During the last quarter of the 18th century, two composers stood above all others. One was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the namesake of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival. The other was Joseph Haydn. Born nearly a quarter of a century apart, these two musicians differed markedly in character and in the courses their careers took. Yet they developed a deep bond of mutual respect and affection.
Haydn was born into humble circumstances and, in contrast to Mozart, into a family of modest musical accomplishment. His father, a wheelwright in the Austrian village of Rohrau, had no training in music but enjoyed singing for his own amusement. Joseph evidently inherited his father’s vocal talent, and when the choirmaster of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna passed through Rohrau he was sufficiently impressed with the boy’s singing to offer him a place in the Cathedral choir and school. This was a golden opportunity for a poor village lad, and Haydn therefore was sent off to Vienna at age eight.
At the Cathedral school Haydn’s education included musical studies—not just in singing but in keyboard and violin playing and in music theory. Haydn remained in Vienna after his school years ended, and for the next decade he eked out a meager living as a freelance musician and teacher. During this period he learned the rudiments of composition by reading treatises and studying scores. Eventually he took some lessons, but he remained largely a self-taught composer.
In about 1759 Haydn obtained his first salaried position when he was engaged as composer and conductor of the orchestra maintained by a wealthy Austrian nobleman, Count Morzin. Two years later he graduated to a more prestigious post offered by a Hungarian noble family. This was the Esterházy clan, one of most wealthy and powerful in Europe. During most of Haydn’s service to the family, its head was Prince Nikolaus “The Magnificent.”
Prince Nikolaus was devoted to learning and the arts, and his lakeside palace in the countryside east of Vienna was meant to rival Versailles. Music played a central part of life at the Esterházy estate. Operas were performed in the court theater. A resident orchestra gave concerts twice each week through most of the year. And the Prince, who played several instruments, often presided over chamber music in his private quarters.
As head of the Esterházy musical establishment, Haydn was charged with maintaining a steady supply of new compositions for it. He fulfilled that duty diligently, producing a large quantity of operas, chamber music, and sacred works. Above all, he wrote more than 80 symphonies for the court orchestra over a period of nearly three decades.
As he matured, Haydn’s music grew increasingly assured and distinctive. Sequestered for much of each year at the rural Esterházy palace, he learned to rely on his own taste, instincts, and musical discoveries. “I was cut off from the world,” the composer later recalled of his isolation at the Esterházy estate, “and so I had to become original.” Yet despite being removed for much of each year from any urban center, Haydn’s reputation gradually spread throughout Europe.
Visitors to the Esterházy court sang his praise, his compositions became widely published, and his music often was heard in Vienna, where Prince Nikolaus and his entourage wintered. It was in the Austrian capital, during the 1780s, that Haydn and Mozart developed a warm relationship. Haydn acknowledged his younger contemporary as “the greatest composer known to me, either in person or by name.” Mozart, in turn, dedicated six splendid string quartets to Haydn and referred to him as “my very dear friend.”
By 1790 Haydn was renowned as the foremost composer of his day. In September of that year Prince Nikolaus died. Haydn, for the first time in his life, was free to travel abroad. Accepting an offer from London, the composer journeyed to the English capital, arriving there early in 1791. He found himself the toast of London. He dined with the royal family, received an honorary degree at Oxford, and presided at a series of highly successful concerts featuring his music. So satisfying was the entire experience that Haydn readily accepted an offer of a second English sojourn in 1794–95.
When he returned to Vienna after his second visit to London, Haydn was retained as nominal music director at the Esterházy court but in reality was free to use his time as he pleased. Though he might easily have rested on his laurels, the composer instead crowned his creative work by composing several superb string quartets and two large oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons. A performance of The Creation, given in Vienna, in 1808, provided the occasion for a moving tribute. The aged and now frail composer was brought in the Esterházy family’s coach to the concert hall. There, as one account relates, “Haydn, sitting on an armchair, was borne along aloft, and at his entrance into the hall, to the sound of trumpets and timpani, was received by the numerous assemblage and greeted with the joyful cry, ‘Long live Haydn!’” The demonstration brought the composer to tears.
By the time of Haydn’s death, a year later, change was stirring in the world of music. In particular, Haydn’s one-time student, Ludwig van Beethoven, was expanding the formal and expressive range of the Classical style that Haydn had done so much to establish. Soon the Romantic revolution would temporarily push Haydn’s music aside. Yet knowledgeable musicians continued to revere him, even during the high tide of 19th-century Romanticism. Brahms honored him with his masterful Variations on a Theme of Haydn, and Haydn’s oratorios remained staples of the choral repertory.
Today, Haydn’s symphonies and string quartets are acknowledged as cornerstones of the orchestral and chamber music literature, and the composer’s genius is beyond dispute. With Mozart, Haydn stands as the outstanding voice of music’s Classical period, a composer who used the musical forms and conventions of his day in a highly original and inventive manner.
Copyright © 2009 by Paul Schiavo