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Franz Joseph Haydn: Biography, Music & Facts

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Discover how Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) reached a position of fame and wealth and also how he greatly influenced the music of his time. Following this, you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

The Lean Years

Imagine life as a musician and working for one of the richest families in the world. Now meet the 18th century equivalent of a high school graduate (some might even say 'drop-out') with no career plan and few prospects. Life is tough and attending college isn't really likely. He's working hard at odd jobs to make ends meet. Then one day a friend puts in a good word for him. He then lands a dream job, and the next thing you know he's a rising star and even though he never went to college, years later he's given an honorary doctorate! Meet Franz Joseph Haydn.

Franz Joseph Haydn
Portrait of Haydn

As a kid, Haydn was a choirboy at St. Stephen's Church in Vienna, but had to leave when his voice changed in his late teenage years. He learned musical composition, gave lessons, accompanied singers, and wrote dance music to earn a meager living. One of his students, Countess Maria Thun, recommended Haydn to Count von Morzin who hired Haydn as his music director and court composer. At age 26, Haydn suddenly had a great position and a professional 16-piece orchestra at his disposal.

Haydn had a gift for composition and was able to experiment with his musical ideas, so he started writing his first symphonies. Haydn's name became synonymous with the Classical era and he's credited with standardizing the symphony and the string quartet. These two musical genres were very popular during the 18th century. Haydn's abilities made them highly regarded and eventually made him well-known and prosperous. Years later, his music became famous in other countries, especially England.

Getting Established

Esterhazy Palace, Vienna
Esterhazy Vienna

In 1761, Count von Morzin had some money problems and was forced to disband his orchestra. However, Haydn was hired by the Esterhazy family. They were one of the richest families in the world and they loved good music, so it was a good fit. Haydn supported the daily music-making and composed original pieces for regular concerts. He wrote dramatic music to be performed in their 400-seat theater and liturgical pieces to be presented in their chapel.

Haydn's boss, Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, proceeded to build a second palace in Eisenstadt, Hungary in 1766. It was located about thirty miles south of Vienna in a rather isolated area. Again, Haydn had an excellent orchestra at his disposal. Being so far from Vienna, he was temporarily cut-off from colleagues and Viennese cultural life. This forced him to be creative and original in his composing.

Esterhazy Palace, Eisenstadt
Easterhazy Palace Eisenstadt

The Prince also established many restrictions about musicians bringing wives or family to the new Eisenstadt palace. The players were away from Vienna for long periods of time and living quarters were cramped. After sharing their complaints with Haydn, he composed his Symphony No. 45 ('Farewell') in 1772 on their behalf. The first three movements proceed in typical fashion. As the fourth movement progresses, various players (according to Haydn's instructions) were to pack up their instruments, blow out their reading candle, and quietly depart. The music ends with just two violinists playing softly. History relates that Prince Esterhazy appreciated the widespread homesickness and made arrangements to return to Vienna the next day. It was acts of kindness like this on behalf of his musicians that earned Haydn the nickname 'Papa.'

Increasing Popularity

In 1779, Haydn negotiated a better contract with Prince Nicholas. The new conditions allowed him to travel freely, accept outside commissions, and to publish his own music. A year later, Haydn composed Symphonies No. 82-87 for a commission in Paris. The following year he met and became friends with Mozart (fun fact: Mozart wrote six string quartets and dedicated them to Haydn). Haydn's music became very popular in England. There were several attempts to get Haydn to that country but those invitations were declined.

Prince Nicholas died in 1790 and his son Anton (who sadly wasn't a music-lover) disbanded the orchestra and released Haydn from his contract. Haydn moved to Vienna and eventually did go to London at the urging of impresario Johann Salomon. Haydn was so well received that he was even presented with an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. While there he wrote a set of symphonies (sometimes called the Salomon symphonies) which include the famous 'Surprise' Symphony (No. 94). It's named this because it begins very quietly. Just as the listener is getting settled in and relaxed, there is a sudden loud chord that can startle even those who know to expect it. Think of it as an early example of a 'drop' in pop music today!

Surprise Symphony, opening
Haydn Surprise Symphony

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