The Austrian world, to which Haydn was born, in 1732, was beginning a new life, free from foreign Turkish oppressors, full of religious zeal, and expanding boundaries, living under the talented rule of the Habsburgs. Charles VI, reigning emperor, was a fine violinist, harpsichordist, and operatic composer. The class system especially poignant at this time, gave little opportunity for poor peasants to rise in stature and riches. However, Franz Joseph Haydn, born to a peasant family, achieved recognition and wealth uncommon, not only to those of his social rank, but also of composers and musicians of the time.
Haydn’s father, Mathias, was a wheelright and his mother, Anna Maria Koller, had been a cook in the Harrach Castle. Haydn was the second of twelve children born to the wheelwright and his wife. Two of Haydn’s brothers, Johann Michael and Johann Evangelist also became musicians. As a young boy, Haydn was taught to love music; his father played the harp and had been granted the gift of a beautiful tenor voice, and his mother also enjoyed singing.
“The tunes of these songs were so deeply imprinted in Joseph Haydn’s memory that he could recall them even in advanced old age. One day the school rector from the neighboring little town of Haimburg, a distant relative of the Haydn family, came to Rohrau. Master Mathias and his wife gave their usual concert, and five-year-old Joseph sat near his parents and sawed at his left arm with a stick, as if he were accompanying on the violin. The school teacher noted that the boy marked the time accurately; he inferred from this a natural talent for music, and he advised the parents to send their Sepperl [Franz Joseph] to Hamburg in order to help acquire an art which in time would without fail open to him the prospect of ‘becoming a clergyman.” [quoted from H.C. Robbins Landon and David Wyn Jones, Haydn: His Life and Music. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976]
Haydn indeed went to the school rector at Haimburg and there studied for two years reading and writing, catechism, singing, wind and string instruments. At the age of eight he was enlisted to become a pupil in the Choir School at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where he continued his musical studies, though no instruction in musical theory was given. At sixteen his voice began to break, and one of Haydn’s practical jokes, cutting off the pigtails of a fellow classmate, served as an excuse for the director to dismiss him from the choir. Thus without food, money, clothing, or home, Haydn was forced into the world to work as a freelance musician.
As a freelance musician, Haydn played for dances, arranged compositions for a variety of instruments, taught music for a meager amount, served as an accompanist, composed, and took part in serenades. “Like Italy, old Austria had a great fondness for open-air music at night, and many musicians were needed to fill the continuous demand. Haydn made the best use of this fashion. He earned a little money this way and drew from the rich well of Viennese fold music.” [quoted from Karl Geiringer, Haydn: A Creative Life in Music (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986]
Through the money he earned as a freelance performer and through the graciousness of Anton Buchholz, who lent him unconditionally one hundred-fifty florins, Haydn was able to take a room and set about filling in the gaps in his theoretical knowledge. He studied Johann Josheph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum, Johann Mattheson’s Der vollkommene Kapellmeister, David Kellner’s Unterricht im Generalbass, and works by Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach. Of the first six keyboard sonatas of C.P.E. Bach, Haydn wrote, “I did not leave the clavier until I had mastered them all. Innumerable times I played them for my own delight, especially when I felt oppressed and discouraged by worries and always I left the instrument…in high spirits.”
In 1758, Haydn became Kammercompositeur to the Bohemian Count, Karl Joseph Franz von Morzin. This was a social and financial step forward, he was now regularly paid, a sum of two hundred florins a year, besides receiving free board and lodging. Haydn’s great fortune was not over, as an offer was given to become vice-conductor, and later becoming head conductor, at the court of Gregorius Joseph Werner, Prince Esterhazy, in Einstadt. Haydn readily accepted this new post.
The Esterhazy’s stood at the head of Hungary’s powerful nobility. Haydn’s duties included not only composing nearly all the music presented at the court, be he was also in charge of the orchestral members, making sure they wore clean, white stockings and tidy uniforms, and seeing that they did not get into mischief. This orchestra consisted, in the beginning, of five violins, one cello, one double bass, one flute, two oboes, two bassoons, and two horns. While under the service of Esterhazy court, Haydn was given freedom to experiment with new musical ideas of form and harmony. He developed a style of motivic development, tone painting, independence of instrumental lines, and use of “daring keys,” such as B Major, F-sharp Major, and C-sharp Major.
Haydn was a prolific composer with 83 string quartets, 104 symphonies; 52 piano sonatas; many concertos for piano (15), violin (13), horn (2), trumpet (1), flute (1), and cello (2); 35 piano trios; more than 175 divertimentos; 19 operas; 14 masses; part songs and canons for voice; and 5 oratorios. Haydn’s oratorios have been a subject discussed, dissected, and speculated upon by many scholars, most particularly The Seasons and The Creation.
Haydn’s compositions were some of the most beautiful written during the Golden Age of Music. What an amazing musician!
Please enjoy listening to Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat Major for Piano, Hob. XVI:49/II. Adagio e cantabile, performed by Vladamir Horowitz.