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Learn About the Austrian Composer, Joseph Haydn's Works and Life

Joseph Haydn: Overview

  • Born: 1732 - Rohrau, Austria
  • Died: 1809 - ViennaAustria
  • Historical Period: Classical 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboard, choral, opera, songs

Composer, Joseph Haydn

Franz Joseph Haydn was born in Austria in 1732 from an extremely humble family. As one of the pioneers of classical music, he was instrumental in the development of the symphony and string quartet. Haydn was the author of numerous masterpieces such as The Seasons, Trumpet Concerto and Missa in tempore belli. The composer’s fairytale “rags to riches” life came to full circle upon his death in 1809. 

Joseph Haydn: The Master of Masters

Haydn’s father was a wheelmaker while his mother was a cook. When he was only six, he went over to his cousin’s home in Hainburg an der Donau to learn music. He never came back except for occasional visits to his parents’ home. The young Haydn was finally noticed by a conductor at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, who took the former to Vienna as a choir boy. 

The next few years saw him develop a technically sound mind for music and was in great demand for his singing prowess. Growing older, Haydn worked as a valet for Nicola Porpora, Michaeler House’s popular conductor. This allowed him to be musically instructed for another five years. Subsequent employment at Wieselburg Palace and then as Musical Director for Count Morzin from Lukawetz, gained him both experience and relative renown. 

The composer’s marriage to Maria Anna Keller in the year 1760, resulted in a rather unhappy and childless union, with rumors of adultery on the part of Haydn. Prince Nikolaus I. Esterházy became a great admirer of Haydn’s work over the years, with the latter becoming among the Monarch’s highest-ranked officials. On one of his journeys, Haydn met Mozart in Vienna in 1785. 

Haydn’s musical career flourished with pieces like Missa Sancti Nicolai (1772) and Stabat Mater (1767). As one of the foremost composers of his time, his reputation enhanced with the Piano Sonata in C Minor (1771), the string quartets of Opus 20 (1772), “Farewell” Symphony, No. 45 (1772) and Symphony No. 44 in E minor (1772). The oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia (1775), was dedicated to the Musicians’ Society in Vienna. In the 1780s, Artaria, a Viennese firm, published Haydn’s six Opus 33 quartets (1781). 

Joseph Haydn playing quartet

He composed The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross (1787) in Oratorio de la Santa Cueva for Good Friday. In 1790, Haydn left Austria for London, when a fellow musician, Johann Peter Salomon, from England, commissioned the Austrian composer for a number of compositions. These would be written and conducted by Hayden in London, with Salomon’s sponsorship. 

The symphonies that Haydn composed while in England, which he visited twice, were the epitome of classical talent. As such, they got popularly nicknamed by admirers such as 1791’s The Surprise (No. 94) or 1795’s Drumroll (No. 103)

The six Apponyi quartets (1793) were the product of Haydn’s second visit to London. The last three symphonies of Haydn - No. 102, No. 103, and No. 104, were exceptional, compared to his previous work. Among these, Symphony No. 102 in B-flat Major (1794) ranks as one of the finest symphonies there is. 

Haydn’s 1791 trip to London was extremely influential for him as he was left deeply touched by the oratorios of George Frideric Handel. He developed a desire to produce original oratorios himself and after getting back to Austria, he began to write The Creation (1797-1798). The chosen libretto was adapted from John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” and also on the Bible’s “Book of Genesis.” The tremendous success with which The Creation was received encouraged Haydn to begin work on another oratorio. The Seasons (1801) was composed, based on James Thomson’s “The Seasons” as the libretto. 

In his last years, Joseph Haydn produced six masses for his then patron, Miklós II, which are the considered to be the most important of the 18th century. He wrote the Erdödy quartets (circa. 1797), which is also popular as Opus 76. The year 1797 saw Haydn compose Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, dedicated to Austria and went on to become the national anthem for over a century. The music was later incorporated into Germany’s national anthem Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, in 1922. The popularity of this piece was so immense in Haydn’s lifetime, that he utilized it for his Nelson Mass in D minor (1798).

Although as a young man, Joseph Haydn was a man of experimentation and varying trends, using the happy and elegant aesthetics of Baroque music of the past. With maturity and the late 1760s, Haydn’s music became a bit more serious and grim, which was maintained till the 1780s. During the last two decades of his life, Haydn regained his old charisma and originality of his youth, creating masterpiece after masterpiece. He was and still is revered as the master before the masters (Mozart, Beethoven, etc.) whose work sits at the upper echelon of magnificence.


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