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  • by Mary Barton

More Than Music: Haydn

Updated: Dec 26, 2019

What kind of people rise to extraordinary heights of success? Become trailblazers? Inventors? Or change the world in some way?

Ordinary people! Ordinary people who deal with everyday challenges, setbacks and disappointments. And persevere through them. That’s the key, regardless of the extent or nature of one’s gift! Ever been cut from a sports team because you didn’t measure up anymore? Or lose your job and not know where your next meal is coming from? Or were willing to make some sacrifices to keep your vocational dreams alive?

Franz Joseph Haydn, affectionately known as “Papa” Haydn, the father of the symphony and the string quartet, can relate! Born in Rohrau, Austria in 1732, to a family of simple means (his father was a wheelwright and his mother a cook), his high, young voice afforded him an education at the prestigious St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna as a choirboy. But with the inevitable change of voice that puberty brought, he found himself cut from the choir and scrounging around for work as a freelance musician in Vienna, which was quickly gaining a reputation as the place to be.

Not quite as glamorous as perhaps he’d hoped – work was difficult to come by but his forbearance scraping out a living busking and teaching paid off, his first break coming as valet-accompanist for Italian composer, Nicolo Porporo, whom he would later credit as his only substantive teacher. As composing and performing opportunities came, so did the patrons, eventually. His first full-time patronage was under Count Ferdinand von Morzin from 1759 -1761, as Kapellmeister, during which time he composed his first symphony.

Yay! Did you finally land the job of your dreams, but discover, as with all jobs, it has its difficulties, stresses and imperfections?

Again, Haydn can relate! In 1761 his long and productive relationship with the House of Esterhazy, Hungary’s wealthiest family, began, first as an assistant Kapellmeister, then as Kapellmeister in 1766, at which time he joined Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy at the Esterhaza Estate, an enormous palace dwarfed only by Versailles. The perks of residing in such opulence, however, did not come without a few constraints - he was expected to adhere to a strict dress and conduct code at all times, and was isolated and cut off from the outside world.

But somehow the isolation and personal restrictions were perfect companions for creative exploration. While training instrumentalists, conducting, and supplying all the musical needs of the court for almost a quarter century, he composed about 90 symphonies (including “Farewell”, no. 45), dozens of string quartets and piano sonatas, several masses, numerous piano trios, concertos, and a bunch of operas, not to mention over 100 compositions for the Prince’s bizarre but now virtually extinct instrument, the Baryton, as well as puppet operas to satisfy the quirky Esterhazy penchant for the marionette stage.

With so much musical genius resonating within the castle walls, his reputation spilled beyond it. And a change in contract with the Prince opened the door to publication, outside commissions, such as for the “Paris” symphonies, and a long-term friendship with Mozart, whose mutual admiration, despite their age gap, would inspire dedication of string quartets to each other.

Of course, nothing stays the same it seems. Has an employer, due to budget cuts, downsized and cut your job, hours or salary? After the initial shock, did it lead to a new path or opportunities?

Again, you guessed it, Haydn can relate! I790 brought the end of Haydn’s Esterhazy tenure when Nikolaus’s successor, Prince Anton, essentially cut Haydn loose, granting him a pension and slashing his duties down to composing an annual mass. This ultimately led Haydn to London with concert promoter Johann Peter Salomon. The result was the first six of his “London” symphonies, which immediately vaulted him to iconic status. He would also receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, and meet and impart musical insights to Beethoven upon returning to Vienna. In 1794, another trip to London, and another 6 symphonies - all of which were financially successful and critically acclaimed!

In 1795, he returned once again to Vienna, where some his best works were yet to come, such as the masterful oratorios “The Creation” and “The Seasons”, inspired by Handel’s Messiah, and the Lord Nelson Mass (one of six masses composed for Nikolaus II), which is considered by some to be his single greatest work. And of course, he composed more string quartets before failing health forced him into retirement in 1802. He died, May 31, 1809, and Mozart’s Requiem laid him to rest at the memorial service.

Haydn’s musical mark on the world would be deep. And felt perhaps most acutely by Mozart and Beethoven who would build upon his achievements. A self-admitted musical experimenter, Haydn advanced orchestration into new paths, such as the string quartet and symphony. His contributions to formal elements, melody and harmony would become key ingredients in the final sonata-form recipe - his slow introductions tinkered with ambiguous tonality, suspenseful moods and chromatic harmony, leaving a handbook on setting up the listener, while his frequent monothematic expositions did not disappoint.

His simple diatonic melodies reflect the music of “folks”, his own, that is, his father being a folk musician on the side, and his economic use of what he already had to produce what he didn’t – pedal point for bagpipes and pizzicato strings for guitar – shows the inventiveness and imagination of necessity. And yet, the grace and elegance of his music far exceeded his humble breeding, and remained undiminished by elements of Sturm and Drang (storm and stress), the heightened emotionalism of the Empfindsamer Stil (sensitive style), and the dramatic accents and playfulness that also permeated his works.

All of his over 100 symphonies have been recorded and remain a popular choice for orchestras around the globe to this day.

What's next in the musical treasure box? Tune it next month to find out!

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