Joseph Haydn

1732 1809

Joseph Haydn



Joseph Haydn is a cultural hero of not just Viennese art music, but Western art music as a whole. During his lifetime he was the most celebrated musician of his generation, his vocal works being as famous as his instrumental ones. Posthumously, he is best known for his late works and his ‘Creation’. The sheer volume of Haydn’s symphonies is impressive and elevates him to the position of the father of the classical symphony.

Haydn’s life before his employment at the Esterházy court was centred around music. He became a choir boy at a young age and was taught singing, keyboard and violin at the choir school, an experience which shaped and encouraged his musical intellect substantially, even without any formal composition training.

When his voice broke, he was dismissed from the choir school and started his career as a freelance composer, teacher and performer during the first half of the 1750s. When he moved to the Esterházy court his creativity increased dramatically. Very little about his day to day life has survived from this time, however we do known that as a person he was both earnest and humorous, and this musical persona is clear from his compositions. The nicknames given to many of his symphonies, correlate to features that listeners found to be full of wit, such as the ’Surprise  Symphony’, the ‘Clock Symphony’ or the ‘Joke Quartet’ op. 33 no. 2. Haydn was also full of deep feeling he insisted that an important prerequisite for decent composition was to be able to sing a fluent melody and that his primary purpose in composing was to move the listener.

His employers, the Esterházy family, were the richest in the Hungarian nobility and were known to be long-standing patrons of the arts. At first, Haydn wrote mainly instrumental music for performance at the court, chiefly the symphony. His symphonies 6-8 were the first ones he wrote in his new position. In these years he also composed three violin concertos, a cello concerto, a violone concerto, the first ever to be composed, and some wind concertos, such as for horn, for two horns, flute and bassoon. Unfortunately many of these are lost.

In 1766, Haydn became Kapellmeister, increasing his status and duties. It also prompted him to buy a house in Eisenstadt, which is now a Haydn museum. From this year onwards, the prince required operas to be created during the visits of high personages and three comic operas date from this time,La canterina, Lo speziale and La pescatrici.

From the end of the 1760s and into the following decade, Haydn continued to compose instrumental works that became more experimental, longer and more passionate. Many of them are so dramatic and expressive that they came to be known in the 20th century as Sturm und Drang, a term that has its origins in literature.

In 1790 he went to London to work with Johann Peter Solomon, a violinist and concert producer who was originally from Bonn. There, he was commissioned to write symphonies, operas and other works. His first six ‘London Symphonies’ 9 (nos. 93-98) were a sensation. In the last year of his London visits, he turned more towards piano music for the first time since 1790, composing at least three sets of trios. These five years had been the highest point of his career up to that point and he reported them to be the happiest in his life. He later composed a further six symphonies in Vienna, to premiere on his second visit to London; thus his 'London Symphonies' total 12.

His return to Vienna in 1795 was the last milestone in his career. In his Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801) he addresses the meaning of life and attempt to render the sublime in music. The concept of Classical style is a major part of Haydn’s music. According to Haydn, his music had ‘no superfluous ornaments, nothing overdone, no deafening accompaniments’. Many of the movements are progressive in form, full of motivic development, rhythmic vitality and unpredictability.