of string quartets to sixty-two, of symphonies to ninety-one; five Masses, forty-odd piano sonatas (the piano was by then gradually replacing both the harpsichord and the clavichord) and a huge quantity of miscellaneous shorter works had been thrown in for good measure. Many of the delightful string quartets and symphonies of this Eisenstadt/Esterhaza period - and at least one of the operas, L’infedelta delusa - have been revived of recent years, but Haydn is still mainly remembered for his subsequent compositions, notably the oratorios The Creation and The Seasons, the ‘Nelson’ and ‘Theresa’ Masses, the last three piano sonatas, the last dozen or so string quartets, a ninety-second symphony (celebrating a visit to Oxford where he was installed as honorary Doctor of Music) and twelve further symphonies (nos. 93-104) written in London at the behest of the concert impresario J. P. Salomon. It was during the 1790s that Haydn, who by that time had retired to Vienna, was twice welcomed in Britain (he had previously never seen the sea) and developed an attachment for the country; besides the symphonies he published six collections of Scottish and Welsh folk-song arrangements (about four hundred all told). After the turn of the century, however, he virtually abandoned both travel and composition, and he died on 31st May 1809 during Vienna’s occupation by the victorious troops of Napoleon Bonaparte, then well on the way to becoming master of Europe. It is pleasant to be able to record that the respect due to a musical genius overrode military etiquette: at Haydn’s memorial service the guard of honour comprised a mixed detachment of French soldiery and Austrian civil guards.

Haydn lived longer than any other famous composer belonging to the eighteenth century and, moreover, his life spanned an era of change. Born when the Turks, though the Ottoman Empire was by then in decline, still maintained a stranglehold on the Balkans and were therefore a menace to Catholic Austria from the east, he lived long enough to find his homeland prey to aggression from the west; meanwhile he survived the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War - and like everyone else in Europe felt the impact, however indirectly, of the French Revolution. On a more peaceful level it should be noted that he was already at school when Handel wrote his Messiah and yet lived to hear Beethoven’s Fidelia. In early days he was profoundly influenced by C. P. E. Bach, talented son of a famous father and, moreover, largely responsible for inaugurating that astonishing manifestation of artistic ingenuity known as ‘sonata form’, a subtle ABA B evolution combining the features of binary form (A B) and ternary form (ABA). Since almost every composer worthy of the name, from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth, has at some time or other written pieces in sonata form (or some barely disguised modification of it) the term will crop up time and again in the ensuing pages and it will be as well to indicate, at this juncture, the basic characteristics.


A movement in sonata form starts with an exposition of tune A, usually a vigorous and masculine affair, which establishes the tonic (main) key. Next comes a bridge passage, possibly based on A, which leads to the exposition of a contrasted and often ‘feminine’ tune B (the ‘second subject’) in a different but closely related key - e.g. G major against C major or E flat major against C minor. There follows a development section in which A and B, or fragments of them, are tossed hither and thither in any key the composer chooses (bar the tonic) and their hidden potentialities are exploited to the best of his ability. This eventually leads back to a recapitulation of A (often a straightforward repetition) followed by an amended bridge passage and a recapitulation of B, which this time however is presented in the tonic key; sometimes a coda (tailpiece) rounds things off.

Historians have been at pains to point out that Haydn did not invent either the string quartet (for two violins, viola and cello) or the symphony (for a larger band incorporating both string and wind instruments); none the less he established their basic form of construction. The early quartets of his Fürnberg and Morzin days were nearly all in five movements - fast, minuet, slow, minuet, fast - but presently he discarded the second minuet, thus leaving four movements (as compared with the standard three movements of duos, trios and concertos), in one or two of which at least (an innovation) the melodic outline, rather than being a mere violin solo, was subjected to thematic development on all four instruments. As nearly as I can calculate Haydn composed forty-six string quartets for the exclusive enjoyment (initially) of his Esterhazy employers, and it will be worth while to pinpoint some of their structural characteristics. I have omitted from the reckoning op. 51, a set of seven single-movement ‘sonatas’ for the same combination of instruments transcribed from an earlier orchestral work illustrating The Seven Words of Our Saviour on the Cross.)

  1. The forty-six quartets all comprised four movements.
  2. Of their first movements forty-three were fast or moderately fast and in sonata form; three were themes with variations, slow or moderately slow.
  3. The finale (last movement) was invariably fast: in four cases it was a fugue.
  4. One of the two middle movements was always a minuet, which in the earlier quartets was usually placed second but was later more likely to be placed third, thus predicating the traditional order of fast, slow, minuet, fast.
  5. Although the majority of the opening and closing movements were in square time (2/4, 4/4, or 2/2), there were seventeen instances of 3/8 or 6/8 and six (all in first movements) of fairly fast 3/4.
  6. Of the forty-six Esterhazy quartets only nine were ‘minor’ (which means, by convention, that they started in a minor key) and two of these nine ended in the major; of their eighteen middle movements eleven were in closely related major keys.
  7. In every one of the thirty-seven ‘major’ quartets the minuet was in the main key of the work and the other middle movement - nearly always slow - in a different but closely related key: twenty in the subdominant major; eight in the dominant major; nine in the tonic minor; none, curiously enough, in the relative minor, which nowadays one would regard as equally logical and which indeed was used by Haydn himself in several of his other instrumental works.

These statistics are presented not for the sake of pedantry but to make clear precisely how much his younger contemporaries - including the most illustrious among them - owed Haydn for evolving such an admirable and reasonably flexible form of construction, which gave opportunity for appropriately varied contrasts of form, tempo, rhythm and key - and, incidentally, was applicable not only to string quartets but also, mutatis mutandis, to symphonies.


In the symphonies of Haydn’s full maturity - including all twelve ‘Salomons’ - he displayed that perfection of utterance which one associates with his music at its best. Here and there, as in the magnificent adagio cantabile of no. 98, he plumbed unwonted depths of feeling, but perhaps their main attractions lie in the straightforward tunefulness of the first movements and the sheer jollity of the finales - notably those of nos. 97, 98, 100 and 101.

Uninhibited jollity (the boyish exuberance which led him into scrapes at school) was one of Haydn’s most endearing traits, and it cropped up as frequently in his string quartets as in his symphonies. Indeed in his Esterhazy days he had not always lived up to the tenet which inspired Thomas Dunhill’s solemn dictum in Chamber Music (1913) that ‘there is absolutely no excuse for setting forth music to be played by four trained and sensitive musicians which could as well be interpreted by the average fiddlers of a restaurant or beer-garden’. But the six quartets of ops. 71 and 74 (composed in Vienna between his two London visits) and the eight of ops. 76 and 77 (composed after the second visit there) show that, by that time, Haydn was in agreement with Dunhill that ‘there is a certain dignity to be upheld in dealing with the string-quartet form’. Admittedly lightheartedness is the key-note of the whole of op. 74 no. 2 and of many single movements from nearly all the other thirteen, but ‘dignified’ would be an appropriate epithet to apply to op. 76 nos. 3 and 5 and op. 77 no. 2. In these quartets and the piano trios of the same decade - notably that in D major usually called no. 6 - one feels that Haydn was already beginning to teach Beethoven. (Here I use the word ‘teach’ to imply example rather than precept, although Haydn did actually give Beethoven a few lessons in composition when the latter settled in Vienna in 1792).

The oratorios The Creation and The Seasons were composed during the late 1790s to libretti by Baron Gottfried van Swieten (Dutch by birth, Viennese by adoption, diplomat by calling, litterateur and musician by inclination). Van Swieten’s Creation was based on his own German version of Milton’s Paradise Lost; The Seasons on his own German version of a less well-known poem by the Scottish writer James Thomson (who flourished during the first half of the eighteenth century). Perhaps The Seasons should really rank as a cantata rather than an oratorio, for parts of it are distinctly earthy and it is only at the very end that religion comes into the picture; so far as Haydn is concerned it was a rather uneven production which surprisingly showed this sunny composer to best advantage in the winter freeze-up, where the steady tempo and persistent semiquaver accompaniment of ‘Let the wheel move gaily’ set a precedent for many later spinning-songs - e.g. Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade and the opening chorus of Act II from Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. The Creation on the other hand was unquestionably an oratorio and, moreover, a landmark in the history of the genre, for it bridged the gap between Handel’s Messiah (1742) and Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1846). In this country The Creation is still usually given in van Swieten’s own re-translation from German back to (very Teutonic) English, since a scholarly and in many respects acceptable revision of the text by A. H. Fox-Strangways and Steuart Wilson (1930) has been slow to make headway against such lovable absurdities of phraseology as ‘Cheerful roaring stands the tawny lion’ and ‘In long dimensions creeps with sinuous trace the worm’ ; nor are traditionalists convinced that ‘The fields are dressed in living green’ marks worthwhile improvement on the more familiar ‘With verdure clad the fields appear’. The musical creation, from the first open octave of the ‘Representation of Chaos’ (which, thank goodness, is not a representation of ‘chaos’) to the last bar of the final fugal chorus, suggests that the heavens were telling Haydn his every move, and rationalists should not scoff when they read that ‘he knelt down every day and prayed God to strengthen him for his work’. Let them recall, if they wish, that the humorously descriptive orchestral treatment of the roaring lion and the creeping worm caused the composer a few moments of spiritual unease and drove him to expose his simple philosophy in one short sentence.

"I hope that God will not be angry if I am irrepressibly cheerful in my worship of Him."

One is reminded that in the mid-eighteenth century it was still assumed that the primary purpose of music outside church was to entertain. Joseph Haydn remained to the end an entertainer; in an era of artistic Sturm und Drang he was blessedly unaware of any moral obligation to espouse a cause or join a noble army, being content merely to find out musical tunes. ‘Classical’ par excellence, he stood in sharp contrast to such notable reformers - in their respective fields - as Gluck, Goethe, Schiller and Beethoven, for he was concerned not so much with making the world better as with making it happier.

1 Michael Haydn became well known as an organist and composer; among his pupils was Carl Maria von Weber.

Extract from 'Famous Composers' by Gervase Hughes (1961) courtesy of the publisher.