A Brief History of Franz Joseph Haydn

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I love Haydn. I’ve been waiting to do a video about him for the longest time, but wanted to get some of the other main guys out of the way first, like Mozart and Beethoven. But in the Classical era, which we discussed at length in my two-part video series, there was a trifecta of awesome composers: Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn.

We have to complete the trifecta!

In today’s video, we’ll talk about the history of Franz Joseph Haydn, but we won’t spend too much time discussing his music. His music was briefly touched on in the Classical music series, but we’ll dedicate a whole other video to that huge topic.

Joseph Haydn’s Origin Story

Haydn was born in a small Austrian village in 1732, to a father who built and repaired wooden wheels, and a mother who was a chef for aristocrats.

Joseph Haydn’s family was musical, but not in the traditional sense. His parents couldn’t read music, but they did a lot of singing and his dad could play harp by ear.

Apparently Joseph was one of those “wonder children”, because he was sent away from home at the age of 6 to be trained in music in the nearby town of Hainburg. Joseph’s parents had a relative named Johan who happened to be a schoolmaster and choirmaster in Hainburg, and Johan agreed to take Joseph under his wing.

But it’s not like young Joseph had a good time at Johan’s house. They didn’t feed him well and he remembers being embarrassed because his clothes were always dirty. But opportunity is everything, right?

School in Vienna

Luckily, Joseph didn’t have to stay there long – when he was 7, he passed a singing audition that allowed him to move to Vienna for school and singing. And that’s where he lived for the next 9 years. Eventually Haydn’s brother Michael came for training later on, in 1745, when Joseph was around 13.

But, like so many other talented boy singers, by the age of 17 he no longer had an angelic voice. The empress Maria Theresa even complained about his “crowing” voice. That, combined with his enthusiasm for pranks (he cut off another boy’s pigtail), led him to be kicked to the curb.

Luckily Haydn was a boss. He stayed with some friends and immediately went to work as a freelance musician. He did everything from teaching music to being an accompanist to busking. And since he didn’t get a good education in music theory when he was at school, good ol’ self-motivated Joseph taught himself.

I’m pretty confident that Joseph would have been a hilarious jokester, which is probably another reason him and Mozart were best buds. Apparently the first comic opera he wrote, “The Limping Devil”, was shut down soon after it premiered for being “offensive”.

Haydn gets a “Real Job”

Back in Joseph Haydn’s day, life as a musician was hard. Wait, that’s not different from now. But if you managed to cozy up to rich people, and they decided to be your patron or give you employment, then you could do pretty well for yourself.

And that’s exactly what happened for Joseph. He worked really hard, got his name out there, started doing part-time gigs for aristocrats, until he got a full-time job as a Kapellmeister (a music director), all at the age of 25.

Haydn’s Marriage (Not a Love Story)

With a steady job at the small court of Count Morzin, Haydn decided to settle down and get married. Only, the woman he married was the sister of the woman he had actually been in love with. Mozart basically did the same thing, another of many things they had in common.

Joseph’s marriage to Maria Anna was a complete disaster, but they weren’t allowed to divorce because of laws, so instead they just decided to be intimate with other people outside their marriage.

Haydn meets the Esterhazy Family

In 1761, when Joseph was 29, he had to job-hop because his employer, Count Morzin, lost a bunch of money and couldn’t afford to pay the music staff. But because Joseph was awesome, he was offered another job right away by the super-wealthy Esterhazy family by Prince Paul Anton.

Musically, this was the best job that ever happened to Joseph. He worked there full-time for thirty years, and had an epic workload, like writing music and operas and running an orchestra. But since Prince Paul Anton and his successor Nikolaus I were big music lovers and enjoyed and appreciated Haydn, he had huge creative freedom and had massive songwriting output. He really got to hone his craft.

In some sense he was at the whim of royal urges – when Nikolaus I took up the Baryton (an obsolete string instrument), Haydn had to write a bunch of music for him to play on that instrument. When Nikolaus got super into opera, Haydn had to become the operatic director, even writing some of his own.

Haydn’s Publishing Freedom

In 1779, after being employed by the Esterhazy family for 18 years, he was finally able to write music for publishing. Prior to this, all of his music was property of the Esterhazy family – kind of like the Classical version of a record deal. Even though he still worked for the Esterhazy family, he ended up with way more freedom and was able to start exploring avenues he found inspiring, like writing more quartets and symphonies.

But the court of Esterhaza was far from Vienna, where all of Haydn’s friends were (including Mozart), and he became increasingly lonely and unsatisfied.

London Road Trip

So in 1790, when Prince Nikolaus I died and his son Anton took over, Haydn had a great opportunity. Anton wasn’t really interested in music, so he fired most of the court musicians. Haydn was kept around, but his pay was reduced. But since Haydn wasn’t really needed at the Esterhaza court anymore, it allowed him to travel, notably to London.

Haydn was a huge deal in London, even though he’d never been there. His music was published widely over there, and frequently performed. People had been trying to get Haydn to come to London for about a decade, but he refused, because he had a good relationship with his employer Nikolaus I, and didn’t want to ditch him.

But since he didn’t have that same relationship with the son, he could travel, guilt-free.

58-year old Joseph traveled to London twice in his lifetime – once in 1791-92, and again in 1794-95. His tours were huge successes, his fame increased, and his wallet was forever happy.

“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.”

He wrote some of his best-known works while in London, such as the London Symphonies. He also considered his time in London some of the best years of his life.

Symphony Drama

The symphony Joseph was a part of had a rival symphony. This rival symphony became jealous of Joseph, and recruited an old student of Joseph’s, Ignaz Pleyel, as a rival composer. But instead of getting sucked into the drama and competition, the two men had dinner together and played each other’s symphonies, adding more fuel to the flame of Joseph being an all-around good dude.

Haydn and Beethoven

In Vienna, between his London visits, Haydn ended up mentoring Beethoven, and building a house with his “beloved” wife. Beethoven was a bit of an intense personality (to put it mildly), sometimes being chummy with Haydn, and other times being dismissive of him. But I talked more of the gossipy details in the Beethoven History video.

Haydn the Celebrity

Over in the Esterhazy world, Prince Anton had died, succeeded by Prince Nikolaus II, who offered Joseph a job again. Haydn accepted, but only on a part-time basis. At this point he was basically a celebrity – he could do what he wanted. This was in 1795, when Haydn was 63 years old, so I mean, the guy earned it.

In his golden years, Joseph spent a lot of time writing music, including his two famous oratorios “The Creation” and “The Seasons”. He also continued doing lots of performing, and continued being super successful and well-loved.

Haydn gets sick

Eventually his age caught up with him. In 1803, when he was 71 years old, he grew sick to the point of being unable to compose. It’s impossible to know what was wrong with him – possibly the hardening of his arteries, reducing blood flow and causing dizziness, swollen legs, etc.

In 1806, Haydn was quoted as saying:

“I must have something to do — usually musical ideas are pursuing me, to the point of torture, I cannot escape them, they stand like walls before me. If it’s an allegro that pursues me, my pulse keeps beating faster, I can get no sleep. If it’s an adagio, then I notice my pulse beating slowly. My imagination plays on me as if I were a clavier.” Haydn smiled, the blood rushed to his face, and he said “I am really just a living clavier.”

He had lots of friends, was wealthy and well taken care of, but Haydn, who had defined his life by being endlessly creative and industrious, probably considered being unable to work unbearable.

“A final triumph occurred on 27 March 1808 when a performance of The Creation was organized in his honor. The very frail composer was brought into the hall on an armchair to the sound of trumpets and drums and was greeted by Beethoven, Salieri (who led the performance) and by other musicians and members of the aristocracy. Haydn was both moved and exhausted by the experience and had to depart at intermission.”

Haydn’s Death

And now we must talk about death. At this time, Napoleon had a whole war situation happening, and France was bombing Vienna. In 1809, Haydn’s neighborhood was bombed (he wasn’t harmed), but what I find super endearing is how he reacted – a sick, frail man – saying, “Don’t be afraid, children, where Haydn is, no harm can reach you!’

Several days before he died, he played his “Emperor’s Hymn” with gusto before collapsing later in the evening – at least he got one last good performance in. On May 31, 1809, he died peacefully.

Haydn’s Head

But Haydn’s journey didn’t end there – well at least not for his head. Fun fact, his head was actually stolen shortly after burial, by people who I guess wanted to study the brain of a genius. And it wasn’t until 1954 when his skull was finally reunited with the rest of his remains.

History of Franz Joseph Hadyn: Personality

So let’s take a minute to discuss the personality of Joseph. I mean, at this point it should be obvious. People spoke highly of him, and he seemed an all-around great guy. The musicians he supervised at the Esterhazy court like and respected them – he was good to them. He was a kind boss who kept the atmosphere light and fun.

He had a sense of humor, which is evident even in his music, like the “Surprise” Symphony where this calm, peaceful music is interrupted by a loud blast of sound, to wake up a sleeping audience. And the fact that he had many friends is a strong testament to his cheerful nature.

In older age, he went through periods of depression, which is totally understandable – being full of creative ideas, but unable to execute them, must’ve been torture.

His biggest flaw was probably his, well I don’t want to call it greed, but he was very intent on getting lots of money. He did experience a little poverty as a youth, and with a lot of people in that situation, overcompensation ends up happening – if you’re poor, sometimes there’s a drive to get as much money as possible.

But it’s not like he was a scrooge. Sure, maybe he engaged in fraud here and there, but he was always really generous with people, and did lots of volunteer work himself. So I can forgive him.

Haydn’s Physical Appearance

Haydn was short, and like many others of his time, his face with pitted with scars from smallpox. Even aside from that, he wasn’t a handsome man. One of his biographers 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'”

Conclusion

I think one of the biggest reasons I’m such a fan of Haydn is he was just so remarkably untroubled. Musicians, and artists in general, tend to have a history of dying tragically, having psychological disorders, being broke and destitute, and all other manner of things.

Haydn was a hard worker who loved his music career, he had good jobs and was treated with respect. And he had a good personality – everyone seemed to like him. Maybe most awesomely is that he managed to live until he was 77 years old, which means he had that many more years to compose music. And some of his best works were arguably in his later years.

I hope you enjoyed this history of Franz Joseph Haydn!

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.

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